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If you’re interested in John Ashbery — and why wouldn’t you be? — you probably read the profile on him that was recently published in the New York Observer. The best part, the part that had the most to say about his poetry, came about a third of the way into it, with the writer, Michael H. Miller, describing his visit to Ashbery’s Chelsea apartment. “He was wearing a button-down shirt and slacks,” Miller recounts, “and offered a sad smile when he said, ‘Forgive me for not getting up. I have mobility issues.’ He spat out the last words like he held the diagnosis against his doctor. Outside it was drizzling, and he looked out the window at Manhattan as if he were sizing it up.” And no wonder, for as Ashbery writes in “Gildersleeve on Broadway,” one of the poems in his new collection Quick Question,
Suddenly the most dismissive sky retains
a coy aura the cellar can’t fathom
or undermine. If it was spring these telltale
shards of old snow artfully scattered
beside one’s path would make sense, perhaps.
But it’s not the untrustworthy nature of Gotham weather, or the poet’s skeptical way of appraising what it might bring in its wake, that I want to call attention to here, relevant as all that certainly is to the sense of his art. What stands out for me in this passage from the profile is Ashbery’s use of the euphemistic phrase “mobility issues” — his way of accepting this odd usage as a piece of found contemporary language while at the same time making it strange. This, I think, gets to the heart of Ashbery’s poetry, and it’s telling that for him it is not just a purely literary artifice but part of his everyday conversation. What Wordsworth called “the gaudiness and inane phraseology of … modern writers” — and more than one jaundiced critic has indeed seen Ashbery in such terms, as what the poet himself in “You What?” calls “fanciful verbal frottage or tegument” — is really nothing but “a selection of language really used by men” (and women), so that the Romantic poet’s dichotomy between artifice and sincerity is hardly tenable in its original form; what Ashbery shows is that in modern poetry — “underperforming texts,” to borrow a phrase from his poem “Far Harbor” — sincerity can only be attained by passing through the banal peculiarity of everyday speech. At the end of the introduction to his ground-breaking 1969 anthology The Poets of the New York School, John Bernard Myers recalled a drive in Amagansett with Elizabeth Bishop. As they passed a roadside dive called The Enchanted Cottage, “’Enchanted?’ she cried, ‘Enchanted?? One more word I’ll never be able to use again!’” His point, of course, was that the aesthetic — or better, maybe, to call it the ethic — of poets like Ashbery (and of successors like some of the poets associated with language writing and, in spades, those who go under the moniker of flarf) is just the opposite: When a piece of language has been degraded in this way, that’s exactly when it especially comes into the poet’s purview. In Ashbery’s poems, mock Jacobeanisms jostle slang from the screwball comedies of the forties and the latest management-speak, but mostly the shadings are harder to sort out.
I don’t know if Ashbery has ever admitted an enchanted cottage into his poetry — there is none in Quick Question — but a lot of mobility issues are evoked. “Just being washed out to sea, bashed around” — as the first line of “Marine Shadow” has it — that’s a mobility issue, isn’t it? Likewise when “The stranger walks toward the children, who walk / into the sky,” as in “Laundry List,” or when “The drive was smooth / but after we arrived things started to go haywire, / first one thing and then another,” in the opening poem, “Words to That Effect,” or when “I am forced to sleepwalk much of the time” (“The Short Answer”) or “wobbling like a retroactive timetable / among the tent’s embers, amen” (“False Report”). In general, you could say that Ashbery’s poetry is all movement and always problematic, the only constant “In all my years as a pedestrian” (“This Economy”).
The question is, though, whether the zigzags and meanderings, feints and stumbles of linguistic motion in these poems should be interpreted or simply observed. The first is certainly always possible, if not necessarily convincing, if only because of our inherent tendency to attribute some minimal semantic coherence to any cluster of words if at all possible. Sometimes it can really be said, as in “Viewers Will Recall,” “We gathered our threads into an equation.” But as often as the structure of Ashbery’s poetry seems to count on this tendency, it is also happy to daintily undermine it — perhaps what in “Suburban Burma” he calls “a higher vandalism.” Seriousness swerves into goof. He seems to be reflecting on the way his work has been received by what I guess I have to call establishment criticism when he writes, in “The Bicameral Eyeball,”
I told you not to be a gnat
about things, that sooner or later worrying would grow up
to become part of experience. It was just that you
seemed to believe me when I wasn’t being especially serious.
On the other hand, of course, it could be me who’s believing a not-especially-serious statement now — seriousness in poetry, this kind of poetry anyway, not necessarily being a matter of statements. The “I” in a poem is, not exactly a Cretan liar, but anyway a Cretan confabulator, an honest liar; besides, as in those modernist musical scores that have a different time signature in every measure, in Ashbery’s poetry the words in every line can seem to have been signed by a different persona, enunciated from a different cultural register.
It’s fair to ask what all this adds up to, and Ashbery often does, as in “Postlude and Prequel”: “Is it all doggerel and folderol? A cracked knowledge? / Monkey journalism?” A yes-or-no answer may not be forthcoming, but there is still the assurance that at least
This is better than the other overlooked good
that dried up a while back and whispers.
The results, if any, won’t last too much longer
and meanwhile I am on my way to correct you
about the tickets and their availability.
We pitch and stiffen, elbowed by traffic mysteriously
descending the other lane of the avenue
as lamps burst in many-benched Central Park.
I’m not sure whether the “overlooked good” that “whispers” in this poem would be those same “cold pockets /Of remembrance, whispers out of time” that we met in 1974 in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”; but the eerie New York is certainly that same ghostly city, at once Rome and Vienna and New York, of which he wrote there,
it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant.
The consistency of Ashbery’s art across some forty years of writing may seem to contradict the mercurial nature of its movements from line to line, but the resolution of this paradox lies in how his poetry never fails to ask the question that opens the last, untitled poem in Quick Question — and perhaps this question is the quick one of the book’s title, rather than any of the several that pop up in the poem of the same name: “Can we start again?” Again,
The messenger is waiting for a reply,
but there is none, only a tattoo
from the cloud motet, signifying
the waiting has ended.
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