The Poetry of John Ashbery

John Bayley

  • Shadow Train by John Ashbery
    Carcanet, 50 pp, £3.25, March 1982, ISBN 0 85635 424 4

The poet’s mind used to make up stories: now it investigates the reasons why it is no longer able to do so. Consciousness picks its way in words through a meagre indeterminate area which it seems to try to render in exact terms. Most contemporary American poetry wants only to offer what Helen Vendler has called ‘an interior state clarified in language’. ‘Clarified’ is an ambiguous word here, meaning the poetry’s effort to achieve the effect of being clear on the page. In Ashbery’s case the wordage trembles with a perpetual delicacy that suggests meaning without doing anything so banal as to seem to attempt it. Poetic syntax is constructed to express with a certain intensity a notion of the meaningful that does not convey meaning.

Or does not do so by the normal linguistic route. Inventive poetry, that makes up stories, does so by emphasising the usual ability of language to embody them, makes that ability into a positive power. ‘Jabberwocky’ emphasises it by inventing its own words as it goes along, to demonstrate how completely and finally they then make up the tale. It parodies the charged language of poetry – particularly romantic poetry – in which the force of denotation itself produces connotation.

St Agnes’ Eve – Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold ...

... And they are gone: aye, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm ...

The poetry of the Romantics shows consciousness in two kinds, the kind that uses words to tell stories to and about itself, and the kind that knows words cannot express its intuitional being, even though that being can only become aware of itself by using them. Wordsworth, like Keats, can tell stories, stories about himself, but his poetry is also beginning to investigate the power of language in poetry to deny explicit meaning, to be precise about nothing more than itself, ‘and something ever more about to be’.

The language of the Prelude, or of Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’, seeks a mode for the inexpressible. Its clarity is a way of abdicating from the inexpressible mode of being that it also sustains. The clarity may be illusory, but the Romantic dawn and the Age of Reason unite to give it a great and naive confidence, so that the reader feels it is trembling on the verge of some great revelation, some breakthrough about the state of the universe and man’s nature. As this kind of poetry develops and survives throughout the 19th century and into our own day, it learns how to use the effect without any expectation of getting beyond the effect. Most, though by no means all, of Wallace Stevens’s poetry works on this principle. In Wordsworth the language of much of the Prelude is very different from that of a narrative poem like ‘Resolution and Independence’.

Criticism of poetry in American universities, dominated as it is by the writings on romantic effect of Bloom, Hartman, de Man and others, seems to have brought to an abrupt end the fashion for narrative poetry. Berryman and Lowell were the great contemporary narrators, compulsive tellers of stories about the self, and their style was sharply and wholly comprehensive, perfectly expressing what Berryman’s mentor R.P. Blackmur called ‘the matter in hand’, as well as ‘adding to the stock of available reality’. Such poetry invented the self as Keats invented his lovers in their winter castle, or Hopkins the wreck of the Deutschland, or Milton the loss of Paradise: it was indeed a comparable feat of inventive artifice. By contrast, Ashbery’s poetry, warmly admired by Bloom, perfectly illustrates Bloom’s own thesis that ‘the meaning of a poem is another poem.’

No question of adding to the stock of ‘available reality’. The poem succeeds if it creates the image of another poem, and so on ad infinitum, like the advertisement picture that contains a picture of itself. Clearly, the poem in my eye and mind is not the poem that Keats or Lowell or Ted Hughes wrote, however absolute and real an artefact it may seem to be: but this is like saying that I am not really seeing a coloured surface but only a refraction of atoms that gives the appearance of colour, etc. The truth of art is the truth of appearance, and its invention is like that of the eye inventing the object it sees. That, at least, is the art of inventive and narrational poetry. The ghost or shadow poetry of Stevens and Ashbery and others can equally claim the title of art, but it is based upon a different premise: that we can never see the object or the poem as it really is, never quite know what we see or see what we know. Such art is born from a uniquely American mixture of influences. The metaphysical climate of Coleridge’s, of Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s poetry is transmuted by Thoreau and Emerson. On the other hand, the scientific climate of physics and semantics destabilises the confidences of art: the American poet knows that nothing exists in its own self and that Heisenberg’s electrons cannot be objectively observed because the act of observation changes their nature. Such mental attitudes produce their own techniques, which rapidly become as conventionalised as any others in the history of poetry.

