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Ashbery, John

Insofar as John Ashbery has a group affiliation as a poet, it is with the New York School of Poets, populated by Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, and Bernadette Mayer, among others. These are witty, erudite, urbane, and profoundly urban poets whose work is at once about the place, New York City, and written according to its pace. It is ironic, then, that Ashbery, born on 28 July 1927 in Rochester, New York, grew up in a white wood house on an apple farm outside the small town of Sodus, located in the western part of the state. More than seven decades later, Sodus's population hovers below ten thousand, and its Chamber of Commerce advertises such special events as bowling at Papa Joe's restaurant; the town's Web site features a mere three photos of its scenic areas, mostly water scenes, including one of a Boy Scout sailboat near Sodus Point.

Ashbery has said that he was lonely and unhappy on the farm and with his father, so he lived for a time with his grandparents in Rochester, a city most famous for being the home of Kodak. Ashbery's father was a carpenter and his mother a science teacher; he had a brother who died at nine. As Ashbery writes in The History of My Life (from Your Name Here, 2000): “Once upon a time there were two brothers. / Then there was only one: myself.” He was educated at Deerfield Academy, in rural western Massachusetts, then at Harvard University (B.A. degree, 1949) and Columbia University (M.A. degree, 1951). Less formally, his education took him from country to city and then back again, from Sodus to Cambridge to New York City to ten years as a freelance art writer in Paris, from 1955 to 1965, and back to New York City. He lives there and in the small town of Hudson, New York.

Yale Younger Poet: Poems of the 1950s

While Ashbery's first published poems were printed in Poetry Magazine, they were not published under his name but under that of a roommate at Deerfield who later became a realtor. Fearful that he would be considered a plagiarist, Ashbery did not for many years submit more work to the magazine, one of the few poetry publishers in the country at that time. At Harvard, which he attended in the late 1940s along with Frank O'Hara, Robert Creeley, Adrienne Rich, Donald Hall, and other later-famous poets, Ashbery worked on the Advocate, a literary journal that provided a place for his and his friends' work. He and O'Hara formed a friendship that would remain close until O'Hara's premature death in 1966, and the latter's casual use of colloquial American English was to have an influence on Ashbery's own rendering of the demotic. Also, O'Hara and Ashbery were rivals for the attention of W. H. Auden, who selected Ashbery's volume, Some Trees (1956), for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956 over O'Hara's work after threatening not to give the prize to anyone.

Some Trees is a highly self-conscious book whose author was obviously immersed in visual and poetic art. Many of the poem titles refer to kinds of writing: Popular Songs, Eclogue, Pantoum, Sonnet, Canzone, A Long Novel, Sonnet, and A Pastoral. While the tone of the work is at times stern—the first line of the first poem, Two Scenes, for example, echoes Marianne Moore's most moralizing tendencies with “We see us as we truly behave”—the book itself does not altogether behave well. Consider the poems called Sonnet. These poems are wrought of fourteen lines, as they should be (John Hollander's Rhyme's Reason [1981] gives the reasoning behind this form), but they otherwise disobey rules kept even by Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, Hart Crane, and other twentieth-century poets. The first Sonnet discards rhyme, beginning:

  • Each servant stamps the reader with a look.
  • After many years he has been brought nothing.
  • The servant's frown is the reader's patience.

Not only does Ashbery's form diverge from that of the traditional sonnet, but the content of this poem surely astonishes an American reader accustomed to the American line of democratic poets from Whitman through Frost. For one thing, there is the servant, and then there is the rapid tumble into obscurity as the poem ends—not with a Shakespearian final judgment, but with something more tenuous: “Dear, be the tree your sleep awaits; / Worms be your words, you not safe from ours.” Typical of most Ashbery poems, this one concludes by saying at once too little (if the reader likes clarity) and too much (by following standard English syntax without rewarding its usual cause-and-effect logic). Death and poetry are allied here, as one might expect, but it is not clear who the “dear” is, or where servant or tree fit into a larger narrative structure.

