Vol. 36 No 3-4
Greek Poetry: New Voices and Ancient Echoes
John Ashbery, Wakefulness (Carcanet Press, £7.95)
Only the sick man feels his limbs
— Oswald Spengler
John Ashbery is the only significant poet to have followed Wallace Stevens in devoting his poetry almost entirely to writing, about the poetic act itself. Everything in Ashbery's poetry is 'meta-', and can only be understood, or (as theorists would say) naturalized, in a meta-' fashion. Raised to a seeming-classic status by the post-structuralist tide of there-is-nothing-outside-the-text nihilism, Ashbery's work is probably the supreme exemplification in English-language verse of what Perry Anderson in a critique of the whole of post-structuralism once called 'the magalomania of the signifier'. In the rambling and (as Ashbery has himself claimed) senseless thought process which is an Ashbery poem, events or objects sometimes appear, images are run past us, but they are self-analytically undermined and dissolved away again before there is any risk of them creating any durable poetic meanings.
In Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, often thought to be his most accessible volume, Ashbery has a poem called 'A Man of Words'. It touches obliquely, and more disparagingly than Wallace Stevens would ever have touched, on the philosophically marginalized situation of the 'man of words' in the modern world. It begins:
His case inspires interest
But little sympathy; it is smaller
Than at first appeared.
Ashbery's own 'case' has inspired far more than interest, and his frequent air of self-deprecation and almost universal air of traditional-poetry-deprecation have been seen by many readers as signs of a truly modern — in effect quintessentially post-modernist — recognition of the relativistic plight we are all in. One of the things that can make Ashbery readable, at least in his less self-communingly knotted-up poems, is the easy way he combines an intellectual awareness of the various slippings and slidings of our perceptions with what looks like a down-to-earth sincerity and a range of dictions (the epistemological and the New York demotic rub shoulders together) designed to express those slippings and slidings in natural-seeming words. Some of his longer pieces, however philosophically involuted, however weighed down by intellectual trivia, however lacking in all of the traditional ways of using images to build poetic meanings, can still be understood on a line-by-line basis without very much difficulty; nearly all of his poems, whatever their final intelligibility, retain something of the casual charm of easy-goingly self-reflexive prose. It is only after reading him in extenso that one might begin to wonder whether one is reading the same restlessly self-interrogating poem over and over again. With the arrival of Ashbery, the 'men of words' tradition of American poetry abandoned entirely the grand- manner diction of a poet like Stevens while carrying all of Stevens's philosophical haverings and temporizings into the thought-by-thought structure of individual poems:
This poem is concerned with language on a very plain
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don't have
You miss it. It misses you. You miss each other.
The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and
What's a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be
A deeper outside thing ...
(Paradoxes and Oxymorons')
Pretend to fidget? Lines like these could never have happened without Stevens as their ancestor, but in their neurotic twitchiness and throwaway diction they leave the ceremoniousness of Stevens a long way behind. Where American poetry's 'men of words' of the 1950s (Richard Wilbur or Anthony Hecht, for example) came across as professionally literary in all that they wrote, the man of words of an Ashbery poem, if there is anyone discernibly there at all, is more reminiscent of the New York City intellectual — and seems at times perhaps only a few psychological moves away from the therapy-stultified characters who make up the background to romantic possiblities in the films of Woody Allen. The sophisticated expressionless mutter of Ashbery's poetic speech (shaped though it always is by his careful line-breaking) mirrors the expressionless theory-attenuated speech of a post-ideological, post-therapeutic culture in which almost anything can be entertained as a possibility but nothing at all can ever be cried out for or committedly believed in. 'A Man of Words' conveys this condition of spiritual fatalism quite strongly, and with the kind of subdued eloquence that Ashbery mainly seems to reserve for his moments of nostalgia:
Those tangled versions of the truth are
Combed out, the snarls ripped out
And spread around. Behind the mask
Is still a continental appreciation
Of what is fine, rarely appears and when it does is
Dying on the breeze that brought it to the threshold
Of speech. The story worn out from telling.
All diaries are alike, clear and cold, with
The outlook for continued cold. They are placed
Horizontal, parallel to the earth,
Like the unencumbering dead. Just time to reread this
And the past slips through your fingers, wishing you were there.
With its air of informality, Ashbery's new and casual-seeming kind of mandarinism might even appear to have bridged the century-old American poetic divide between the traditionally formal and the Whitmanianly plethoric, but such an appearance would be deceptive. The run-of-the-mill Ashbery poem's lack of faith in any graspable vision of life or reliable direct feeling has more to do with Stevens's 'fictions' or Eliot's 'ways of putting it' than with any ordinary person's song of life or of him-or-herself or of America. The cool, self-protecting relativism that enshrouds every perception in Ashbery's poetry is a systematic evading of raw emotion, and particularly perhaps of the raw emotion of his more anguishedly self-exposing predecessors such as John Berryman or Robert Lowell. Images occur in Ashbery's poems, but they float in and out of them, mentioned (as philosophers would say) rather than used, and are never permitted any time or space in which to take on dangerously emotional significances.