Ashbery has great skill in these conventions and something that can only be called charm, which has increased with each volume he has produced. The monochrome 16-line poems of Shadow Train have a great deal of charm, and an elegance of diction which can be heard by the inner ear reciting itself at poetry meetings on campuses, an elegance that mimes the act of evanescence, swooping on the 16th line to a vanishing point which echoes the dying fall in the alexandrines at the end of some of the stanzas of The Faerie Queene.

       In the time it takes for nothing to happen
The places, the chairs and tables, the branches, were yours then.

                                                            I mean
He can pass with me in the meaning and we still not see ourselves.

young people and their sweet names falling, almost too many of these.

Some of these sonnet-like poems have a deftly suggested ‘inside’ to them, as in a Mannerist picture. Ashbery’s long poem ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ dealt in great apparent detail with the Parmigianino self-portrait in Vienna, described with admiration by Vasari.

       ‘Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself for that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers ...
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass.’

The implications of this, for space and time, absorbed Ashbery; and he spent hundreds of delicate lines apparently talking about them.

The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.

We see only postures of the dream,
Riders of the motion that swings the face
Into view under evening skies, with no
False disarray as proof of authenticity.

The tone is of a pastel Stevens, a mildly camp Eliot, yet it has a sureness and confidence of its own, however much we seem to have heard before what it seems to say. The artist’s eyes in the mirror proclaim

That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.

The poetry gently nibbles at an old paradox. Art is appearance, but while inventive, storytelling art ignores this and gets on with its invention and story, Mannerist art pauses, circles and remains, enchanted by the beauty of the paradox itself, ‘the pure/Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything’. This kind of art is intent on the detritus of living that takes place beyond the enchanted glass, as if Keats, having launched the owl huddled in its cold feathers, and the hare limping through the frozen grass, had gone on to talk about the ordinary evening he was having in Chichester, Sussex. The paradox gives way to another. The strange thing about ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ is that the more we become absorbed in its tale, its invented truth, the more conscious we are of Keats leading his ordinary life in and around the poem. A very vivid inventive art, in fact, has it both ways: leading us into the story, and also into the being of the storyteller. By dwelling on the precariousness of its existence in the midst of life a Mannerist art such as Ashbery’s causes both to fade into nothing on every instant and at every word, like the grin of the Cheshire cat.

But that is the point of the business. The art of fading in this way is a perfectly genuine one, like Sylvia Plath’s attribution to her poetry of the art of dying. It is an art to suggest that ‘Tomorrow is easy but today is uncharted,’ that the people who come into the studio, like the words that come from the poet’s mind, influence the portrait and the poetry, filter into it

                until no part
Remains that is surely you.

Everything, says the poet, merges into ‘one neutral band’, surrounding him on all sides ‘everywhere I look’.

And I cannot explain the action of levelling,
Why it should all boil down to one
Uniform substance, a magma of interiors.
My guide in these matters is yourself.

Parmigianino, that is. The poet cannot explain, but he can suggest how poetry can now be made, not of course out of the things themselves, but by speaking of

The small accidents and pleasures
Of the day as it moved gracelessly on,

and of how

What should be the vacuum of a dream
Becomes continually replete as the source of dreams.

In one of the most satisfying moments of the poem the consciousness both of life and of art is seen as in the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.

Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up
Its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape.

And the poet concludes:

Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since
Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed?
Something like living occurs, a movement
Out of the dream into its codification.

Something like living occurs; something like art occurs. Although his range is wider than all this might suggest, Ashbery founds the substance of his verse on the ideas explored in ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, and this is particularly true of the sequence of poems in Shadow Train. But a further dimension has been added: the ‘magma of interiors’ now proffers the notion of a drama, the shadow of a story. We write it ourselves, of course, according to the Bloomian recipe that the meaning of a poem is itself another poem, the recipe that is both entailed on the Deconstructionists and repudiated by them.