The second sonnet in Some Trees follows some idiosyncratic rules, even as it pokes fun at the regularity they foist upon the poet. Note the incessant rhymes of the opening:

  • The barber at his chair
  • Clips me. He does as he goes.
  • He clips the hairs outside the nose.
  • Too many preparations, nose!

The poem concludes by shifting focus from the expected barber to the razor, from rhyme to what one might call clipped-off rhyme:

  • To be the razor—how would you like to be
  • The razor, blue with ire,
  • That presses me? This is the wrong way.
  • The canoe speeds toward a waterfall.
  • Something, prince, in our backward manners—
  • You guessed the reason for the storm.

There had been a “raincoat” in the first octave of the sonnet, which explains “the storm” at the end of the sestet. Otherwise, again, one has the feeling of plenty amid the playful diminishment of this traditional form, a plenty that is more postmodern than modern, unanchored as it is from the very traditions it mocks.

Better-known poems from this first unself-published collection (Ashbery had himself published Turandot in 1953) include The Instruction Manual, an imagined tour of Mexico, and the somewhat autobiographical The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers, based as it is on Andrew Marvell's The Picture of Little T. C. in a Prospect of Flowers. While this last poem includes such lines as “In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer,” clearly unassociated with a biographical Ashbery, except perhaps very tangentially, it ends with a self-reference (to the photograph), which is also a statement of poetic principle. It bears lingering on this statement, since it marks an early instance of what might be called Ashbery's poetic criticism. (He writes it almost exclusively within poems, not without them.) It also offers an example of Ashbery's version of autobiography, more like Gertrude Stein's Everybody's Autobiography (1937) than like Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959). He asserts that he “cannot escape the picture / Of my small self in that bank of flowers,” a picture that is, through time's “emulsion” (as he will call it later on), less serious than comical:

  • so I am not wrong
  • In calling this comic version of myself
  • The true one. For as change is horror,
  • Virtue is really stubbornness
  • And only in the light of lost words
  • Can we imagine our rewards.

The shift from “comic” self to “horror” is swift, perhaps unexpected, but typical of Ashbery, for whom nostalgia is at once sustenance and terror, marking as it does the constantly inconstant passage of time. Like Yeats, Ashbery has always been a poet of old age, even as he has explored his (and our) progress toward it, stage by stage. Here, in his twenties, he can only imagine “reward” as “loss.”

The Sixties: The Tennis Court Oath to Rivers and Mountains

Ashbery's second volume, The Tennis Court Oath (1962), written in France, is either his greatest work (judging by enthusiastic responses by members of the school of Language poets, including Charles Bernstein, who proclaimed the book a “critique of clarity and transparency”) or a “fearful disaster” (if one listens to Harold Bloom, otherwise Ashbery's most prominent supporter). While the techniques and experiments employed by the poet in creating many of the poems in this book were avant-garde (cut-ups and collages, for example), his intentions consisted of what is called the “New Realism” in the book. Of Leaving the Atocha Station he has commented: “The dirt, the noises, the sliding away seem to be a movement in the poem. The poem was probably trying to express that, not for itself but as an epitome of something experienced; I think that is what my poems are about.” His emphasis on the “not for itself” of language, of experiment, explains why Ashbery has not retained his following among Language writers; his work post-Tennis Court Oath has been more engaged with meaning than with arbitrary form, with experience more than with the disruption of it.

Yet in this book, as Andrew Ross argues, “we are shown how and why language has nothing at all to do with unmediated expression, except when it chooses to voice parodically the fallacy of such an idea.” Thoughts of a Young Girl, like many Ashbery poems, appears to promise a story, then fails to deliver it. This fairy tale–like setup begins with a quotation attributed to “The Dwarf” and ends with a first-person call to “My sweetheart, daughter of my late employer, princess,” without offering a context in which these two voices speak the same sense. They Dream Only of America tells what seems to be a detective story, but then lapses not into anticipated answers but into questions:

  • Now he cared only about signs.
  • Was the cigar a sign?
  • And what about the key?
  • He went slowly into the bedroom.

