Learning to Read (with) John Ashbery




MOSTLY, MY MFA EXPERIENCE was devoid of the type of hair-raising, vaguely erotic workshop tête-à-têtes that everyone says exists at places like Iowa and Columbia: mostly, we were kind to one another; mostly, there was no furtive barroom comparison of bruises. Mostly, we drank and wrote okay poems and stories and sometimes we published them. Mostly, our professor-gurus watched over all of this at a benevolent distance. There was one exception. We had an instructor, a longtime lecturer in poetry, who would regularly leave workshop participants in tears. He asked us to bring in some of our favorite contemporary poems on the first day of class and then spent half of that class telling half of us that the poems we brought in weren’t even worthy of the name. A couple of years later, he kind of mangled my thesis by making it unpublishably short. I couldn’t stand him. I liked him very much.

He introduced me to John Ashbery.

Not literally. [1] I wrote something for workshop (what, I have no idea), and on the bottom of it, he scrawled one comment: see Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. A possible guide? Ever the eager student, I bought the book online, and a few days later, the slim, orange-spined volume showed up at my door. I wish I could remember what I did then. I want to say I read the first poem, “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat,” which begins with that indelible line “I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free,” and then skipped to the title poem. It took me three tries — at least — to get through its 16 pages. I didn’t know what I was reading. “As Parmigianino did” what, exactly? As it turns out, as Parmigianino read. Read his own face, his hand, his pen in his hand. As he gazed with “a combination / Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful / In its restraint that one cannot look for long.” As he read his reflection, so did Ashbery read his painting. I read Ashbery reading this painting, and as I read Ashbery reading, I, too, started to figure out what it meant to read.

Lots of people are going to say lots of things about John Ashbery in the coming weeks. All of them will probably be true [2]: there is almost no sphere of contemporary American poetry that has not been touched by the sheer, weirdly offhand power of his verse. Over the past 40 years, the MLA Bibliography alone has indexed over 400 pieces of work on Ashbery, an astonishing number when one considers the relatively small slice of the academic literary critical pie taken up by the study of recent American poetry. A lot of that writing, in some ways, is preoccupied with trying to figure out what exactly it is that preoccupies us so much about his work. Is it his secret gay vocabulary, as John Shoptaw would have us believe? Is it his ability to “wander away” from capitalism, per Christopher Nealon? Is it the way, as Brian McHale has written, in which he slotted so neatly into “postmodernism,” that phenomenon that we all now seem to agree was vaguely embarrassing? Is it because there is an Ashbery for nearly every taste, from Auden-adjacent to Steinian? All of this and more, of course. Ashbery endures, I think, because he constantly reminds us of the pleasure and the necessity of analysis: when I say that Ashbery taught me how to read, what I mean is that he showed me how powerful unabashed intellection — the reading of the world — could be in (excuse me) “creative writing.” He’s a theorist’s poet for this reason. Academics and writers and public intellectuals and students read Ashbery so insistently precisely because Ashbery reads himself incessantly. His work, in its gorgeous thinkiness, validates in turn our eternally unfinished acts of reading.

It is by now a critical cliché to mention Ashbery and Wallace Stevens in the same breath; Harold Bloom cracked the champagne bottle on that particular ship and we’ve been sailing on it ever since. Bloom is extremely wrong about a great many things. Nevertheless, there are indeed obvious continuities between the two poets, foremost among them being a type of talky, philosophical inquisitiveness that is at once elevated and plain. Compare Stevens, in “Man Carrying Thing”:

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived

Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt …

To the opening of Ashbery’s monumentally long poem Flow Chart:

Still in the published city but not yet
overtaken by a new form of despair, I ask
the diagram: is it the foretaste of pain
it might easily be? Or an emptiness
so sudden it leaves the girders
whanging in the absence of wind,
the sky milk-blue and astringent? We know life is so busy,
but a larger activity shrouds it, and this is something
we can never feel, except occasionally, in small signs …

Both poets perceive a needling duality about the world: the fragments that form our lives (our jobs, our perceptions, hell is other people, et cetera) and the “larger activity” or “obvious whole” that lies beyond it, toward which the poet is writing, writing, writing. Ashbery is, predictably, less convinced about that wholeness than Stevens; if it’s there, we feel it only “occasionally,” in “small signs.” And his conversational peregrinations — oh, hello, please sit down, I was just mulling over the concept of totality — are less lecture-like than Stevens’s declarations about what poetry must do. But that rigorous curiosity — What will cause me pain? What constitutes emptiness? — is left whole in the poem, in all of its discursiveness and abstractness. And that, one could say, is Ashbery’s modernist inheritance, one that was never bulldozed by “postmodernity” per se but instead infused with a deep suspicion about the ability of his language to sidle close to his desires. Ezra Pound, alas, was never unsure of himself. Ashbery practically made a career out of it.

Indeed, what sets Ashbery apart is his gentleness, almost bashfulness, about all of this searching: Flow Chart is awash in questions, two of which just as an example are a huge description of the speaker reading a magazine when a sandstorm blows up (“…how did I know it was zeroing to this ungainly end, not see any danger signs, not shut off the hose?”) followed by: “Is it that I’m sort of a jerk?” Are we jerks for having the time and the space to inundate those around us with our sandy thoughts about temporality? Maybe. Are we jerks in those moments that we relish that role? Probably. But is that constant searching, which Ashbery did in his poems rather than before he wrote them, also the glue that (very tenuously, at this moment) sticks us to the real? Also probably. That real might constantly be receding in front of us, “[t]his event rounding the corner” as Ashbery puts it in “Grand Galop,” but if we fail to chase it, we sink into oblivion. Sometimes that sounds just fine. But at the end of the day, we know better.

