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.

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