Not that Ashbery is in any true sense related to or influenced by these still contemporary intellectual fashions, although their leading exponents admire his work. His other ‘ideas’, as embodied in his extended prose poems (Three Poems, 1970), some of the pieces in The Double Dream of Spring, in his elegant little plays and in A Nest of Ninnies, the novel he wrote with James Schuyler, have more in common with those of the French aesthetes Bachelard and Blanchot. One of the good things about Ashbery is that he never seems in the forefront of the fashion. Three Poems, not one of his more successful works – prose poems are not his forte – has the rather passé air which is both deft and comfortable in his best poetry but somehow not right in prose.

You know that emptiness that was the only way you could express a thing? The awkwardness around what were necessary topics of discussion, amounting to total silence on all the most important issues. This was our way of doing.

Maybe it was, but Ashbery’s presentation of experience does not lend itself to manifesto. The important issue for a poet like Larkin is what he has to say, and if he has nothing to say he is silent. Ashbery, on the contrary, gets going when he has nothing to say. The absence of a theme is what he both starts with and describes. ‘The poetry talks about itself. That is mainly what it does.’

Poets who say such things are usually in fact evangelists who want their poetry to change our lives. Like any other bien pensant of the game, Ashbery has given interviews and spoken of the ‘pleasure of poetry that forces you back into life’. Such protesting too much means very little, although there is an odd kind of truth involved. Certainly this poetry is not a substitute for life, offering, as the magic of inventive poetry must do, an alternative drama. When Ashbery begins a poem with the line ‘A pleasant smell of frying sausages’ or (in inverted commas) ‘Once I let a guy blow me. I kind of backed away from the experience,’ we know that an anecdote or drama, with Auden’s or Larkin’s narrative punch, will not follow. And yet the absence of a drama in some of the poems of Shadow Train is also its presence. A good example is the poem called ‘Drunken Americans’. Like Wallace Stevens, Ashbery uses rather chunky, bizarre or coy titles, laid-on-the-line invented positives that seem not to connect with the negatives of the poem but to offer a kind of jaunty fiction for its dumb metaphysics. These titles ‘see through’ the inventions of living day by day, in which this moment is life but so was the last one. The two moments connect: Ashbery says he likes the ‘English’ spelling ‘connexions’. In ‘Drunken Americans’ the poet sees a reflection in the mirror, a man’s image

                                                       fabricating itself
Out of the old, average light of a college town;

and after a bus trip sees the same ‘he’ ‘arguing behind steamed glass,/With an invisible proprietor’. These glimpses and moments have some importance to the poet that is unknown to the reader: it appears to prompt the reflections of the second two quatrains.

            What if you can’t own
This one either? For it seems that all
Moments are like this: thin, unsatisfactory
As gruel, worn away more each time you return to them.
Until one day you rip the canvas from its frame
And take it home with you. You think the god-given
Assertiveness in you has triumphed
Over the stingy scenario: these objects are real as meat,
As tears. We are all soiled with this desire, at the last moment, the last.

Something obscurely moves in the poem, and perhaps moves us, but what is it exactly? The intensity of vision in an alcoholic moment, which is yet not intense but merely watery and distasteful until the will and the ego assert themselves in an act of artifice which is also an act of destruction? ‘Tears’ mutely and significantly represents the will to believe that something has happened; the ego lives by meat and tears, and desires its moments to seem as real as they are. What the ‘something’ is may be suggested in the next poem, entitled ‘Something Similar’, in which the poet gives a colour photo, ‘to be sweet with you/As the times allow’.