It’s a tenuous “we” I’m building here; I know it. Ashbery was never enormously cozy with his more academic readers: while he was appreciative of Bloom’s championing of his work, on a whole he regarded the literary critical enterprise with mild suspicion. But then again, so do literary critics. Who among us, for instance, has not lamented the tendency for academic prose to “bury [its] / agenda in interleaving textualities and so / bring the past face-to-face with [its] present”? These lines come from a later poem, “Today’s Academicians” (in 1995’s Can You Hear, Bird), and any longtime reader of Ashbery will find their eyes rolling a little bit at them: after all, Ashbery is here describing an Ashbery poem. But therein lies a crucial point: an awareness of his own observational tendencies, and his own form of nostalgia, dogs Ashbery’s poems just as surely as a mild-to-moderate uneasiness dogs the intellectual worker. We spend a lot of time acting sure of ourselves. Sometimes (oftentimes) too sure. But at the same time, we’re all trying a little bit to get out from under our various elitisms.

Ashbery’s later poetry tries almost too hard to do this, revels almost too much in its “gee willikers!” performance of nonchalance. It’s why a lot of the excerpted bits of verse you’ll see in our collective mourning will be from the ’70s and ’80s, those earnest decades in which Ashbery’s poetry hummed with a desire to crack the code of itself. As in “The Lament Upon The Waters,” from Houseboat Days: “The problem isn’t how to proceed // But is one of being: whether this ever was, and whose / It shall be.” Grappling with his own sudden arrival (Houseboat Days was published right after Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which won him the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and the National Book Critics Circle Award), Ashbery wonders aloud what the consequences might be of being read: “whose,” in other words, the work is now. As an art critic, Ashbery knew all about the handling/mishandling of other peoples’ creative issue. When the art was his own, he put his own Foucauldian anxieties right into the text, leading to sublime moments of autoanalytic thought: “Something between breaths, if only for the sake / Of other and their desire to understand you and desert you / For other centers of communication, so that understanding / May begin, and in doing so be undone.”

What Ashbery has given to poetry is decades of wielding this kind of abstraction like a sword, its edges honed just as sharp as any photographic image. It doesn’t make reading his poetry any easier, oddly enough. But it does make the work feel, in a way that is now a banality of poetry criticism in part because of him, as if one is reading alongside the poet. If this seems like an unnecessary observation, as in of course it’s discursive, a huge proportion of poetry nowadays is kind of discursive, that too is because of the sheer size of the shadow that Ashbery casts. He has, I would argue, made hundreds of poets better readers of their own work, and in the process, made them better poets. My old MFA instructor might have been a curmudgeon in many damaging ways, but I have a tendency to look past all of them because of this.

Is it even possible to adequately remember a poet who, in his ceaseless pursuit of a chink in the armor of temporality, reinvented himself with nearly every book? “One feels too confined,” he writes in “Self-Portrait,” “sifting the April sunlight for clues, / In the mere stillness of the ease of its parameter. The hand holds no chalk” — and in this sudden schoolroom image, we are reminded that there is no final authority, not even Ashbery’s. It’s what separates his love poems, of which there are so many, from someone like his friend Frank O’Hara’s: Ashbery could be as just as irreverent, but his was the more roiling, shifting intellect. As in “The Ongoing Story”: “Your realness is real to me though I would never take any of it / Just to see how it grows.” The real as a drug: it’s one Ashbery won’t take, but in his not taking it, he moves us all closer to it.

A few years ago, I was visiting Vienna, and in the Kunsthistorisches Museum I stumbled upon Parmigianino’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror. A note that the painting was in the collection was in the informational pamphlet in my bag, but I’d somehow missed that fact, and so coming upon the painting was a surprise. I stopped and blinked at it for a while, delighted and filled with a kind of heaviness. Like the Mona Lisa, Self-Portrait is smaller than you’d expect — barely the size of a volleyball. But it is breathtaking in the combination of its softness and almost startling realism. Ashbery, of course, was right: Parmigianino’s hand really does read as both an invitation and as a shield. So it is, too, with any person committed to delineating the structures of the world around us, how they aid and hinder our growth as free, thinking beings. Our desire to read the world protects us and makes us vulnerable. Ashbery’s reading of the painting was the one I had by heart, and so I stared at the hand, willing my soul to establish itself.

¤

Kimberly Quiogue Andrews is assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Washington College. A poet and a literary critic, her recent work in various genres has appeared or is forthcoming in publications ranging from The Missouri Review to New Literary History. She lives in Maryland.

¤

[1] My literal introduction had happened some years earlier, when I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University and my writing instructor, Christine Perrin, sprinted through a downpour while hauling me by the arm to get us to the Baltimore Museum of Art, where Ashbery was reading. I lost a shoe in the process — a sodden sandal, which broke as I was running. The place was packed. I understood that he was very important. I only had one shoe on.

[2] Matthew Zapruder’s claim that “it is easy to say incorrect things about Ashbery’s poetry” notwithstanding.


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