I’ve been working on some prose fiction for the past couple of weeks, for me a frustrating process of leaving the commas out, putting them in, taking them out again, then putting them back in. I should be in more command by now of where I want my damn commas in a story. Late last night, feeling like a dog chasing its tail, I escaped my comma dilemma with several shots of rum into John Ashbery’s latest collection of poems, Breezeway. I read the book from beginning to end, each poem aloud. It only took an hour and fifteen minutes or so.
It may seem strange to use Ashbery as writer’s salve. After all, he presents linguistic conundrums of his own. In fact that seems to be the general concern or flavor of Breezeway. Chinese Fire Drill is third in the collection and sets the pattern for all of the poems. That is, they’re all linguistic Chinese fire drills: you’re rolling along in the car with friends, destination predetermined, when suddenly it stops and the poetic elements race around a few times then pile back in. For whatever reason. (Goes good with rum.) Something old and known to death (Sarabande), something fresh (red onion). Phrases that lead one way then suggest their opposites. It’s just a game, something silly to do that doesn’t mean a damn thing but sure is fun, with or without the commas. Who cares about the commas?
I fell deeply into this book. I laughed aloud as I read the poems. I’ve never been so amused by a book while understanding it so little. Oh sure, there are tones, flavors, fragments of meaning, wonderful jokes, The Cloud of Knowing…. entropy with glimmers of pink and green and signs of rain, linguistic bric-a-brac and things overheard. Glove Compartment with its truncated couplets, like fragments of song or bits of other poems, is like a glove compartment that holds everything but gloves. Warm Regards has the sweet and sad flavor of things lost, things never found, and so much left to do. One could go down the line like this, remarking on the particular feel of each poem. The poems of Breezeway are composed mostly of short lines, suggesting that the only way Ashbery can surprise himself anymore is by cutting himself short (he has always excelled at the long line and in long poems). Or again, at his age maybe he’s through with the long line. In any case the sustained breezy clipped quality of these poems marks the unique flavor of Breezeway. Ashbery has written many poems like this in the past, but never a whole collection. Even Quick Question feels wordy by comparison.
This was not my first reading. I’ve come to these poems in serious silence and I’ve come to them like last night, and each time I discovered that the silent serious approach failed completely, while the reading aloud approach was deeply rewarding. And it was consistent. With only slightly varying degrees, every poem of Breezeway rewarded a reading out loud. In the silent serious mode, so very sober, I wanted to figure the poems out. It almost seemed like Ashbery was playing a Rousselian game, that if you could pinpoint the few basic rules you’d have answered a riddle. But you can’t quite get there, beyond the few techniques revealed in Chinese Fire Drill, or listed by Dan Chiasson in his review in The New Yorker. Just as the poems fill you with the feeling of a word on the tip of your tongue, they also seem to suggest a code or a blueprint for their basic construction. You can almost glimpse it, but never quite. Too serious or too sober but more importantly too deaf to the sound-patterns of the language, and the experience can be merely frustrating. This, by the way, is why there are so many Ashbery haters—they never get past the frustration. They don’t let go. They don’t trust the poet. Deep into the joy of this poetry last night I didn’t care that the poems didn’t make sense. I didn’t want them to make sense.
Chiasson writes that Ashbery is “one for the ages.” I don’t doubt it. I’m sure of it when it comes to some of his earlier poetry, a poem like Soonest Mended or Self Portrait In a Convex Mirror, for example. In those poems one can see the linguistic games being played while at the same time meaning—which can feel so important sometimes—can be elaborated. It may be that the poems that last longest are the ones we can talk about the longest. The poems of Breezeway are so much more in the moment—in this moment—due to their dependence on language as it is spoken today in America. It’s not as though they lack all meaning. I can find simple meanings and themes in them, but these are minor accents, and it almost seems like a pedantic exercise to go after them. They’re not the point. In a similar way, knowing Roussel’s code does not change the experience of reading Locus Solus. Roussel’s method was just that, a way to get to the novel you hold in your hands. The poems of Breezeway are meant to be read aloud with like-minded friends and enjoyed. They’re not meant to be analyzed. Will they last? I don’t know, fixed as they are linguistically at this moment and in this place. But they sure are fun right now, if you know how to play. And I find myself astonished yet again by this poet.
Then, with the final poem of the collection, Ashbery serves up something else. A Sweet Disorder takes its title from the Robert Herrick poem and the final line, “do I wake or sleep?” brings in a reading of Keats’ great Odes. So the key is clear. We are having a conversation with these poems. The joke “Pardon my sarong” doesn’t make sense unless you’ve read the Herrick poem. But even here Ashbery’s version of the sweet disorder is so peculiar that there’s confusion over the fifth line of the third stanza. It is published in the book as well as in The New Yorker as, “It can’t have escaped your escaped your attention”. It also appeared that way originally in Dan Chiasson’s review and later was changed to, “It can’t have escaped your attention”. Both versions look like mistakes and in Ashbery’s reading of the poem he gives us, “It can’t have escaped your escaped attention”, which sounds right. Does this confusion say something about the breeziness of this collection? I suspect that the Ashbery haters will hate this one more than any other. They will say that those who love it are delusional, stuck in some Emperor’s clothes paradigm. Haters gonna hate. As for me, I haven’t enjoyed an Ashbery collection this much since Can You Hear, Bird. And since as a reader I’ve been invited into a great poetic conversation, I can respond:
A Sweet Disorder
Ruby slippers come in a pair
but only work clicked heel to heel
(or is that reel to reel?)
as The Magic City, a good trek
down Goldsparkler Road,
is the flip side of Oz,
or your cup tippeth over.
Maybe you’d prefer dandelion greens
with yours? To each his own.
In any case digital accounts
disintegrate here (as a Vincent sunrise
redistributed devalued stocks preserved in jars,
like infant heads of various species
require one more addition), the sum
assumed in sleep’s perfection
further out of reach.
A climbing sun.