Of course the signs alluded to have more to do with psychoanalysis than with a crime scene marked by “the murderer's ash tray.” The Tennis Court Oath was published by Wesleyan University Press but was otherwise hardly noticed on Ashbery's home turf. He has said that he never anticipated having an audience for his poems, and this book would seem to validate that fear. As he writes in The History of My Life, published in Your Name Here (2000): “I thought of developing interests / Someone might take an interest in. No soap.” Soap, cigar, the signs were not visible to the poetry audience of the early 1960s, but Ashbery toiled on, even as he wrote art criticism for the Herald Tribune in Paris, work that is included in Reported Sightings: Art Chronicle, 1957–1987, published by Knopf in 1989.

Ashbery mediated between his own extremes—that of spare formal aestheticism and avant-garde experiment—in his next book, Rivers and Mountains (1966). When reading a later book of Ashbery's, one encounters a style that had its origins in Rivers and Mountains and is characterized by spells of meditation, by a very American vocabulary and rolling syntax, and by a roving “I” who may also appear on the poetic stage as “he” or “you” or “one.” This volume also features two of Ashbery's long poems (Clepsydra and The Skaters), a form to which he has been drawn over and again through the years. Throughout the book, his use of form is more playful than pedantic; in the title poem he plugs in one river per line, beginning “Far from the Rappahannock, the silent / Danube moves along toward the sea,” ignoring conventional geography as he goes. The Skaters includes cutout work, along with Ashbery's contemplative interventions, including interludes about “system,” a concern that reappears at greater length in his Three Poems (1972).

  • Inventing systems,
  • We are a part of some system, thinks he, just as the sun is part of
  • The solar system.

This from a poet perhaps the most consistently antisystematic of American poets of the twentieth century. And from one of the most romantic, this swat at Shelley, at Keats:

  • The west wind grazes my cheek, the droplets come
  • Pattering down;
  • What matter now whether I wake or sleep?

Ashbery and the Romantic Inheritance: The 1970s

Ashbery's complicated relationship with the romantic tradition lies at the center of his next book, Double Dream of Spring (1970), a book featured on Harold Bloom's contemporary poetry reading list at Yale around 1980. Bloom is among the most positive and powerful of Ashbery's promoters; he is also the self-appointed guardian of romantic traditions (both European and American) in American poetry. Hence, a poem like Evening in the Country can be read as a remake of Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey, a poem in which the past is recollected quite happily (Ashbery's poem launches with the line, “I am still completely happy”). Perhaps he protests too much in this opening, but the poem does celebrate “the new sign of being,” describing the poet “refreshed and somehow younger,” despite “the incredible violence and yielding / Turmoil that is to be our route.” The book is full of such paradoxes as “violence and yielding”: in Soonest Mended, Ashbery writes of “action, this not being sure, this careless / preparing,” and Spring Day begins not simply with “immense hope” but also “forbearance.” But, if Ashbery employs stereotypical romantic tropes, like “casements” and rural settings, in these poems, he also employs an undecidedly unromantic American vernacular. Decoy begins,

  • We hold these truths to be self-evident:
  • That ostracism, both political and moral, has
  • Its place in the twentieth-century scheme of things

and Definition of Blue starts with “The rise of capitalism parallels the advance of romanticism / And the individual is dominant until the close of the nineteenth century.” Here, a romantic veneer collapses into the patriotic, the political, the bureaucratic, the banal. This is perhaps appropriate in a postromantic work that directly addresses John Clare, not his more renowned contemporaries. In For John Clare, written in prose, in the voice of that marginal romantic poet, Ashbery calls into question the traditional landscape of romanticism, one where the poet finds himself, above all else, inscribed. Instead, “There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like. Being immersed in the details of rock and field and slope—letting them come to you for once, and then meeting them halfway would be so much easier.…Alas, we perceive them if at all as those things that were meant to be put aside.”

