Making sense

Denis Donoghue

  • A Wave by John Ashbery
    Carcanet, 89 pp, £4.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 85635 547 X
  • Secret Narratives by Andrew Motion
    Salamander, 46 pp, £6.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 907540 29 5
  • Liberty Tree by Tom Paulin
    Faber, 78 pp, £4.00, June 1983, ISBN 0 05 711302 5
  • 111 Poems by Christopher Middleton
    Carcanet, 185 pp, £5.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 85635 457 0
  • New and Selected Poems by James Michie
    Chatto, 64 pp, £3.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2723 6
  • By the Fisheries by Jeremy Reed
    Cape, 79 pp, £4.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 224 02154 0
  • Voyages by George Mackay Brown
    Chatto, 48 pp, £3.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2736 8

In ‘A Wave’, the title-poem of his new collection, John Ashbery says, among many other things:

One idea is enough to organise a life and project it
Into unusual but viable forms, but many ideas merely
Lead one thither into a morass of their own good intentions.

The reference to ‘one idea’ recalls the passage in ‘Esthétique du Mal’ where Wallace Stevens dismisses

                                     the lunatic of one idea
        In a world of ideas, who would have all the people
Live, work, suffer and die in that idea
In a world of ideas.

The cure Stevens prescribes for the illness of living by one idea is to hold many ideas with nearly equal nonchalance, enjoying the exhilaration of changing one’s mind according to one’s mood; and, in convalescence, to promenade around the lake of Geneva. Ashbery’s advice is to disavow any connection between having ideas and staying alive. Making sense shouldn’t be regarded as an immediate issue or a technique for discovering privileged places in which the mind can rest. ‘It’s fun to scratch around/And maybe come up with something,’ but the something shouldn’t have the stability in which words take pleasure:

                                         But for the tender blur
Of the setting to mean something, words must be ejected bodily,
A certain crispness be avoided in favour of a density
Of strutted opinion doomed to wilt in oblivion: not too linear
Nor yet too puffed and remote.

Travelling not too hopefully, for such a poet, is better than arriving. Sense, however arduously made, is always trivial, and vulgar in thinking itself superior:

                                                Isn’t this ‘sense’ –
This little of my life that I can see – that answers me
Like a dog, and wags its tail, though excitement and fidelity are
About all that ever gets expressed?

A Wave gathers about forty recent poems and prose-poems, and ends with the title-poem, a long meditation which readers may want to compare with Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in an Convex Mirror’ and ‘Fantasia on “The Nut-Brown Maid” ’. The origin of ‘A Wave’ may be the passage about dreams in ‘Self-Portrait’: ‘They seemed strange because we couldn’t actually see them ... ’ As in ‘Self-Portrait’, Ashbery’s style is loose-limbed, musing, discursive unrhymed verse, the lines of varying length but mostly long, as of someone drowsing at twilight, murmuring to himself and enjoying the state of not being interrupted. His sentences are propelled by no duty other than that of steering the mind past lucidities it would rather not meet. Ashbery’s poetry has always accepted the aspiration of music toward formal perfection which maintains an air of making sense without incurring the obligation of any particular meaning. He values ‘the kind of rhythm that substitutes for “meaning” ’. For him, long poems are spaces to move about in, like a big canvas for the painters he admires, site of many gestures which are not troubled by the fact that they are all the same. No analogy with drama is appropriate; or with oratory. What makes Ashbery’s procedures distinctive is that while his common form is a monologue and might be maintained even if the speaker were on Mars and Earth did not exist, he doesn’t claim any authority for its tone. Nothing of Yeats’s rhetoric inhabits these poems. Ashbery doesn’t command his experience. Nor does he submit to it. He prescribes the formal condition upon which he responds to whatever happens: a monologue in which conscientiousness keeps allowing for rival accounts of the same thing. But he doesn’t claim that his procedure covers the case, or is at all adequate to its provocation:

But I don’t mind. I feel at peace with the parts of myself
That questioned this other, easygoing side, chafed it
To a knotted rope of guesswork looming out of storms
And darkness and proceeding on its way into nowhere
Barely muttering.

Ashbery is an aesthete of the provisional perception which ‘belongs where it is going/Not where it is’. He is especially gifted in sensing states of feeling which don’t claim to coincide with states of being: it is enough that the reader senses the process of musing and doesn’t claim to apprehend the shapes it seems to take. No wonder Ashbery refers to the wind as ‘something in which you lose yourself/And are not lost’; and that, as if continuing where one of Stevens’s moods left off, he writes:

                                              By so many systems
As we are involved in, by just so many
Are we set free on an ocean of language that comes to be
Part of us, as though we would ever get away.
The sky is bright and very wide, and the waves talk to us,
Preparing dreams we’ll have to live with and use. The day will come
When we’ll have to. But for now
They’re useless, more trees in a landscape of trees.

I take ‘useless’ to be a term of pleasure. Responsibilities may begin in dreams, as Yeats and Delmore Schwartz mused: but such a beginning can be eluded, Ashbery takes pleasure in assuming. There is time yet. ‘Not until it starts to stink does the inevitable happen.’

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