It is a very oblique way of suggesting romance. But then this poetry seems not to wish to own anything, not even the words for the moments of which it is made up. The sonnetlike form recalls, perhaps intentionally, the mysterious drama in the Shakespearean sequence. But there is a difference, apart from the obvious one. No one would claim that our lack of knowledge is Shakespeare’s actual specification in what he is writing. There is something ‘true’ in there, even if – particularly if – it is being invented. But Ashbery is a poet who stylises into apparent existence the non-events of consciousness, sometimes contrasting them in a rather witty way with the perpetual work of art that consciousness has to make up as it goes along. As he wrote in a poem called ‘No Way of Knowing’,

                                It has worked
And will go on working. All attempts to influence
The working are parallelism, undulation, writhing
Sometimes but kept to the domain of metaphor.
There is no way of knowing whether these are
Our neighbours or friendly savages trapped in the distance
By the red tape of a mirage. The fact that
We drawled ‘hallo’ just lazily enough this morning
Doesn’t mean that a style was inaugurated.

The feel of the poetry is compulsive enough for us to see life for a moment the Ashbery way, as the young Auden once made us see it his way. Auden’s world of spies and significances, solitary women and derelict works, distilled from its excitingness in the Thirties the absolute authority of a new fashion. Much more muted, Ashbery’s manner has some claim to be the new voice of the late Seventies and today, replacing the old-fashioned directness of life-studies and confessions. He depresses the properties of early Auden to give his own version of a new sense of, and employment of, time, of alienation as amiability.

Someone is coming to get you:
The mailman or butler enters with a letter on a tray
Whose message is to change everything, but in the meantime
One is to worry about one’s smell or dandruff or lost glasses –
If only the curtain-raiser would end, but it is interminable.
But there is this consolation:
If it turns out to be not worth doing I haven’t done it;
If the sight appals me, I have seen nothing ...

Those lines from ‘Grand Galop’ skilfully synthesise the minatory style of Auden with Larkin’s stylisation of the non-life that we are vaguely conscious of mostly leading. Ashbery has since slowed down into more elegant and friendly kinds of pseudo-precision, somehow reminiscent of a campus art-shop, Virginia Woolf’s shadow features on a clean tee-shirt, like the Turin shroud.

Yes, but – there are no ‘yes, buts’.
The body is what all this is about and it dispenses
In sheeted fragments, all somewhere around
But difficult to read correctly since there is
No common vantage point, no point of view
Like the ‘I’ in a novel. And in truth
No one never saw the point of any.

Tell that to Henry James. The sonnet poems of Shadow Train have something of the Jamesian absence of specification, of events suggested which, as in The Turn of the Screw, are not intended by the author to have taken place either one way or another. But James’s absence of solution is not the absence of a story. Ashbery’s popularity, like that of Virginia Woolf, which has proved so durable throughout the fashion changes in America, is connected with the air of being too helpless to organise a story.

               It connects up,
Not to anything, but kind of like
Closing the ranks so as to leave them open.

Helplessness is a pose: the real thing is hard to turn into an art that makes it seem authentic. What is most impressive about Ashbery’s poems is their tactile urbanity, the spruce craft of their diction, which, like James’s prose, becomes more enjoyable and revealing, in and for itself, each time one makes one’s way through it.

Moreover, a typically modern kind of intimacy grows out of the very absence of what one conventionally understands by that quality. It is an odd paradox that Ashbery as an American poet is more ‘shy’, more distant in his manner, than any English equivalent of comparable talent writing today. This kind of good taste, a poetic version of ‘Wasp’ characteristics, is a comparatively recent phenomenon in American poetry. Nothing could be more different, for example, from the gamy, compulsively readable anecdotage of late Berryman, in Love and Fame. Robert Creeley (much derided by Berryman), Richard Wilbur, Robert Bly and A.R. Ammons share something of this verbal standoffishness, but Ashbery is better at it than they are and uses it in more diverse and interesting ways.

The question remains whether it is not in some respects a way of escape from the reader, a means of teasing him or amusing him in order to avoid saying anything of real interest. Wasps have good manners, but not necessarily that completely personal perception and utterance – the two fused together – which in the context of modern poetry produces something really interesting. The point is of some significance, for English poets today tend to be braver than Americans in fashioning their view of ‘the matter in hand’, even though usually without thereby adding to ‘the stock of available reality’. I take this at random from a recent review:

On Saturday morning a drove of joggers
Plods round the park’s periphery
Like startled cattle fleeing
The gad-fly spectre of cholesterol.

