On Ashbery’s A Wave

John Ashbery’s A Wave is an itch I would scratch if I could. I am drawn to this book, out of all of Ashbery’s books, time and again, drawn to the very mystery of its attraction.

True it does contain the gem Just Walking Around, perhaps one of his most celebrated poems.

The first poem of the book, At North Farm was quoted in a film last year and I believe Ashbery’s biographer mentioned that it is her very young son’s favorite Ashbery poem—which might suggest a smooth portal to the book. Yet even though A Wave contains the highest percentage of poems amongst his collections that I have circled as favorites it is probably the collection I least understand on a cognitive level.

The central image may have something to do with this. I the reader am a swimmer in an ocean of sameness, each wave ever the same and yet ever new, continually washing my grasping mind until sameness and newness have merged in a mood that remains lucid yet always unsettled.

I do not want to give eloquence to incomprehension. But I must say, if I must say anything, that the poems of A Wave are above all paradoxical. A feeling of lightness and intimacy collides with an elusive quality. They draw you in even as they draw away from you, somehow always just out of reach. The analytical mind grasps at water.

This curious blend is introduced with the very first poem. In simple and direct language At North Farm suggests a place we are familiar with, perhaps most familiar with: home. But even as the first line announces that, “Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you”, it also introduces displacement, disjunction and disquiet. “Somewhere”—where? “Someone”—who? Why are they trying so hard, as in an epic journey, to get to you? And why would they not recognize you? And what is “the thing he has for you”? Questions tumble out of questions in the second stanza. Why does “hardly anything grow” at North Farm even as we are told it is teeming with food and game and life? And then with, “the dish of milk is set out at night” we see the image of a cat for some reason far away from home but making mighty, “furious” strides to get home. Is all the plenitude of home barren without the beloved pet? “Is it enough,” we are asked,

That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

And now we will have to wonder why the speaker’s feelings are mixed. Is his loneliness complicated by a sense of abandonment or of guilt? But now whose point of view is this? For if we imagine the speaker to be a child the poem becomes, for me, less complex or rather less of a puzzle in the sense that it’s easier to imagine such a vortex of emotions in a child—swirling like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. A child feels only urgency, loss, sadness, hope. A child feels only. We adults complicate everything. We can’t be sure who the speaker of At North Farm is and so its questions unsettle.

But all of the poems are like tracks made in falling snow. No. They are all like a wave: wave upon wave. Nothing is settled in these poems. History, truth, knowledge, contemporary living, ourselves and others (strangers as well as those closest to us)—all escape our grasping mind in poem after poem, until we get to One of the Most Extraordinary Things in Life and it seems that each poem has seemed to go back to the previous poem, dredge it up and pull it into the present wave. As if this weren’t enough (more than enough!) Ashbery pulls out the title track and it comes in at 20 pages. I can’t even begin to address it. This may be Ashbery’s most difficult book, and yet there are such sparkling beauties! Ashbery flummoxes my analytical mind. I mean, just look at that open orange, isn’t that enough?

I thought I could pick out one poem to close-read since any number of them strike me as being emblematic of the whole. But I quickly run into trouble. The Ongoing Story, for instance. Just look at the title: here we go again, same old, it never ends…. Like the other poems in the collection, the general and the particular blur into one another in a way that somehow avoids eschewing a feeling of intimacy while touching notes of both reassurance and disquiet. Not that I’m saying (by saying it’s emblematic) that all of the poems in A Wave are about cruising (in googling the poem to see what others may have said about it I came across one fellow who stridently claimed the poem was about “cruising”). I’d be the first to defend an act of reading that says, this puts me in mind of or this part suggests…. but we’d better be careful before we say it is this or that. After all, there is not one suggestion of eroticism or sex in the poem.

I’d rather take a clue from William James:

When may a truth go into cold-storage in the encyclopedia? and when shall it come out for battle? Must I constantly be repeating the truth “twice two are four” because of its eternal claim on recognition? or is it sometimes irrelevant? Must my thoughts dwell night and day on my personal sins and blemishes, because I truly have them?—or may I sink and ignore them in order to be a decent social unit, and not a mass of morbid melancholy and apology?

It is quite evident that our obligation to acknowledge truth, so far from being unconditional, is tremendously conditioned. Truth with a big T, and in the singular, claims abstractly to be recognized of course, but concrete truths in the plural need to be recognized only when their recognition is expedient. A truth must always be preferred to a falsehood when both relate to the situation; but when neither does, truth is as little of a duty as falsehood…. Our duty to agree with reality is seen to be grounded in a perfect jungle of concrete expediences. [Pragmatism: a reader, p 129*]

It seems to me that Ashbery is saying something very similar in The Ongoing Story (and those “personal sins and blemishes” recalls his “secret smudge”) . Elsewhere James tells us that,

So far as reality means experienceable reality, both it and the truths men gain about it are everlastingly in process of mutation—mutation towards a definite goal, it may be—but still mutation. [Pragmatism, 125]

As soon as we try to grasp reality it slips away. What we know and the ways that we know are in constant flux. This, it seems to me, is a message expressed in poem after poem of A Wave (which is not to say there might not be a note about cruising thrown in there, along with many other notes about many other things).

But this whole effort slips away from me. I get the uneasy feeling I’m on the wrong track. Not that I shouldn’t be running (even “looping…. in a circle”), but that I’m on the wrong track. It’s an odd feeling since as a general rule I have no problem with this sort of inquiry and I’ve had no problem writing about Ashbery in the past. Another bit of James caught my eye:

Things are “with” one another in many ways, but nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything. The word “and” trails along after every sentence. Something always escapes. [Pragmatism, 132]

That which escapes is life, I would say, and I might add, with my old friend Chris, escape into life!

And I notice:

…. often the day’s contents oblige a rearrangement. [Pragmatism, 102]

and that looks like it could be a line from an Ashbery poem. And I feel, quite strongly actually, that the best way to respond to this particular book of poems might be to write a poem:


The door slams on sleep.
Therefore a new wave of discoursing must ensue.
Since we’re already here we must have arrived
so lack of balance is no excuse.
Ditto the distractions of anticipation:
orange juice, eggs, toast to begin with
—gee, we haven’t even mentioned coffee!
Each thing tumbles into its proper order,
if not place, for by now we know
there will be no getting ahead of it.
We know it the way home lumbers behind
like an overweight caddy. The usual crowd
has assembled, the older ones squinting into the sky
and the younger ones down at their phones.

Actually, it is raining.




* Pragmatism: a reader, edited by Louis Menand, Vintage Books, 1997

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4 Responses to On Ashbery’s A Wave

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    I enjoyed reading this so much—the way you consider, reconsider, tack this way and that, living the life of an Ashbery poem, and so how fitting, and how right your instinct was, to end with a poem in response to his. I, by the way, thought upon reading “…. often the day’s contents oblige a rearrangement” that it actually was a line from an Ashbery poem!

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    The Leisure Class offers, among other things, a wonderful example of his wit. And of course I envy him his materials, particularly that snippet at lower left.

    • I love what he did to the Manet painting. It’s one of the weirdest but also, in terms of perception, one of the most fascinating paintings ever made. He just adds a layer of laughter. This particular collage has, in my view, the same level of complexity as his best poems.

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