Remember the Yak

Michael Robbins

  • Planisphere by John Ashbery
    Carcanet, 143 pp, £12.95, December 2009, ISBN 978 1 84777 089 9

It’s been two years since the last one, so it must be time for a new book of poems by John Ashbery. Like the old James Bond films, Ashbery’s late instalments arrive punctually, and you buy your ticket knowing what to expect: a suave cartoon with ridiculous gadgets, clever one-liners and last-minute escapes. ‘So Long, Santa’, the penultimate poem in Ashbery’s previous collection, A Worldly Country (2007), worried that ‘it will come round again/and we won’t be ready.’ Planisphere begins with the lines: ‘Is it possible that spring could be/once more approaching?’ Forever bowled over by the same old thing, finding difference in repetition, Ashbery is the Duracell bunny of American poetry.

The bunny is getting rather long in the tooth – Ashbery turned 83 in July – and he has been writing the same book for more than 15 years. Each new model struts gorgeously down the runway, a bit aloof, a bit silly, and the critics can’t tell them apart. The New York Times’s reviewer found 2005’s Where Shall I Wander ‘both deeply familiar and more than a little strange’; the Philadelphia Inquirer considered A Worldly Country to be ‘strange’ but also ‘much of the time very familiar’. Publishers’ Weekly’s review of Planisphere notes that ‘as in his last several books, there’s nothing entirely new,’ but ‘the poems are almost always satisfying and strange.’ As Ashbery himself put it in Flow Chart: ‘We all go often to a place we are familiar with,/though it seems strange and uncompromising.’

Ashbery’s singular achievement is to have made his strangeness so familiar. Critics sometimes appeal to the concept of defamiliarisation to describe his technique – Shklovsky’s making the familiar strange – but in fact he has spent his career doing the opposite. His bizarreries have been so influential, and have had such great critical success, that something like the following, from ‘This Incredible Tapestry’, can now seem almost ordinary:

Sure, he towelled, if it is this
fair way that answers up to you, you may dismiss the vowels
because one does not remember the yak that does not immediately
remember one. One does not scan the roads for politeness
or contribute to the desert economy. And lo
what he said became true for everyone
on earth and there was no parallel imagining.

This sort of genial nonsense has been Ashbery’s default mode since Hotel Lautréamont (1992). But he didn’t get to be the most celebrated American poet of the last 50 years by writing about not remembering forgetful yaks. Reviewing Notes from the Air (2007), a selection from the later poems, Langdon Hammer suggested that ‘Ashbery’s writing, whatever else it is about, is usually about other writing.’ This is a common claim, and it sounds smart, but one could just as easily say that Ashbery’s writing is usually about perceptual states, or language itself, or consciousness. It is about all these things because it is about the experience of having subjective experience: Ashbery’s poetry is about aboutness. (This is an obscure way of putting it, but Ashbery’s ways are obscure.)

Because he recognises that poetry is a vehicle for thinking about mental action, his poems live in the history of poetry the way a turtle lives in its shell. Though he has always had a goofy side, Ashbery also used to be our great explorer of the interior, diving into the cognitive wreck and returning with weird phenomenological salvage:

The conception is interesting: to see, as though reflected
In streaming windowpanes, the look of others through
Their own eyes. A digest of their correct impressions of
Their self-analytical attitudes overlaid by your
Ghostly transparent face.

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[*] Being Numerous by Oren Izenberg will appear from Princeton early next year.