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John Ashbery: Some Personal Reflections

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Part 1:

Stephen Burt, a poet and Harvard professor of English, has compared the now famous poet John Ashbery(1927- ) to T. S. Eliot, calling Ashbery "the last figure whom half the English-language poets alive thought a great model, and the other half thought incomprehensible." Ashbery's ncreasing critical recognition by the 1970s transformed him from an obscure avant-garde experimentalist into one of America's most important poets, though still one of its most controversial.

I am in the group who has always and at least, thusfar, found him incomprehensible. He and his work intrigue me more and more since I first came across him while teaching English Literature in the 1990s to matriculation students in Perth Western Australia and now, in these years of my retirement from the world of FT, PT and casual-paid employment: 2006 to 2014.

The play of the human mind, which is the subject of a great many of his poems, is also the subject of my poems. Ashbery once said that his goal was "to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about." I, too, find it difficult to talk about his poetry, but I talk about what others say and have written about his work because I find their talk, their writing, throws light, in an indirect sort of way, on my pieces of poetic-writing.

Part 2:

John Ashbery's poetry 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. My poetry is also about my subjective experience, but in quite a very different sort of way to Ashbery's. Both he and I recognise 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. I am not sure how my poems live in the history of poetry. Time will tell when I leave this mortal coil; for now, though, I and my work are as obscure in the fame and celebrity world as Ashbery's poetry is obscure in popular culture.

Though he has always had a goofy and difficult side, Ashbery is one of the great poetic explorers of the human interior, diving into the human cognitive wreck and returning with weird phenomenological salvage. On the cover of his second, highly disjunctive, book, The Tennis Court Oath, he announced: ‘I attempt to use words abstractly, as an abstract painter would use paint.’

That book of poetry came out in 1962, the year I wrote my first poem at the age of 18. That same year I: entered matriculation studies, brought my eight year baseball, hockey and football careers to an end, went a little further in the intimate world of sex than I had done to that point in my adolescent life, and began my travelling-pioneering life for the Canadian Baha'i community.

Part 3:

Not a straightforwardly autobiographical or confessional poet, Ashbery has kept his real self withdrawn from the poems. Both W.H. Auden and Marianne Moore, with their ironically projected and protected poetic personae, have been important in this respect and they are acknowledged by Ashbery as major influences. Ashbery clearly does not revel in self-promotion.

Although I do not aim at self-promotion, my work is explicitly autobiographical, and mildly confessional. Ashbery’s poetry has always accepted the aspiration of music toward a degree of formal perfection and toward maintaining an air of making sense without incurring the obligation of any particular meaning. That is also part of the aim in his poetry.

Helen Vendler, the famous poetry critic, sees the development of ‘poetry’ as a form of re-negotiation of the self’s relationship with shifting ‘reality.' She is interested in the nature of renegotiation itslef rather than in the terms arrived at in the end. Vendler says that most contemporary American poetry wants to offer ‘an interior state clarified in language’.

In Ashbery’s case the wordage trembles with a perpetual delicacy that suggests meaning without doing anything so banal as to actually attempt to introduce meaning and narrative, direction and purpose. Poetic syntax for Ashbery is constructed to express, with a certain intensity, a notion of the meaningful. But it does not actually convey any meaning. My poetry, too, is a continuous renegotiation of self with the shifting reality of existence, although I do not eschew meaning.

Part 4:

Ashbery’s poetry is warmly admired by that erudite Harold Bloom(1930-), the American literary critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. Ashbery's work perfectly illustrates Bloom’s own thesis that ‘the meaning of a poem is another poem.’ The ghost or shadow poetry of that other famous poet of recent times, Wallace Stevens, as well as Ashbery among others, can equally claim the title of art, but that claim is based upon the premise that: we can never see the object or the poem as it really is; we can never quite know what we see or see what we know.

Such art in modern times is born from a uniquely American mixture of at least two influences: (i) the metaphysical climate of Coleridge’s, of Wordsworth’s and of Shelley’s poetry as transmuted by Thoreau and Emerson; and (ii) the scientific climate of physics and semantics which has de-stabilised the confidences of art. The American poet knows that nothing exists on its own and in its own self; 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 other attitudes in the history of poetry.

Part 5:

John Berryman and Robert Lowell were great contemporary poetic narrators who I came across long before Ashbery; they were compulsive tellers of stories about the self, and their style was sharply and wholly comprehensive, comprehensible, and perfectly expressing what Berryman’s mentor R.P.
Blackmur called ‘the matter in hand’, as well as ‘adding to the stock of available reality’. This is not where Ashbery is at. His stories do not add to the stock of available reality and, if it is argued that they do, they do so in a highly complex and highly convoluted way.

I have begun to read Ashbery's prose, and I've had much more success with it than with his poetry. Ashbery's art criticism has been collected in the 1989 volume Reported Sightings, Art Chronicles 1957-1987, edited by the poet David Bergman. This prose came onto the market just as I was settling-down to teaching a range of humanities subjects at a Polytechnic in Perth Western Australia.

I have no intentions of trying to read his novel, A Nest of Ninnies. I have never been a novel reader at the best of times, and especially not now in the evening of my life. I do not intend to have a look at his several plays which he wrote in his 20s and 30s, three of which have been collected in Three Plays (1978). Ashbery's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University were published as Other Traditions in 2000.

A larger collection of his prose writings, Selected Prose came out in 2005. I'm on my way through these works. His poetry volume Where shall I wander? appeared in 2005. In 2008, his Collected Poems 1956–1987 was published as part of the Library of America series. But they will both go unread.-Ron Price with thanks to 1several reviews of Ashbery's work in the London Review of Books, 28/11/'14, and 2that useful encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

Part 6:

Some people find my poetry
strange but, compared to this
work of John Ashbery I'm as
clear as the sun at noon-day.

I, too, have been writing for a
half a century, but, compared
to this poet, I am an unknown
poet about as obscure as this
poet's incomprehensible work.

Some find him maddeningly some diarist
with an intriguing charm &
an elliptical text with some
psychic history implicit in
his multitude of metaphors.

He is like an autobiographer
in an abstract form telling us
where we are and where he is.
Sadly, he's so indecipherable
in his obscurity; he perplexes,
neither serenades nor comforts,
provides no vision or chronicle
of our time as he thrives on the
oddities, slang, slogans, jargon
of our age, difficult to penetrate.1

1 Helen Vendler, "The Democratic Eye," The New York Review of Books, 29/3/'07. This is a review of A Worldly Country: New Poems by John Ashbery.

Ron Price
29 November 2014