In an alternate universe, Honored Guest is the work of a John Ashbery who never became famous. Its beauty is so quiet and subtle that it can easily be lost, I think, in the hundreds of pages that Ashbery has published. That’s why I chose it. And because there are a lot of Honored Guest’s in his oeuvre.
It’s often tricky determining who Ashbery is addressing at any given moment in his poems because he often seems to be addressing an array of people. In Honored Guest the speaker could be addressing his significant other, a friend, or a combination of persons. I think the reader is not just one of these, but is indeed the honored guest. In addition, whenever the reader is addressed in some way the poet and the making of the poem are also addressed, and that is what is happening here. I’m reminded of a line from the remarkable poem A Pattern that Kenneth Fearing published in1938:
Or are you, in fact, a privileged ghost returned, as usual, to haunt yourself?
The “privileged ghost” here is the poet revisiting the continuous poem in his mind to snip off another length for the reader. He is privileged because he is the poet and he is a ghost because these snippets suggest such a vast delegation of voices, discourses and linguistic approaches that a radical decentering of the maker’s place in the poem always occurs. It’s as if the poet were just another bystander, another reader as bemused by it all as anyone else. But something else happens too. Poet and reader come and go and while a deep communion is sometimes possible, it is always temporary. The moment slips away. Honored Guest captures this disquieting double movement perfectly in its excitement and in its sadness. Come closer, I want you to see this! The moment slips, another poem is added to the book, the shelf, the library, and the poet shifts focus, again, onto the promise of the next one….