In his Norton Lectures on poetry, delivered in the early 1990s and published in 2000, Ashbery writes about how “Clare's modernity is a kind of nakedness of vision that we are accustomed to, at least in America, from the time of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.…” When he notes, further on, that “Clare's poems are dispatches from the front” rather than emotions recollected in tranquillity or in Keats's music, we see Ashbery carving out a place for himself somewhere between high romanticism and William Carlos Williams's “no ideas but in things” objectivism. As ever, Ashbery does not choose between polarities, he synthesizes them. Or, as he puts it in Soonest Mended, his is “a kind of fence sitting / raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.”

In 1969 Ashbery and his fellow New York poet (one also rural in his inclinations) James Schuyler published A Nest of Ninnies, a novel written collaboratively. This venture into prose traveled the camp world of the suburbs; as the jacket reads, “[it] masterfully dissects the discreet charm of an eccentric cross section of America's bourgeoisie.” This novel has never been considered central to the Ashbery canon, but his next venture into prose is one of the most significant works of his long career. It is Three Poems, a sequence of three prose meditations influenced by the mystical investigations of Renaissance writer Thomas Traherne. Three Poems was written during a crisis in Ashbery's psychic life, after his therapist recommended he read the mystics. In Three Poems, Ashbery's long, discursive poetic lines, developed in Rivers and Mountains and The Double Dream of Spring, jump loose into even longer prose sentences. It is as if his lyric poems had, quite literally, exploded; as he writes in The System, “one can almost hear the beginning of the lyric crash in which everything will be lost and pulverized, changed back into atoms ready to resume new combinations and shapes again.” Characteristically, the poet ventures into philosophical speculations that are quickly undercut. He writes of a world where ideas are evanescent, as are the systems we live by (whatever remains of them after world wars, after The Waste Land). Thus, at the beginning of the second meditation, The System, Ashbery writes, suggesting a city self that has broken into its constituent, more suburban and rural parts:

The system was breaking down. The one who had wandered alone past so many happenings and events began to feel, backing up along the primal vein that led to his center, the beginning of a hiccup that would, if left to gather, explode the center to the extremities of life, the suburbs through which one makes one's way to where the country is.

If the system is to break down, then the poet is confronted with a choice: whether, as he puts it on the first page of the book, in The New Spirit, to “put it all down” or to “leave all out,” which “would be another, and truer, way.” Ashbery opts slyly for the less true way, that of (seemingly) putting it all down. Where Eliot took the fragments he shored against his ruin and propped them up, leaving them fragmentary, Ashbery's prose suggests a lack of fragment (despite coming on the heels of Fragment, the last poem in The Double Dream of Spring), except in the excess that results from the explosion that inspired it. It is perhaps the very fullness of this book that makes it both Ashbery's own favorite and the most influential of all his books, as John Shoptaw points out in On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry (1994). While prose was not a widely used poetic form in the early 1970s, the 1980s and 1990s saw Language poets “filling their pages with prose they published as poetry,” Shoptaw observes. In 1975 Ashbery was nearly fifty years old and still labored in poetic obscurity (“poetic” and “obscurity” being synonyms in some parts). Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) changed that, garnering for Ashbery the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. This volume hardly marks Ashbery's venture into clarity, or the kind of lucidity that often earns the attention of the mainstream press. Instead, the prizes indicate that Ashbery had educated the poetry public, readers both traditional and experimental in their tastes, to his modes of writing. In a way typical of Ashbery's syntheses of his own tendencies, Self-Portrait's version of Ashberyese mediates between the prose of Three Poems and the lyricism of The Double Dream of Spring (and vice versa). The title poem of this collection, written in response to a painting by Parmigianino, argues that what is most important about works of art is not the finished product so much as the elusive activity occurring around its creation. “Is there anything,” the poet asks,

