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.