A Review of John Ashbery’s Quick Question

question copy

Quick question: do you prefer Ashbery early or late? OK, that’s a trick question, since Ashbery has returned, in his late poetry, to the fast and loose writing of The Tennis Court Oath, albeit with a completely different flavor (more anon), after a vast and much celebrated middle period. I think most would agree, however, that there are at least two distinct flavors to the huge body of poetry Ashbery has written, which for simplicity’s sake I am calling “early” and “late”. If you troll around a little bit on the web you’ll find that a lot of folks agree that they’re not as sure of the degree of value of the late work as of the early work. And the late work begins at And the Stars Were Shining.

Although the volume that followed it, Can You Hear, Bird, contained some great poems that echoed the early work, the direction that Stars took has held to the present day (including, in a curious prose excursion, Girls on the Run). In the title poem of And the Stars Were Shining Ashbery casually drops the phrase: “the child prostitutes plied their trade”, a phrase that I cannot imagine, interpret or slant in any way that ceases to be repugnant. Given that it is a long poem, and that I failed to engage with it (having loved, above all, his long poems in the past), it was the first time that I glimpsed Ashbery as funneling the world into a consciousness the whole purpose of which was to construct texts. Or, to quote a line from Elective Infinites, from Quick Question, the new collection, “Process was the only real thing that happened.”

Now, it is true that the artists I admire most consistently produce beauty regardless of what is going on in the world and do not allow any considerations outside of art to mar the purity of theirs. That is because art, at its best, is parallel to the world. Not better, not superior, but parallel. Moreover, at its best, art cleanses the eyes so that one can see the world all the more clearly. Being parallel is not a substitute, a diversion or an escape. It is an aid, a supplement or a bonus. It is the world that matters. But there is an edge to the late poetry of Ashbery that sometimes pushes beyond this humble parameter toward the border of the gratuitous.

It could be my own failing (and Lord knows, as someone who is writing a poem every day this year I would not want to be compared to Ashbery). I have a similar problem with some of de Kooning’s later paintings. While I can’t think of a modern painter I admire more a great many of his abstractions after about 1967 seem to wallow in freedom. Ashbery does not seem to be embarrassed by his richness (the poem Etudes Second Series in his new collection notwithstanding). And why should he? Never being one to make many concessions to the reader, why should he make any now, at the age of 85? Hasn’t he earned the right to wallow in poetic freedom?

Yes, but he’s been doing it for so long now.

I have dutifully bought every book of poetry he has brought out beginning with Flowchart because his riches have enlarged my life more than any other living writer. But every volume beginning with And the Stars Were Shining has failed to rise to the heights of books that came before. It is the same Ashbery, sure, but the whole flavor has changed. Just look at Flowchart—froth upon froth of language. Poetry should be useless and incomplete in the senses that Bataille used the words—one should not be able to appropriate art to a useful end product as in the ordinary world of work (apart from the practical reality of offering the book for sale). But published poetry should never be gratuitous. Flowchart cannot be appropriated into the useful world, but it does not verge on the gratuitous, as Girls on the Run does. Be drunken, as Baudelaire advised, but don’t expect everyone to take a keen interest when you are ‘lost in an underperforming text’ (Far Harbor).

For over twenty years now I have asked myself if the failing is mine, and maybe it is, but I have finally resigned myself to it. It is clear to me now that Ashbery has resigned himself too, and it is doubtful there will be any more surprises. As he writes in Northeast Building, from the new collection:

The runner is already here,
has been for some time, awaiting instructions.
If it was my turn I’d go, but since that is
out of the question, I’ll merely keep my council,
looking for some converted to preach to.

Other poems seem to comment on his work. Puff Piece seems to be a confession. Referring to his “smirched muse” he writes: “And when I pulled it out of my pocket I thought surely all this has been done before.” But when he heads out, “tall in the saddle” for “ a clean-named place” I can’t feel a genuine enthusiasm. The Northeast Building stanza, quoted above, sounds more real to me.

Elsewhere in the new collection more or less wry lines seem to address Ashbery’s critics: “Let it mean something”; “Now that wasn’t so easy, was it?” apparent nods to the common criticisms that he is either meaningless or too difficult. But when he suggests in You What? meeting in a “fuzzy argument [that] comes to some fanciful verbal frottage or tegument” I feel like replying, let’s not. I miss the lucid Ashbery.

But I can’t stay mad at him for long. Even his throwaways are brilliant. I’ve read that Ashbery often keeps first drafts. He understands that one need not sweat blood over every poem. Sketches can be beautiful, and some poems are just right dashed off. Ashbery has often joked about his process. Having his poetry quoted to him might provoke a response of incredulity, like, ‘Wow, did I write that? I have no recollection.’ And it’s hard not to admire how lighthearted his late poetry is. Ashbery is a little boy at heart (a little boy with the literary brain of a genius), and I love that.

There are some good ones in Quick Question, beginning with Homeless Heart, the only prose poem in the collection, and one of the shortest prose poems he has written. The title itself is beautiful and the poem is so poignant, so perfect, a little gem. I’d give away 5,000 pages to have written a hundred words like that.* It may be that the way to such a brilliant short poem has been difficult for Ashbery, who has always excelled at long poems. I’m reminded of Philip Guston’s comment that painting is “a long, long preparation for a few moments of innocence.” Not Beyond All Conjecture is one of his shortest, and most delightful.