  • To be serious about beyond this otherness
  • That gets included in the most ordinary
  • Forms of daily activity, changing everything
  • Slightly and profoundly, and tearing the matter
  • Out of our hands

Self-Portrait is nothing if not a serious portrait of the ordinary world, and its language is plainer than that in any Ashbery book to this point, aside perhaps from the little-known collaboration with Joe Brainard, The Vermont Notebook (1975), published at nearly the same time by Black Sparrow Press in California.

While Self-Portrait opens with the romantic, nearly vatic, tones of As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat, which alludes to Andrew Marvell's poem about bad poets, it quickly loses that sheen. More typical than the opening line of this poem (“I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free”) are the following phrases, culled almost at random: “Puaagh. Vomit. Puaaaaaagh. More vomit”; “ ‘Once I let a guy blow me’ ”; “A pleasant smell of frying sausages”; and “I have not told you / About the riffraff at the boat show.” While Ashbery places the statement about the blow job in quotations, thus distancing himself from it, the homosexual (or “homotextual,” as John Shoptaw calls it) content of the poem from which it comes (“Poem in three parts: 1. Love”) is more direct than what has preceded it in Ashbery's oeuvre. As a young man, Ashbery had to inform the draft board of his homosexuality to get out of the Korean War; he did so at the beginning of the McCarthy years. The indirections in Ashbery's poetry, while not entirely because of the danger, for a gay man, of confession (which came into vogue among some heterosexual poets in the 1950s and 1960s), were doubtless rendered more desirable by it.

At this point in his career, Ashbery begins to respond to Harold Bloom's notions about poetry, as if to play with ideas that were, almost accidentally, making him famous. In Grand Galop, for example, he writes, seemingly cribbing his notes from a Bloom lecture:

  • And one is left sitting in the yard
  • To try to write poetry
  • Using what Wyatt and Surrey left around,
  • Took up and put down again
  • Like so much gorgeous raw material.

Very little in this book seems related to the work of Sir Thomas Wyatt or the Earl of Surrey, including the American vernacular Ashbery trucks in. So Ashbery's engagement with Bloom's “anxiety of influence,” whereby later poets “misread” earlier ones and write a thereby diminished version of the poems that were once possible, is an ambivalent one. He would engage Bloom agonistically again, and at much greater length, in his 1991 volume, Flow Chart. But for now, the attention he pays to what might otherwise be considered unpoetic material is itself an intervention in criticism as well as poetry. It is one that contravenes Bloom's vaunting of the romantic, of Ashbery as a follower of Wallace Stevens rather than, say, Gertrude Stein.

Two years after Self-Portrait, Ashbery published Houseboat Days (1977), a kind of separated Siamese twin of the previous volume. Here again, Ashbery ventures into commentaries about poetry; he was, by now, a professor of poetry at Brooklyn College, eager to give his students the definitions they demanded of poetry. So, in And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name, he writes: “You can't say it that way any more,” and asserts that

  • Something
  • Ought to be written about how this affects
  • You when you write poetry:
  • The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
  • Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate.

Houseboat Days continues Ashbery's pendulum sweep between romantic “casements” and Daffy Duck, between Street Musicians and The Nut Brown Maid. His style has settled into a poetic-prosaic mode, with poems “spoken” by a poet-translator adept in more than one poetic language, one level of diction, just as interested in Disney's America as he is in European art.

