John Ashbery, A Wave (Viking, 1985)
[originally posted 2Nov2001]
If you believe back-cover blurbs, it seems like every major poet in America is firmly convinced that John Ashbery is not only one of America’s premier poets, but at the top of that heap. Ashbery IS quite the distinguished writer on art, and so perhaps others are willing to cut his cross-pollination a bit of slack based on that. Wrongheaded as it may be, I’m not one of them.
There are, in a reductio ad absurdum way, two basic schools of thought on poetry: the lyric and the narrative. The narrative is convinced that a poem should tell a story, and that how it sounds is less important than that; the lyric is convinced of the opposite, that sound is all-important and meaning is, well, meaningless. Optimists have been trying to bring the two together for years, and have created two more schools of thought. The combination of narrative and lyric (in other words, it sounds good AND tells a story) is an exceptionally rare and beautiful thing, achieved by a handful of luminaries such as Hayden Carruth and Robert Lowell; far more populous are those who end up with stuff that doesn’t say much and doesn’t sound good. Of these, it is possible, Ashbery is king. One wag, in an Ode to Ashbery published on the net, opens with these lines:
“He said nothing. For a man of so many words
Nothing wasn’t much to say
And what’s more it wasn’t kind of him
To say so much before saying nothing to me.”
Of course, Ashbery’s won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the national Book Critics Circle Award, and (for A Wave) the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, so what do I know? Perhaps I’m completely wrong in reading, for example,
“Where no sea contends with the interest of the cherry trees
Everything but love was abolished. It stayed on, a stepchild.
I see the whole thing written down:
Business, a lack of drama. Whatever the partygoing public needs.”
(from “Variations on a Noel”)
and not finding anything to latch onto. But then, when even Harold Bloom (in his 1985 collection of Ashbery essays) calls Ashbery difficult, I start to feel maybe I’m just way out of my league here, despite an affinity for classical surrealism and a deep regard for other “difficult” poets (Reznikoff and Eshleman spring to mind). One way or the other, it seems that my first experience with Ashbery’s poetry will be my last, and I’ll stick to his writing about art. * ½