September 7, 2017
Remembering John Ashbery: “But night, reserved, reticent, gives more than it takes.”
by Ian Dreiblatt
The world lost one of its most accomplished writers this weekend, and one of its most beloved, when the American poet John Ashbery died at his home in Hudson, NY, just a couple weeks after celebrating his ninetieth birthday.
Ashbery may have been his country’s best-known living poet, and was for sure one of its most celebrated. While his influence is ubiquitous, he’ll always be associated with the New York School, a term borrowed from the New York art scene to describe a small circle that also included Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch. All but Schuyler had gone to Harvard, all but Koch were gay, and all loved French surrealism and modern art.
Ashbery’s first big break as a poet came in 1956 when W.H. Auden awarded him the Yale Younger Poets Prize, a prestigious honor that includes publication of a young writer’s first book. That book, Some Trees, would include several of the poems by which Ashbery is still known, including “The Instruction Manual,” which begins, “As I sit looking out of a window of the building / I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal,” and “Glazunoviana,” which ends, “In the flickering evening the martins grow denser. / Rivers of wings surround us and vast tribulation.” It’s marked by a kind of ground-floor lyricism (“These accents seem their own defense,” Ashbery says in the title poem), but also a disjunctive, deconstructive impulse, a tendency toward collage, cut-up, and other surrealist techniques.
Ashbery’s second book was 1962’s The Tennis Court Oath, and, while there were lyrical passages, the impulse toward disjunction had largely taken over. In “The New Realism,” he writes:
The bars had been removed from all the windows
There was something quiet in the way the light entered
Her trousseau. Wine fished out of the sea — they hadn’t known
We were coming relaxed forever
We stood off the land because if you get too far
From a perfume you can squeeze the life out of it
One seal came into view and then the others
Yellow in the vast sun.
In all, Ashbery would write more than twenty-five books, including the collections Three Poems (1972) (the poems, true to counterintuitive form, have the appearance of prose), Hotel Lautréamont (1992), and Your Name Here (2000), the long poems Flow Chart (1991) and Girls on the Run (1999), and the novel A Nest of Ninnies (1969), co-written with Schuyler. His most treasured collection is probably 1975’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The title poem, based on Parmigianino’s seventeenth-century painting of the same name, begins as a reflection on that work:
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.
Gradually, the poem reveals itself to be a self-portrait by Ashbery in the convex mirror that Parmigianino’s painting becomes. Simultaneously a work of art criticism, self-portraiture, and oblique lyricism, each tendency braided together with and extending the others, it’s a work of huge power, an epistemological meditation on seeing and relating that doubles as a meticulous portrait of I-as-an-other. Later in the poem, Ashbery addresses Parmigianino by his given name, and refers to the right hand that sits at the front of the painting:
Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand,
Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,
The shield of a greeting, Francesco:
There is room for one bullet in the chamber:
Our looking through the wrong end
Of the telescope as you fall back at a speed
Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately
Among the features of the room, an invitation
Never mailed, the “it was all a dream”
Syndrome, though the “all” tells tersely
Enough how it wasn’t. Its existence
Was real, though troubled, and the ache
Of this waking dream can never drown out
The diagram still sketched on the wind,
Chosen, meant for me and materialized
In the disguising radiance of my room.
Ashbery’s writing is marked generally by a serious interest in artifice, play, and constraint. He brought about a revival of interest in long-forgotten forms by his own deep engagement with them, sans polemic — “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” from 1970’s The Double Dream of Spring, for instance, is a sestina about Popeye; he also wrote sonnets, villanelles, pantoums, and more. He was a fellow traveler (though never a member) of the Oulipo, with whose members he shared a self-identification as the aesthetic progeny of Raymond Roussel, the French writer whose texts often resulted from elaborate procedures and extended puns.
The son of a farmer, Ashbery was unpretentious, his tone flat, his interests hardly rarefied — he loved hoaxes and pranks of all kinds, kept up with some celebrity culture, listened a lot to the radio. The scholar Jaspar Bernes has championed a view of Ashbery’s earlier diction evolving in step with the changing language of white-collar employment, a prolonged critique of managerialism that models a “necessary, if inadequate, buffer against the vicissitudes and intensities of the changed workplace.” His work frequently affiliates itself, tenderly, with the vulnerable — Girls on the Run, for example, takes place in the ominous world of outsider artist Henry Darger, whose lush watercolors follow a cast of innocents called “the Vivian girls” through idylls that turn without warning into nightmarish scenes of torture:
We aren’t easily intimidated.
And yet we are always frightened,
frightened that this will come to pass
and we are all unable to do anything about it, in case it ever does.
So we appeal to you, sun, on this broad day.
You were ever a helpmate in times of great churning, and fatigue.
You make us forget how serious we are
and we dance in the lightning of your rhythm like demented souls
on a hospital spree.
Ashbery’s tendency toward abstraction, frequent shifting of humors, and overall disinclination to seriousness earned him plenty of detractors, too. In the nineties, New Formalist critic Mark Jarman took to calling him “Emperor Ashbery” (as in “has no clothes”). New Criterion writer Robert Richman griped in the early eighties that his poems were “endless linguistic copulation” that might “destroy the enterprise of art altogether.”
That is, of course, stupid—endless copulation is a bad thing?—but more importantly it misses the point. Ashbery’s most usual compositional material is the situation of writing a poem itself: a stream of attentions drifting or rushing along, maybe interrupted by something from another writer or artist, sounds from the street, perhaps the radio. Sometimes the phone rang. Possibly the sky darkened. Rather than presenting the fiction of a cohesive and stable self, Ashbery’s work reveals the shifting, changeable motion of a mind made of language, as contingent on the material conditions of the human world as some trees on an uncertain wind.
Nothing is less reminiscent of John Ashbery’s poems than the gusty critical arguments they inspired. Sometimes droll, sometimes excitable, sometimes sunset- or fresco-beautiful, his work is everywhere a plainsong of the unsurvivable, hilarious world we actually live in. That that world sometimes fleetingly coalesces out of our enveloping chaos is evidenced by art — poetry, painting, music. The stolen intimacy of his voice feels complete and yet provisional, always receding in the moment we accept it. As he writes in “America,” “the light falls from heaven / love / parting the separate lives.”
The dadaist Tristan Tzara, another of Ashbery’s influences, once wrote a series of instructions for producing a collage poem out of totally random words, and ended it by saying, “The poem will resemble you.” In their insatiable joy, endless oddity, plainspoken elegance, covert protectiveness, and vigorous refusal to be bored, John Ashbery’s poems very much resemble the gentle and good-humored person who stepped outside of painterly perspective for the last time this past Sunday.
To take first things last, as seems appropriate, he grew up in Rochester, lived mostly in New York and the Hudson Valley with spells in France, is survived by his husband David Kermani, and will be sadly, urgently missed.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.