As We Know (1979) and Shadow Train (1981) rounded out Ashbery's poetic production of the 1970s. The 1979 volume featured a long poem, Litany, written in two columns, influenced by Elliott Carter's music for violin and piano. Again, Ashbery playfully engages the issues of literary criticism at the time, proclaiming in this, his seventh volume of the decade, that, “Alone with our madness and favorite flower / We see that there really is nothing left to write about.” Or rather, he continues in Late Echo, “it is necessary to write about the same old things / In the same way.” And again, as he had done throughout this prolific, marvelous decade, he writes poetry that is intellectually rigorous, meditative, intimately informal, and often funny, as in the punch last lines of The Other Cindy: “The contest ends at midnight tonight / But you can submit again, and again.” Shadow Train is a slighter work, in all senses of the term, but Ashbery can be seen experimenting with a sonnetlike, sixteen-line form in each of these poems.

Ashbery as Industry: The 1980s

In 1980 Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery, edited by David Lehman, became the first full-length book of criticism of Ashbery's work. It included essays by the Douglas Crase, Marjorie Perloff, John Koethe, Lehman, and other noted critics. Topics ranged from prophecy (Crase) to metaphysics (Koethe) to “Ashbery's Dismantling of Bourgeois Discourse” (Keith Cohen). Strangely, not until the mid-1990s, with the publication of John Shoptaw's On the Outside Looking Out and The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry (1995), edited by Susan M. Schultz, was so much published on his work.

Or perhaps it was not so strange. Ashbery is a prolific poet, one with whom it is difficult to keep pace. As soon as the critic sits down to write about his work, Ashbery has published another volume—or two. The relative lack of criticism stems not only from the difficulty of his work, the way in which the poems unravel the critic's claims even as they are being made, but also from the sense that one simply cannot stand still amid the constantly evolving work. A book like David Herd's John Ashbery and American Poetry, published in 2000, hardly addresses Ashbery's work after 1984's A Wave; while Herd suggests that Ashbery's work after the mid-1980s is not up to snuff, an arguably just statement, one also sympathizes with the difficulty of following Ashbery's work through to what is only today “the end.” Marjorie Perloff has written of the normalization of John Ashbery by mainstream critics and argued vociferously that Ashbery remains an experimental poet, hardly normal at all.

Indeed, Ashbery's work of the 1980s, A Wave (and the long title poem, which again argues Ashbery's relationship to romanticism) and April Galleons (1987) (with its constant allusions to fairy tales), does not so much transform Ashbery's oeuvre as elaborate it, or spin off from the strengths of his earlier work. There is an autobiographical force to the work in these years that remains abstract and understated, and yet that meditates more directly on “life” (see Fred Moramarco's chart of Ashbery's references to this concept in Schultz's Tribe of John) than any poems since Three Poems. A Wave foreshadows 1991's Flow Chart in its contemplations of life's (and a career's) possible shapes:

  • One idea is enough to organize a life and project it
  • Into unusual by viable forms, but many ideas merely
  • Lead one thither into a morass of their own good intentions,

he writes in the title poem. The use of a wave, more untenable than the somewhat more stable construction of a houseboat, suggests that Ashbery thinks such organizations cannot be maintained for long, that after “pass[ing] through pain,” one emerges always “on an invisible terrain,” as new as any encountered by the hapless Buster Keaton. Poems are like lives, Ashbery asserts,

  • And the new wondering, the poem, growing up through the floor,
  • Standing tall in tubers, invading and smashing the ritual
  • Parlor, demands to be met on its own terms now

The poem ends by promising only more questions, and compares walls to veils, which “are never the same.” Its last sentence, “But all was strange,” suggests a world of dream, yet one actively inhabited by the poet. Marianne Moore's real toads in imaginary gardens never had a better poet laureate than John Ashbery.

In April Galleons this anxiety, marked in the poem A Wave by the walls that are also veils, inspires, if only at one instant, directly autobiographical writing, or seems to. In Sighs and Inhibitions, Ashbery begins by rehearsing issues he had taken up in A Wave:

  • On the way life manages itself, though its beginning
  • And end seem clear enough as givens, as does
  • The quasi-permanent siesta of noon that our long day
  • Is fabricated of.

