17
Oct
15

Quick Notes on John Ashbery

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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John AsberyJohn Ashbery (July 28, 1927) was born in Rochester, NY. His collection of poems Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), won the hat-trick of literary prizes: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. This book is considered a masterpiece, or at least his masterpiece, and it is what I will try to work though.

In “The Tomb of Stuart Merrill,” Ashbery has a character ask a poet, “I really would like to know what it is you do to ‘magnetize’ your poetry, where the curious reader, always a bit puzzled, comes back for a clearer insight.” While it is jesting commentary about what someone might say to a poet at a reading or post-reading party, there is some truth in it, at least for me. It occurs is in the last part, “the curious reader, always a bit puzzled, comes back for a clearer insight.” I think I will mostly focus on this, because the circling back is caused by the manner in which Ashbery writes.

Like Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery is concerned with the reality or the presentation of the real. In that regard, both are metaphysical poets, but Ashbery may be the more metaphysical. Both think that reality is a fiction created by a person or an era, and that it does not sustain itself, which is what Stevens calls the “supreme fiction.” Stevens however tackles the metaphysics of what is real in a traditionally more poetic way – he uses meter, rhyme, and forms. Stevens has developed thoughts about reality. Ashbery, however, is in the moment of thinking and in traditionally non-poetic forms. It’s almost as if Ashbery is thinking on the page or retracing recent thoughts. When I read Ashbery, I find that I am following his thoughts, and then all of the sudden I feel lost. My expectations are subverted by his wandering mind. But this is the reality he is creating – the mind thinking in associations. It’s like a stream of consciousness, but not exactly. With stream of consciousness, the unconscious or suppressed emotions will often reveal themselves, but with Ashbery, we stay on the surface of language and a conscious mind as if “A speech in play consisting entirely of stage directions” (“De Imagine Mundi” 451). Whose mind that is or what stage it is I am not sure, nor is the speaker of “De Imagine Mundi,” who opens the poem: “The many as noticed by one: / The noticed one, confusing itself with the many / Yet perceives itself as an individual” (451). Is the “I” one person? or is fragments of people? or both? Are all fictions and possibilities something to be considered?

Nonetheless, the mind, whoever’s mind it is, is concerned with the present, the moment that is “perpendicular to the ground” (“Voyage in Blue” 445). I like that image of the present. It’s how I envision the present, at least the lyric present, or what Li-Young Lee calls “the vertical moment.” And while the present is perpendicular to the ground, it moves, or as he says in “Grand Galop,” “Here, as elsewhere / April advances new suggestions.” Which is to say the present advances with new suggestions, which feels like a metaphor of the mind thinking, or waiting, which is a theme of “Grand Galop.” The waiting is what “fills up the time between” the now and the future, but this waiting is a creative time – “The wait is built into the things just coming into their own. / Nothing is partially incomplete, but the wait / Invests everything in its climate” (436). In this poem, the speaker inhabits, or waits in, the in-between space/time between the present and the next present, which is all anyone can really do. One way to try and describe an Ashbery poem in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is to refer to the end of “As You Came from the Holy Land”:

     knowing as the brain does it can never come about
     not here not yesterday in the past
     only in the gap of today filling itself
     as emptiness distributed
     in the idea of what time it is
     when that time is already past
                                                   (431)

This, in part, also describes my reading process of Ashbery, I often find myself reading a poem, then midway through stopping and going back a dozen or so lines to an earlier present in the poem, and starting over again, as I mentioned above. That can happen often in just one poem. This method, I assume, is his way of challenging the reader.

The pace or emotional intensity of Ashbery’s poems are even keeled. There are no rises in sudden enlightenment or understanding, no epiphanies, no grand gesturing. Though there is humor and parodying, such as “Love” (part one of “Poem in Three Parts”), where he parodies Wordsworth idea of “emotions recollected in tranquility” when he says about oral sex he once received, “Now years later, I think of it / Without emotion” (443). Later in the section he will also parody “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” A better example of even-keeled manner and parody mixed together is in “River.”

     It thinks itself too good for
     These generalizations and is
     Moved on by them. The opposite side
     Is plunged in shade, this one
     In self-esteem. But the center
     Keeps collapsing and re-forming.
     The couple at a picnic table (but
     It’s too early in the season for picnics)
     Are traipsed across by the river’s
     Unknowing knowledge of its workings
     To avoid possible boredom and the stain
     Of too much intuition the whole scene
     Is walled behind glass. “Too early,”
     She says, “in the season.” A hawk drifts by.
     “Send everybody back to the city.”
                                                               (455)

This recalls Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” where “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” But in Yeats’ poem there is great drama as “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” and “Spiritus Mundi” arrives. Ashbery’s poem, however, is less dramatic. There is a surreal river thinking and picnickers arrive, and the only dramatic thing to occur is that they are out of place, as they are there too early in the season. They are unexpected as the “hawk [that] drifts by,” as opposed to Yeats’ dramatic “rough beast” and other mythic creatures. This poem, like many Ashbery poems, meanders like a “river of consciousness.” The mind moves from noun to noun with only the stream of consciousness connecting the movement, and here in this moment, with no beginning, or an in media res beginning, drifts around from river to people arriving to a hawk to people leaving, which isn’t an end it’s just part of the ever flowing and shifting present. It’s almost as if Ashbery’s poems don’t try to create meaning; they just try to create a mind creating a fictive understanding in a real and mutating moment.

Much of what Ashbery is doing might be best realized in the second stanza of “Ode to Bill”:

     Or, to take another example: last month
     I vowed to write more. What is writing?
     Well, in my case, it’s getting down on paper
     Not thoughts, exactly, but ideas, maybe;
     Ideas about thoughts. Thoughts is too grand a word.
     Ideas is better, though not precisely what I mean.
     Someday I’ll explain. Not today though.
                                                                    (461)

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Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. John Ashbery: Collected Poems: 1956-1987. New York: The Library of America, 1997. 425-487. Print.

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2 Responses to “Quick Notes on John Ashbery”


  1. October 19, 2015 at 4:30 pm

    Best of luck on comps. I’d love to see your reading list when you have the time.


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