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A few months ago in the New Yorker, essayist John McPhee recalled an exchange with his editor at Playboy in 1970, Arthur Kretchmer, about whether to remove a certain reference in a draft he’d submitted — an adaptation of the phrase “port out, starboard home,” an apocryphal etymology for the word “posh” — because it would fly far above the heads of all but the tiniest fraction of its audience. McPhee pleaded, Kretchmer yielded, and Playboy’s readers were momentarily puzzled. The anecdote makes me think of John Ashbery, and not only because “port out, starboard home” is the sort of phrase one encounters in an Ashbery poem, perhaps even as its title. In an interview given just before the publication of his new collection Breezeway, Ashbery recounts conceding to critic Harold Bloom that a reference to one Mr. Salteena in the book’s opening poem will be almost universally opaque: “Probably one in four million people knows who Mr. Salteena is.” Bloom, annoyingly, announces himself to be that single nodding head among four million blank stares.
(Just in case you’re one of the four million, I’ll let Ashbery explain the reference. From his remarks in Interview: “Mr. Salteena is from a wonderful book called The Young Visiters written around the turn of the [twentieth] century by a 9-year-old girl named Daisy Ashford — the subtitle is Or, Mr. Salteena’s Plan. It’s about a beautiful young girl named Ethel who goes to live with Mr. Salteena, a bachelor who’s 42 years of age and likes the company of young ladies. I forget what the plot is but I have a copy of it somewhere. It’s actually a lovely read.”)
Essayists work under different rules than poets, who are not expected to write crystalline sentences or to avoid ambiguities. But McPhee’s insistence to say something exactly as it took shape in his head, reader be damned, shows the underlying kinship between the journalist granted the occasional indulgence and a poet like Ashbery, whose writerly game is indulgence (in the sense of aesthetic pleasure, without the puritanical connotations of decadent excess), his allusions and private references running riot across the page. (When I reviewed Ashbery’s Chinese Whispers in 2002, I was sent not bound galleys but a xerox of a typescript with a few copyeditor’s queries, which, amusingly, were bizarre and beside the point.) Writers, like all of us, carry around a lot of quirky, trivial, nostalgic, random, or otherwise hard-to-classify stuff in their heads, and who are we as readers to deny them this reserve fund, even if we can ever only partially share their frames of reference? Over the decades we’ve watched Ashbery romp through precincts that he has made peculiarly his own, and the freedom he flaunts lies at the core of his work’s more lasting pleasures. In some sense his poetry amounts to neither more nor less than his singular frames of reference; his art emerges from the interplay between the transcription of what’s filtering through his mind and his shaping of this material into poetic form.
In Breezeway, the poet stays true to all the myriad voices and echoes lighting up his brain. As he tells us in “By Guess and By Gosh,” “You get Peanuts and War and Peace, / some in rags, some in jags, some in / velvet gown.” His idiom here, while hardly modest, is not formally expansive: the poems’ surfaces are usually flat, and the transitions between clauses and sentences can sever as much as bind. Yet this jagged ambience is home to an excess of consciousness. Quoting Henry James on a first-name basis in “The Sponge of Sleep,” he reflects on his own process: “Be one of those on whom nothing is lost, advises Henry. / Well, OK. I’m awake. No problem / that I can that I can see, unless it’s running out of raw material.”
For Ashbery there appears to be no alternative to such Jamesian awareness short of dying — the cessation of “raw material” — and it’s fun to see where his receptivity leads him, even if he sometimes seems merely to be monitoring the buzzing hive of the present. We can observe his loose application of Rimbaud’s dictum “One must be absolutely modern” in his willingness to include unavoidable twenty-first-century signifiers such as “OMG” and, yes, the Kardashians — albeit paired with and thus dismissed by the Elizabethan stage direction “Exeunt,” surely a first despite the oceans of ink spilled on them. But at the same time a contrary undertow reels us back into byways of history, sampling the chipped-paint signposts of lost Americas, their bygone Mr. Salteenas and others of his ilk. Ashbery is always in the contemporary world but not quite of it, because he has other worlds to inhabit, or at least to conjure or salvage: the present is just one of the many sectors that make up the historical multiverse of his poems.
The channeling of such worlds seems to be of greater importance than anything the poet might say in a more personal or intimate voice. Ashbery has never much been given to overt self-disclosure in his poems, and when he uses the personal pronoun (as he frequently does) we often can’t be sure who precisely is meant to be speaking. In sexual matters he has shown a particular reticence, something he addresses — the reticence, not the sex — in the poem “Queer Subtext,” which by its very title (making “subtext” mere text) mocks the notion that we might usefully bring Ashbery’s homosexuality into the light to understand his poems. It begins: “I’m really not into the past, a zoo. / Really not. Why are you doing that for me?” By the end the sense of misrecognition in the eyes of others has ballooned to absurd proportions, by way of “Amazing Grace”: “Supposedly I’m president! A wretch like me! // I hadn’t heard the word.”
Yet even as he disperses and obscures his persona among his poems, Ashbery asserts himself as their presiding spirit. Amid the easygoing cadences, the cheerful veneer of much of the language in Breezeway — indeed, its breeziness — there are utterances that suggest deeper matters: specifically the diminishments of aging and the proximity of death. These poems, after all, come from a man in his mid-eighties, as we are reminded by scattered references to doctor’s appointments, emergency rooms, medicine, and physical ailments, though these are not made specific and are not lingered on (“Stay off that leg,” ends one poem; others conclude, “The nurses are getting nervous” and “I can’t tell the doctor about it”). The past is close at hand (“Any day is yesterday / one of Dad’s geraniums / no more than a foot away”) but the storm clouds of obsolescence, including one’s own, are threatening: “OK, I said it. Sarabande. A dance nobody dances anymore. Except maybe in heaven, where they don’t have better things to do.”
Ashbery has said that his experience of an actual storm, Hurricane Sandy, provided the background for the collection’s title poem, one of its best. Certainly it contains one of the book’s most memorable lines, however plain: “We have to live out our precise experimentation.” For Ashbery, who writes with such intelligence and sensitivity but tends not to make grandiloquent pronouncements about his art, this might serve as a kind of credo. His poems can be loose and disheveled, so the precision referred to here suggests not meticulous exactitude but rather a commitment to one’s particular, idiosyncratic approach to poetry, and to life itself. With his tenth decade now in view, Ashbery’s faithfulness to such ongoing experimentation shows little sign of abating.