But life management has not always been so easy, has on occasion been desperate:

  • I remember in the schoolyard throwing a small rock
  • At some kid I hated, and then, when the blood began
  • To ooze definitively, trying to hug the teacher,
  • The boy, the world, into ignoring what I'd done,
  • To lie and thus escape through a simple
  • Canceling, not a confession, to wipe the slate clean
  • So as to inhabit another world in which
  • I bore no responsibility for my acts: life
  • As a clear, living dream.

What had been “a lie,” a “canceling,” has become, for the least confessional of contemporary poets, just that—a confession. This banal confession of ordinary childhood misbehavior is nearly shocking in the context of a life's work devoted to life, but not to the way in which it is tethered to the poet's ego. The work has been “as a clear, living dream,” but here we see it turned on end, so that the limpid poems we know are shown to come out of ordinary drama or trauma. Ashbery has defended escapism as a function of art, but here we see how escape comes out of an urgent need to escape from something. It makes sense, then, that this passage comes in a book full of fairy-tale motifs, and in which “The castle was infested with rats” (Savage Menace) and where “Even ghost stories are fairly prevalent, and about to be believed” (Dreams of Adulthood).

Perhaps the greatest reshaping of Ashbery's career in the 1980s occurred with the mid-decade publication of his Selected Poems (1985), which contained work from Some Trees to A Wave—and contained precious little work from The Tennis Court Oath. The more radical poems from that collection are missing, whereas A Last World and The New Realism suggest continuity, rather than discontinuity, in Ashbery's overall career. By contrast, Shadow Train is probably overrepresented.

Ashbery Normalized?: The 1990s and beyond

Ashbery's work of the 1990s, aside from the book-length meditation, Flow Chart, which eulogizes his mother even as it explores the shape (and shaping) of his poetic career, is largely written in one mode, which is thoughtful but often less persistently philosophical or meditative than Ashbery's work of the 1960s and 1970s. Where Ashbery had published only three books in the 1980s, along with his Selected Poems, in the 1990s he began publishing a book almost every year. Yet while there is a sameness to a lot of this work, there are still surprises, experiments, grand ideas. And the Stars Were Shining (1994) can be read as a colonial allegory:

I read Ashbery's latest volume, And the Stars Were Shining (at least in certain moods) as a colonial allegory, manipulated by Ashbery to his own ends. This allegory reads as follows: a famous American poet, wishing to write about his own inevitable decline and fall, uses his own position as an intellectual well-versed in European art, music and literature, to tell his story. The decline of the West is embodied (or disembodied) in the poet's decadence (or belatedness). In so doing, he reveals the extent to which Americans are still colonized by Europe, even as Europe ingests large quantities of American culture. And so Ashbery appropriates his own appropriation: “What! Our culture in its dotage! / Yet this very poem refutes it,” he proclaims. He becomes an odd colonist of the colonial.

(Schultz, 1994)

Can You Hear, Bird (1995), dedicated in part to Harry Mathews, features a table of contents done in alphabetical order, perhaps acknowledging Ashbery's Oulipo-ian friend's interest in rule-based poetry. Girls on the Run (1999) is based on the works of Henry Darger, who painted and wrote about little girls for much of his (secret) artistic life. Ashbery's Chinese Whispers (2002), much of it published in As Umbrellas Follow Rain (2001), continues Ashbery's ongoing meditation on old age, as in the poem In the Time of Pussy Willows:

  • My goodness, I thought I'd seen a whole lot of generations,
  • but they are endless, one keeps following another,
  • treading on its train, hissing.

History is not yet done with Ashbery. He has grown into a reputation larger than that of any other American poet of the late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first centuries. His influence is pervasive, if not to be heard in every poet's cadence. As Marjorie Perloff argues, John Ashbery's work cannot, finally, be normalized, even if it so often dwells inside confined domestic spaces. He has shown contemporary poets that there are yet poems to be written out of the “scraps” left by earlier writers. We may not know what will happen to his reputation in fifty or one hundred years' time. But to have had the experience of reading Ashbery, for the first, second, or third time is one of the great privileges of being alive at this moment, in and not out of time.