All of the poems in Quick Question are, as the title suggests, short. The ones I like most, such as A Modern Instance, are clustered in the middle of the book. In that poem, as in many others, “weird issues short out what sense orders for us.” Clarity of image is a beautiful thing, no doubt about it, but clarity of content, of meaning, is a little harder to come by. Ashbery has made a game of this his entire career, but he has never had a lighter touch or a more humorous attitude to it than in this book. I don’t expect him to ever stop, and that is deeply inspiring.

Years ago when I was endeavoring to get some of my artwork seen, an artist I knew who never made anything suggested that it was hubris to add one more drawing or poem to the heap. The world was glutted with them. Somehow, I am always answering her and always will. Even though I know damn well that wildflowers don’t need an excuse to exist. Tell a mockingbird you’ve heard it all before. And anyway, “whatever stops playing is the enemy of the incomplete.”**

* My friend Sue loves this poem too. Listen and find out why.

** Tango and Schottische by John Ashbery

Sample readings from Quick Question and other poems here.

The quote from Philip Guston can be found here.

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8 Responses to A Review of John Ashbery’s Quick Question

  1. I think you should post some of his old poems and some of his new ones, for better comparison.

  2. Pingback: Whatever Stops Playing | The Mockingbird Sings

  3. janehewey says:

    “art, at its best, is parallel to the world.” I am soaking in this statement.

  4. Susan Scheid says:

    So many avenues down which to travel here, where to begin. I remember when you’d first indicated your thoughts about this book and have thought of that off and on ever since. My relationship to this book is particular, for reasons that really have nothing to do with its merits in the context of all of Ashbery’s work—most of which I don’t yet know. You write: “And it’s hard not to admire how lighthearted his late poetry is. Ashbery is a little boy at heart (a little boy with the literary brain of a genius), and I love that.” That gets exactly at why this book is especially meaningful to me.

    I came to Ashbery very late—you know the time period, as I have you to thank for opening the door to him—so I first met Ashbery’s poems, and then Ashbery himself. when he was already in his eighties. What I saw in him was a rare combination of whimsy and wisdom that spoke directly to me and shone a light on a way to be in the world that was utterly renewing.

    I sometimes wonder if the stars would have been quite so aligned had I “met” his work at an earlier point (which is not to say I don’t revel in that earlier work now—as you shall soon see, again, I do). Then came something I did not expect: a new book by Ashbery, a book that I could read and discover while it was fresh, before it had been parsed. For this reason alone, it is my treasure. I have two copies, and one is signed, so of course that is a treasure, too.

    As for the poems themselves, there are some that captivate me; others that, on re-reading, do not. Homeless Heart was perhaps the first to capture my heart completely, as you know. And it strikes me, as I read it now, that it is a “direct” reply to whether it is hubris to create new art. Creating is not about hubris. It’s about passion; it’s about being alive.

    There are two poems I’ll add to my own list of favorites in the book: Auburn-Tinted Fences, for its light-hearted “I yam what I yam quality” and for lines like this:

    We are descended from a long line of sages, for whom it is
    a point of honor not to know the quantities of things. Therein
    lies our strength, alas.

    A Voice from the Fireplace is the other, for lines like this:

    In my mature moments I was robotic like you
    but never canceled my interest.

    And above all these:

    I’ve had a pleasant but uneven time.
    My helpmates could aver as much. Let us know
    how much we owe you. The balloon is ascending
    above ferns, teacup chimneys, striped stockings.
    So long training wheels. I’m gone for three weeks at a time.

    • “Creating is not about hubris. It’s about passion; it’s about being alive.” -Bravo!

      You have a signed copy…you have a signed copy…you have a signed copy…oh, but I must not be an envious person…

  5. angela says:

    It is interesting to read, yet refreshing, that despite your sometime discontent with Ashbery’s more recent art, you shall not call it hubris…though the gratuitous statement has me a bit flummoxed. I often grapple with the idea of art – has it all been done- however, I’m beginning to see the danger of trying to quiet the mockingbird – certain death certainly must come, if only of spirit. This is a brilliant review of the latest. Between this, and Sue’s post just read, I will now have to revisit Ashbery – or at least go back to b&n and buy the last copy of Poetry for his feature.
    Btw- Thank you for the clip with Sue. I always meant to watch this….had forgotten until now. How fun for her to pose a question to a poetic sage. ~ a

    • I get a big kick out of that video/audio with Sue – wish I had been there.

      After posting this I thought someone might come along and wonder about the distinction between useless – or rather, anti-useful – and gratuitous. The word “gratuitous”, associated as it so easily is in the mind to “gratuitous violence”, seems to have acquired an overwhelmingly negative aura, at least in this country. But I realize I can’t really defend my use of it here. It comes down to taste, what one feels is good and not as good art. I am calling the not-so-good gratuitous. I used the example of some of de Kooning’s abstractions from the 70’s; they’re just all over the place, to my eyes. Or like some free music performances that are musicians not listening to each other but trying to scream each other out – that, to me, is gratuitous. Some of Ashbery’s poems veer in this direction, in my opinion. As Miguel suggested above, it would probably help if I wrote an article about this and gave specific examples.

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