A Rainbow of Tears: Reading John Ashbery

I’m a regular fountain of tears today, and the way I’m going it’s likely I will end up dissolved in a gooey pool of them. As the years go by there’s always more and more to cry about. Not so as a man in my twenties. I put a stern, sometimes angry face in front of the world. Nothing could make me cry, most of the time anyway, not books, movies, music, and not even people. Then one day while reading the Gospel of John, King James Version, the tears came. Jesus had risen from the dead, appeared to the disciples, Thomas had touched the flesh and just as the reality sunk in they were told the man of flesh would be leaving them. I felt their plight. What are we going to do? Jesus tells them to be of good cheer. He tells them, “I will not leave you comfortless”. And the hot tears came. They rolled down the face of this nonbeliever.

As readers we couldn’t care less for what makes a writer cry. Don’t tell us, we feel, rather make us cry. Do it through the power of your language. The reason for this, it seems to me, is that we tend to cry for ourselves, and do not like to be reminded of it. It’s as if we have not progressed beyond infancy. And yet it’s true, we cry for ourselves, even in the face of the suffering of a loved one: we cry out of the sheer frustration of helplessness. And what if we should lose them? With regard to the Gospel of John, reading it brought back the childhood faith I had treasured and then lost. The disciples would have a comforter, not poor nonbeliever me.

And so with a handful of Ashbery poems. I do not know what made John, the man who wrote them, cry. He has said in interviews that Ashbery is the one who writes the poems and John is the one who sits at home, a little bit lonely and jealous because Ashbery is the one everybody is interested in. It is Ashbery who tells us in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror that the “secret” of Parmigianino’s portrait is, “too plain. The pity of it smarts, makes hot tears spurt”. He tells us this at the beginning of the poem, when we are dry-eyed, then goes on to show us why. By the time we get to, “Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand” they shoot out before we even realized they had lain in waiting. At least that is what happened to me. I sobbed and my tears surprised me. Or had Ashbery surprised me? I beseech you! Almost Biblical language. After the cool meditation that had preceded, as cogent as any art criticism I had ever read, yet more concise and far more beautiful, this emotional outburst. The absurd irrationality of it. For that is the one thing that could never happen. The artist was dead, the painting done, a fact, without which, incidentally, there’d be no poem. The nerve of Parmigianino, to bare the “secret” of his soul, when we have our own to sequester. He outed us. And that is what we cry for.

And now that we know there won’t be another Ashbery poem we can say that while Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is unmistakably Ashbery, it is unique in his oeuvre. He had never been quite this explicit, neither before nor after. Whole chunks of it really do read like a beautiful form of art criticism and it demands to be read with the portrait in front of one for the duration. His poetry abounds with extreme contrasts but I don’t know of one as shocking as the cool meditation butting up against that, “I beseech you” near the end. It still shocks me when I read it, the tears still come.

John lived a long life. He died peacefully at his beautiful home with the one he loved. As Ashbery he enjoyed honors and accolades. As artists’ lives go, his was charmed. Yet when he died I curled into a ball and wept, for me, because a world without John Ashbery in it was too much for me to bear. For over twenty-five years he has been the brightest art star in the sky for me, a beacon on this tortured land and a buoy in this wild sea. There won’t be another Ashbery poem, and I cry for me.

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3 Responses to A Rainbow of Tears: Reading John Ashbery

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Though inevitable and made more so by Ashbery’s age, his death was nonetheless a shock. I am grateful, yet sorrowful all over again, on reading your typically trenchant observation that Self-Portrait is “unique in his oeuvre,” and that “Whole chunks of it really do read like a beautiful form of art criticism and it demands to be read with the portrait in front of one for the duration.” I know, as they say, that his poetry lives on, but it is not the same. The one saving grace, and it is profound, is to have had you as a guide and companion on the journey into his poems and the poet who made them. While I have only a tiny fraction of your familiarity with his work, reading his poems, in response to your summoning, offered me a freeing shift in perspective that cannot be overstated. It is thanks to you that it became essential to go on a pilgrimage, one that I will never forget, to have the opportunity to thank him while he was alive.

    • I feel like a part of me was with you that day. When I began blogging I was sharing my flash fiction with a group and one time, so impressed by the beauty of one of the writer’s prose, I commented that it was ‘Ashberian’. From me, of course, that was the highest praise. The writer asked about Ashbery and after checking out the poet, the writer unleashed a torrent of hatred for what he had read. I have always tried to ignore Ashbery haters, but this time I got too close and the experience was so painful I almost stopped blogging. I stopped sharing my flash fiction, left the group and started a new blog. So, knowing that I inspired you to learn about Ashbery and that his work has meant so much to you more than compensates for that earlier experience. It has been the high point of having a blog, for me. And let’s not forget what I’ve learned from you, especially about music.

      As you know, I’m partial to the work from about ‘Rivers and Mountains’ to ‘Hotel Lautreamont’. I found it difficult to engage with much of the work after that. But he has been so prolific that some poems have emerged like stars even from that late period. And then, to my mind, the collection ‘Breezeway’ seemed to collect all of the beauty and power and the special flavors of the late period. Reading it was such an extraordinary experience for me that it was like a new depth added to a long love affair. I became a fan of the late period poems, utterly amazed at what he was doing, at his age. There will not be another length to snip off.

      By the way, next year a picture book of his collages is being published.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Thank you for this lovely note in reply to mine. I will look forward to that book of collages, and actually have made some effort at resuming my own attempts. Few things have given me such pleasure as making homage collages to some of the Breezeway poems. And indeed, I noticed that, in your poem in the next post, you elegantly wove in an homage to what are surely among my favorite lines in the poem Breezeway itself:

        We have to live out our precise experimentation.
        Otherwise there’s no dying for anybody,
        No crisp rewards.

        Those lines take on a particular poignancy as I look at them today, now that Ashbery himself is gone–or perhaps he is simply somewhere we can’t see, garnering his own crisp rewards.

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