Selected Works

Some Trees (1956)Find this resource:

    The Tennis Court Oath (1962)Find this resource:

      Rivers and Mountains (1966)Find this resource:

        A Nest of Ninnies (1969)Find this resource:

          The Double Dream of Spring (1970)Find this resource:

            Three Poems (1972)Find this resource:

              The Vermont Notebook (1975)Find this resource:

                Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)Find this resource:

                  Houseboat Days (1977)Find this resource:

                    As We Know (1979)Find this resource:

                      Shadow Train (1981)Find this resource:

                        A Wave (1984)Find this resource:

                          Selected Poems (1985)Find this resource:

                            April Galleons (1987)Find this resource:

                              Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957–1987 (1989)Find this resource:

                                Flow Chart (1991)Find this resource:

                                  Hotel Lautréamont (1993)Find this resource:

                                    And the Stars Were Shining (1994)Find this resource:

                                      Can You Hear, Bird (1995)Find this resource:

                                        Wakefulness (1998)Find this resource:

                                          Girls on the Run (1999)Find this resource:

                                            Your Name Here (2000)Find this resource:

                                              Other Traditions (2000)Find this resource:

                                                As Umbrellas Follow Rain (2001)Find this resource:

                                                  Chinese Whispers (2002)Find this resource:

                                                    Further Reading

                                                    Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry. Manchester, U.K., 2000. Herd is an English critic, writing for what is usually considered to be a skeptical audience. His book covers Ashbery's career from the beginning through 1984, more or less dismissing everything that comes after. Less a book on Ashbery and American poetry than on Ashbery and writers who influenced him, including Boris Pasternak, it is most valuable, perhaps, as a portrait of the artist as conversationalist (in interviews and in dialogue with other poets and poems).Find this resource:

                                                      Lehman, David, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery. Ithaca, N.Y., 1980. Lehman's collection was the first major grouping of essays about Ashbery's work and includes contributions by many of the finest critics and poet-critics of the time, including Marjorie Perloff, Douglas Crase, John Koethe, and Lehman himself. The subjects covered include everything from prophecy to irony to an early revaluation of The Tennis Court Oath by Fred Moramarco. Diffuse, but appropriately so, in the case of Ashbery.Find this resource:

                                                        Perloff, Marjorie. “Normalizing John Ashbery.” Available from 1998. Marjorie Perloff has long been the primary advocate of avant-garde writing in the United States. In this essay she takes on more conservative critics, including James Longenbach and Vernon Shetley, who normalize Ashbery's work by fitting it neatly into a twentieth-century tradition beginning with T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Perloff sees Ashbery's work even his poetry of the 1990s, as more radical than that.Find this resource:

                                                          Schultz, Susan M. Decline of the West: Review of Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre and John Ashbery's And the Stars Were Shining. RIF/T: An Electronic Space for Poetry, Prose, and Poetics 3.1 (Summer 1994).Find this resource:

                                                            Schultz, Susan M., ed. The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1995. Schultz's collection includes essays on Ashbery's poetry (including his use of landscapes, his love poetry, and his use of typical language) as well as essays on Ashbery's influence on such writers as Ann Lauterbach, Jorie Graham, and Charles Bernstein and his noninfluence on William Bronk. The book's preface and conclusion are poem-essays, suggesting that one of Ashbery's influences can be found in the use of mixed genres.Find this resource:

                                                              Shoptaw, John. On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass., 1994. Shoptaw's book provides an intense close reading of Ashbery's oeuvre up to the early 1990s, with information from the poet on the origins of the poems. Shoptaw argues that Ashbery's texts are “homotextual,” if not exactly “homosexual.” A fascinating appendix, with drafts of A Wave.Find this resource: