Reading Ashbery’s “Three Poems”

Before I comment on this I’d like to emphasize a passage just read:

It becomes plain that we cannot interpret everything, we must be selective, and so the tale we are telling begins little by little to leave reality behind. It is no longer so much our description of the way things happen to us as our private song, sung in the wilderness, nor can we leave off singing, for that would be to retreat to the death of childhood, to the mere acceptance and dull living of all that is thrust upon us, a living death in a word: we must register our appraisal of the moving world that is around us…. —John Ashbery, Three Poems

These might seem for one who goes by the moniker of a mockingbird words to live by, and they are, but in reality they articulate how I feel about my life as it is actually lived. Ever since I made the conscious decision at the age of 18 to live the life of an artist I have been afraid of falling into lassitude and mediocrity. It didn’t take genius to realize that I would probably never see recognition or money for my efforts and the reasons not to make art, always mountainous, would only pile up with the years. I was afraid, not so much of becoming apathetic (in truth I sometimes not ingenuously wished for it), as what the condition of apathy represents: my life would be joyless, soulless and pointless. Not because art is everything—far from it (I’ve said a thousand times art serves life)—but that life without song would be just like a spring with mute birds. I do not want to live in a world without songbirds. And not to be maudlin, but sometimes I get so tired of trying I want it all to end and I know that when I finally do get to the point of ultimate fatigue I will die. Until then I sing. I have no choice. And I have to do my best, otherwise what’s the point?

So fuck you Harold Bloom. As in a few other things he was not quite right about Three Poems when he said that they were manifestly about the thought process of a man in middle age. When I read Three Poems for the first time, Ashbery became a personal hero. I was 25.

So perhaps, reader, you will understand me when I tell you that the point where I stopped in this reading

On and on into the gathering darkness—is there no remedy for this?

is the point where I get a lump in my throat (and let me say here and now that all the Ashbery haters who claim that his work is random or meaningless or that he writes like a robot may as well be from another planet as far as I’m concerned). It’s that sense of perfecting the lucid moment in an orbit that, following the law of nature, slowly degrades further and further into its opposite. It’s about failing, of dying, but at the same time, and of necessity, it’s about the course of life, anticipating that moment when the power to sing first gives way to the greater power of darkness. Our lives long we rehearse this ultimate failure with repeated slippages into unknowing, and night.

Well, that’s sad enough. But it’s not really why I get a lump in my throat. The sheer beauty of Ashbery’s language brings tears to my eyes. Three Poems was, I think, a pivotal book. Some Trees introduced a promising young poet. The Tennis Court Oath confused everybody (and continues to, to this day). With Rivers and Mountains and The Double Dream of Spring Ashbery established his particular voice and themes and he demonstrated that he could write at length. But when Three Poems landed in the world in 1972 was there anything else like it? Had there ever been? Sure, Bloom loves to tell us that it was a cousin to Whitman and Stevens. But they did not write in an uninterrupted flow of prose. In the froth of Ashbery’s prose—language that can almost hypnotize you, that can hold your attention by the sheer force of its lucid power—he brought to a white heat a poetic demonstration of reflexivity by comparison only suggested by Whitman and Stevens. Of Three Poems David Kalstone wrote that

Its perpetuum mobile style prepared him, when he returned to verse, for a new fluidity, a way to re-admit the self to his poetry. Alive in its present, and determined as a Jack-in-the-box, that self pops up when any moment of poetic concision threatens to falsify or obliterate it.

I think Kalstone is right. Next Ashbery would write the masterpiece Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror. I doubt it could have been done without Three Poems as precedent. And were I to attempt a reading of that you’d see me cry like a baby.

In Three Poems Ashbery is not only writing about life itself, but about the extent to which such a subject can be addressed at all, going to the very limit beyond which language fails. In so doing, his poetry evokes the experience of consciousness itself: this is what life feels like, in the moment. In historical terms I think the book did even more. It helped define a new attitude and approach to language and art that served as a corrective to and ultimately an escape from the dead ends of the American avant-garde at a time when this was very difficult to do. This required not another movement, not another turn of the screw, not another Ism, but an intelligently considered disentanglement from the American avant-garde. Three Poems is a record of this disentanglement.

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7 Responses to Reading Ashbery’s “Three Poems”

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    !!! Oh, do I ever love this. “In Three Poems Ashbery is not only writing about life itself, but about the extent to which such a subject can be addressed at all, going to the very limit beyond which language fails. In so doing, his poetry evokes the experience of consciousness itself: this is what life feels like, in the moment.” Abso-bleeding-lutely right. Oh, PS, this is ALSO right, in my book: “So fuck you Harold Bloom. As in a few other things he was not quite right about . . . “.

  2. Sara P Dias says:

    Every time you write about John Ashbery I understand a little more. When I first encountered Ashbery in ModPo 2012, I kept on flinching away from his poems. Every reference seemed oblique, mysterious and willfully confusing. Thank you, Mark. And Susan for pointing us to your blog.

  3. hedgewitch says:

    This leaves a lot of inchoate, swirling thoughts and impressions in my mind–and in a way, it is one of those bits of writing that creates itself–that is, it seems to flow and make a shape by the words themselves, pinning its own self down; yet behind, the hand writing them, the mind conceiving the phrases, is almost so impersonal as not to exist in the product–I found it absolutely fascinating that the piece begins seeming to examine the birth of a problem–something surely fairly negative–then makes the problem into a day/motif of birdsong possibilities, then a life journey, then an existential cry…I was very reminded of Stevens’ Farewell to Florida at the end–‘ carry me/To the cold, go on, high ship, go on, plunge on…that last line that relentlessly echoes the opening, ‘go on through the darkness/the waves fly back…’ a continuum of singing into the gathering darkness…anyway, a very expressive and thought provoking reading, Mark, and thank you for your accompanying observations.

    • Yes, there is something detached in the tone of ‘Three Poems’–of a mind watching itself move.

      I really like that Stevens poem (boy, he hated Florida!). I see why this section reminded you of it, even though in the Stevens poem the movement is a deliberate moving away from a place and in ‘The Recital’ it’s a mind reflecting on its changes as it moves through time (and space).

      • hedgewitch says:

        Yes, Florida witnessed some of Stevens’ few major embarrassments and losses of dignity, and he never forgave her for it. (I believe it was Key West where he had several unfortunate encounters with Robert Frost, and got into a drunken fistfight with Hemingway.) But there is also an appreciation for her peculiar sort of fecundity and richness in a lot of his writing. I agree on the differences with “The Recital,” which has a much larger scope, far more of a panorama than the Stevens snapshot, though in a sense, ‘the snake has shed his skin upon the floor’ seems to me to also be a moving away from a damaged and outgrown self, so may qualify as one of those sorts of changes you mention, anyway.

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