The one ordinarily recognizable emotion that Ashbery sometimes allows himself seems to be nostalgia. Despite all his contrived caginess, the prevailing atmosphere, where there is one at all, in an Ashbery poem is often one of a wistfulness for something to do with traditional poetry, or else for something that traditional poetry used to be something to do with. 'Absolute Clearance' speaks of 'The times when a slow horse along / A canal bank seems irrelevant and the truth' (compare the final line of James Wright's 'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota': 'I have wasted my life'). 'Grand Galop' tells how
Here, as elsewhere,
April advances new suggestions, and one may as well
Move along with them, especially in view of
The midnight-blue light....
'Here, as elsewhere, / April advances new suggestions' is the same kind of euthanizing of painful emotion as Eliot's 'Sometimes these cogitations still amaze / The troubled midnight and the noon's repose,' and 'one may as well / Move along with them' conveys the volitionless passivity that seems to be the usual Ashbery stance towards such arousals of the spirit. But there are also moments where the mood of wistfulness asserts itself very strongly and even wavers towards elegy:
I remember meeting you in a dark dream
Of April, you or some girl,
The necklace of wishes alive and breathing around your
(`Hop o' My Thumb')
Cares or uses the little station any more.
They are too young to remember
How it was when the late trains came in.
('All and Some')
Despite (and no doubt because of) their poignancy, such moments are carefully set aside again, and — pointing up the unusability of such things — Ashbery can speak of 'seasons, which are far other, foreign / To our concept of time' ('Grand Galop'), as well as intermittently worrying about the poetic fix he seems to have gotten himself into: 'I know that I braid too much my own / Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me. / They are private and always will be' ('The One Thing That Can Save America'). Or to clinch it all: 'All things seem mention of themselves' (`Grand Galop'). The metapoeticality of all this is in a direct line from Stevens; the most important difference is that Ashbery seems on some level to care quite seriously about the condition he finds himself in: there is at any rate an intermittent, elusive, but ever-present sense of someone in an existentially troubling situation who has more than just philosophical thoughts about it (Ashbery's nostalgia has something in common with the emotion-like twitches that ruffle the surface of Jacques Derrida's writings whenever religion needs to be mentioned). The alienation from direct experiencing that one senses in Ashbery has a dimension of sadness as well as merely one of quizzicality. There are even moments in Ashbery's poems where not only the longings but also the fears that older-style poets used to think it worth lingering over still seem to be present. One poem ends, with a hard-to-misread dark allusiveness: 'But now we are at Cape Fear and the overland trail / Is impassable, and a dense curtain of mist hangs over the sea' (`Grand Galop'). Another talks of 'Fear / That keeps me from walking up certain steps, / Knocking at certain doors, fear of growing old / Alone ...' (Tear of Death'). The dialectics of self-reflexive writing usually ensure that the hypertrophied self-consciousness eats itself so far back into life that the writer comes to experience only mentions of things rather than the things themselves. This has taken a long time to happen with Ashbery, and one of the things that makes him an interesting poetic phenomenon is the way he has gone on entertaining real and poetically traditional feelings about life while insistently failing ever to make any real poems out of them.
The deepest sub-text of Ashbery's poetry seems in effect to be: `I am mentally and emotionally paralyzed, and am unable to face up to having real experience any more'. This sub-text comes closer to the surface than usual in a poem like 'Ode to Bill', where we are given something resembling an experiential presentation of the poet-speaker's paralyzed state (along with a sense of his city- bred alienation from the kind of rural landscape he grew up in):
Some things we do take up a lot more time
And are considered a fruitful, natural thing to do.
I am coming out of one way to behave
Into a plowed cornfield. On my left, gulls,
On an inland vacation. They seem to mind the way I
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.
I feel as though someone had made me a vest
Which I was wearing out of doors into the countryside
Out of loyalty to the person, although.
There is no one to see, except me
With my inner sense of what I look like...
Here is someone having an attack of Ashberyism while walking around in a field. What the experience conveys is more than an alienation from nature: at the back of it all — a long way at the back of it — we can hear a winsome, post-modernist echo of the paralyzed despair of the 'I should have been a pair of ragged claws' of Eliot's 'Prufrock', or of Kafka's communicatively- challenged Gregor Samsa in 'Metamorphosis', or of Dostoevsky's `underground man'. For Ashbery, the impossibility of saying just what we mean is a necessity of our human condition — and yet the possibility that things might somehow be different continues to haunt him and to linger on.