That is the poet actually speaking to us, in an old-fashioned, mildly witty manner, in a way that Ashbery, for all his colloquial ease (‘Yes, but – there are no “yes, buts” ’), would never dream of doing. The quotation above makes it clear, rather depressingly so, that the poet lives in just the same world that we do. Though Wordsworth called himself ‘a man speaking to men’, his experiences and the words he put them in are unique, by definition quite different from ours: no one else has had them or could utter them. And by that criterion Ashbery is a very genuine poet.

Yet there remains a discrepancy between his expression and what is personal to his vision: the first is wholly his own, the second – if he inadvertently lets us catch sight of it – can seem very second-hand. Larkin never writes a poem in which the two do not coincide, and that gives his vision its compelling directness. It is possible to get the impression that Ashbery may take some little shared cliché – the loneliness of urban America, or the contingency of its appearances – and very carefully work this up until the poem stands unique and upright by virtue of its own indistinct distinction. ‘Märchenbilder’ shows how successful the process can be.

How shall I put it?
‘The rain thundered on the uneven red flagstones.

The steadfast tin soldier gazed beyond the drops
Remembering the hat-shaped paper boat that soon ...’

That’s not it either.
Think about the long summer evenings of the past, the queen anne’s lace.

The poet’s own vision enters and transforms the fairy-tale but is too homeless to reside within its pat invention.

Es war einmal ... No, it’s too heavy
To be said.

Saying, for Ashbery, requires the lightest and most evasive of touches. His poems hate to be held down; his style seems to have trouble sometimes with its own simplicity. This is shown by the opening of ‘City Afternoon’, a poem that ties itself to a famous photograph which shocked American sensibilities in the Thirties, a snap of pedestrians waiting for the lights to change, their features significantly empty of the American dream.

A veil of haze protects this
Long-ago afternoon forgotten by everybody
In this photograph, most of them now
Sucked screaming through old age and death.

But the poem disappears into the photograph. It is instructive to compare it with that masterpiece of invention, Larkin’s poem on looking at a young girl’s photograph album.

Shadow Train is composed of poems that repeat with an appropriately greater faintness Ashbery’s gift of his own version of this negative capability. There is something soothing about poems that do not assert themselves, but vanish in performance into what they appear to be about. Since the days of The Tennis Court Oath (1957) and Rivers and Mountains, the poems have become steadily clearer and more simple, more effective at distancing themselves from the self-consciousness of the ‘poetry scene’. And that means much in terms of their originality and their quality. Like other good modern American poets, Ashbery has been careful to keep Englishness out of his voice: instead of it one can hear the French tone (he spent ten years studying in France), the Italian of Montale, something, too, of the later Mandelstam in translation and of more recent Westernised Russian poets, such as Brodsky. But these international overtones have produced a voice that can be heard reading itself in a purely and distinctively American context.

The point is of some significance in terms of the contrast between Englishness and Americanness in the contemporary poetic voice. The usually positive and robust reality of what the English voice is saying is often let down (as in the four lines I quoted above) by a fatal over-presence. The poem has exposed itself, and is caught there on the page in all its unavoidability of being. Keats, most English of English poets, has this kind of reality at its best, but the permanence can be embarrassing if the poem has failed quite to make it (in the nature of things, not many can) and has to stand for ever on the magazine page or in the collection, all its shortcomings honestly revealed. Still more revealed, on the radio or at a reading, by the exposed and exposing tones of the English poetry voice. That could never happen to Ashbery. He avoids definition as America does, in the ‘No Way of Knowing’ which is one of his titles. In a poem he once made a joke of it, referring to English writers:

They’re so clever about some things
Probably smarter generally than we are
Although there is supposed to be something
We have that they don’t – don’t ask me
What it is.

Ashbery’s poetry, the later poetry especially, shows what it is with a singular felicity. What his poetry does is finely told in a sentence from ‘A Man of Words’:

       Behind the mask
Is still a continental appreciation
Of what is fine, rarely appears and when it does is already
Dying on the breeze that brought it to the threshold
Of speech.