Over at Printculture, S Shirazi thinks John Ashbery is a charlatan:
It strikes me as a trap to either explicate his poetics or condemn them. Even describing the habitual elements of his poetry promises to be an unrewarding exercise. His poems have echoes of high poetic diction from the English canon circa 1800; lush, precise description and hyperperception; meta-narrativity, in which what is being described is usually the sense of a moment, a day or a season, of a life or of the age, as if momentarily aware of the river of time while resting on a sandbar; touches of 50’s genre camp and baroque parody; an urgent predicament all the more urgent for being unclear as in Kafka; wisdom of a sentimental, almost sunny tone, the counterpart and companion of an overall moroseness.
A feeling of climax is sometimes provided by direct address, or by the regular flashes and stretches of an almost too pure brilliance, a momentary coming into focus, and when the conclusion is explicit it usually resolves into a mood of melancholy over an irretrievable past, both the once-whole cultural past of English poetry and a lack of personal companionship at the moment of writing.
Contra Shirazi, I found this very rewarding, and spot on. This is good too, and less friendly:
While his work is considered difficult by his admirers, it is closer to being a lullaby. Listening to him one begins to feel safely ensconced in one’s own asubjectivity. The lush sonorousness induces a soothing relaxation of the understanding, like acupuncture releasing an involuntarily clenched muscle of meaning we didn’t know we had. We feel the neurotic comfort of not being interrupted – nothing bad can happen while I am speaking since my sentence must end before anything else can begin – and the child’s comfort of drifting off to a parent’s cooing voice.
That’s fair, but I think the tail of the essay isn’t justified. Shirazi sets up an opposition between Ashbery and “meaning”, with the latter to be vigorously preferred. But Ashbery’s poems mean things — they just go about the project of meaning things in an unusual way. Doesn’t the lax mind make meaning? Don’t dreams mean things? You don’t have to think so, but I do. (And Ashbery’s poems aren’t lax-minded — they represent the lax mind observed rigorously.) Even though I think it’s unfair, I’ll give you Shirazi’s last paragraph as a nice example of the literary low blow:
What will become of the grublings who grew up during the superior-minded suspension of meaning, trained to consider themselves fortunate merely to eavesdrop on the simulated gibberish of another person’s interiority? Will they be condemned to triviality and minor league mystery-mongering, unaware of what’s been lost? Every day I see them standing around milk-mustached, drinking from mugs of cream and thinking it’s the strongest coffee.
I haven’t read a new Ashbery book in 10 years but I will always defend him. When I was a junior in college I took David Perkins’ introduction to contemporary poetry course and read Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and John Ashbery for the first time. Each one of them wrenched open my interior flowchart about how words went together. But only Ashbery was congenial. Lowell and Plath represented ideas you could profitably use in your own sentences, but might not want to. (Martin Amis represents the prose analogue of this problem.) Ashbery was just sparkling and smooth and startling and good. I think this is part of what S Shirazi is complaining about when he calls Ashbery “relaxing”, but why? Relaxation is underrated.
Shouldn’t there be some actual poetry in this post? Here’s one of my favorites by Ashbery, “At North Farm”:
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?
Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?