As indeed it should, since Ashbery's entire philosophical underpinning, and what makes him bard of those post- structuralist theorists who have embraced the Derridean dictum about there being nothing outside the text and who would like to have a poet to prove it to them, is a fabric of error. Ashbery has been spoken of, apparently complimentarily, as having a 'sense of life's ability to escape all imposed formulations' (see his entry in The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English). It is hard to see how any poet nowadays could get into business at all without possessing such a sense. To have such a sense is a part of the modern awareness, and it has been a part of the subconscious awareness of all artists at all times and what made them embark on their artistic endeavours in the first place. To have a `sense of life's ability to escape all imposed formulations' is to be aware of the challenge that faces all art and all living; it is not just an awareness of some newly discovered and uniquely modern state of affairs that the artist must spend all his time discoursing to us about. To write poetry as though life's ability to elude our formulations meant that there is nothing to do but endlessly to discuss or to illustrate this ability — rather than actually budding to and trying to arrive at some better formulations — is to surrender the whole artistic enterprise at the start. It is rare for an Ashbery poem to give us any actual semblance of the experience of thinking, as opposed to a merely disembodied and almost random stringing-together of freely-associated thoughts. (The dis- embodiedness of Ashbery's within-poem thought processes sometimes seems very close to the disembodiedness of the psycho- analytic patient's free-associating on a couch, and such processes are not, for the most part, a revealing or exemplary enough mode of human experiencing to provide good material for poetry. Two or three such poems, believably rooted in their speaker's situation, might be enough for any normally considerate poet's output.) The 'snapped-off perceptions of things' that Ashbery self- confessedly 'braids too much' lead us nowhere except towards the abandoning of the whole human enterprise of making life intelligible. The delusions of post-structuralism's inaccessibility-of-truth, realism-is-illusory, names-are-a-pretence, there-is-nothing- outside-the-text theories can only be partly to blame for Ashbery's poetic style (and much of his work was written before such theories got going anyway): the real — and it is an existential and spiritual — responsibility must rest with the poet himself and his own uprooted psyche.
In Ashbery's latest book Wake, the poetic process — if such it can still be called — has gone farther than ever towards an indulgent randomness. Intelligent and unstoppably fluent as ever, the poems of the book are alike in not being about anything in particular except — at the `meta-' remove — about the processes of the poet's own mind. Here is a poem called, for no easily discernible reason, 'Baltimore':
Two were alive. One came round the corner
clipclopping. Three were the saddest snow ever seen
in Prairie City.
Take this, metamorphosis. And this. And this. And
If I'd needed your company,
I'd have curled up along before in the clock of weeds,
with only a skywriter to read by.
I'd have laved the preface
to the World's Collected Anthologies,
licked the henbane-flavored lozenge
and more. I'm presuming,
I know. And there are wide floodplains spotted with
investing everything in everything.
And I'm too shy to throw away.
(The reader might try making grammatically appropriate substitutions at random here and noting their effects on the poem). Ashbery has now to all intents and purposes gone beyond subject matter altogether: having gone through talking about the experience of talking about what it is that he is having thoughts or feelings about (one almost feels nostalgic for his earlier nostalgia for real subjects), he has now virtually eliminated the last, thin traces of experientiality from his work. In Wakefulness — not a state that the reading of this book is very likely to induce to anyone — no one is there, nothing much is happening there, and there is no there there anyway. Always careful how he says things — in many of his poems, even whole books, he shows himself a competent formal technician — Ashbery is now very carefully saying almost nothing at all.
Ashbery has claimed of his poetry, perhaps in obilque recognition of the spiritual challenge that more traditional readers might accuse him of evading, that 'it is playful and im- provisational, it doesn't preach'. This is virtually to imply that the only alternative to a playful and improvisational poetry must be a poetry that preaches. The fatal poetic problem with Ashbery is not that his poetry does not preach, or even that it says almost nothing at all, except for a few things about how difficult it is to say things: it is that it shows us nothing either. There are virtually no aesthetic semblances of any of our ways of experiencing, no revelations of how things are; nothing is presented — unless very rarely the experience of the breakdown of meaning, which is only one kind of human experiencing and hardly one uniquely worth focusing an entire poetry on. Is Ashbery's poetry really just a `different kind' of poetry, it might (with some desperation) be asked — as allegory, say, is just a 'different kind' of poetry? Only if the warning notices, trial excavations, mud-slides, earth-moving equipment, multi-coloured safety flags, and NO THROUGH ROAD signs that we may find ourselves encountering on a major highway are really just a different kind of road.
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