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The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry
John Ashbery
The Ecco Press, $25.00

by Calvin Bedient

The publication of John Ashbery's first five books of poetry in one volume is a due act of canonization, a monumentalization of his beginnings -- beginnings large enough to form a distinguished career in themselves. There was (I think) still greater work to come, perhaps the greatest of the age. But it was in these five books that the orchard was laid out, with here a gnomic grove, here an "open work" grove, and here a discursive grove. And fruit already topping the boxes.

Artists distinguish themselves by diversifying a paradigm (if not by anticipating one) with a complexity, an unexpectedness, a style that strikes their peers, among others, as remarkable (the jealousy-as-homage factor). Starting out together from the Cedar Tavern in New York in the Fifties and breathing the aesthetic fumes of the "disorderly" painters who frequented it, Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and Barbara Guest (moored or not) virtually divvied up amongst themselves the aesthetic possibilities of the new paradigm of viscosity (mobility, murk-and-muddle, multiplicity). Famously, O'Hara went for the "lunch hour" happiness of urban and hormonal uproar, fashioning himself as the original eyes-a-poppin' kid with his heart rolled up like a cigarette pack in his sleeve. Guest went for a cold avant-garde freedom from pathos ("dissonance may abandon miserere") and has subsequently not given an inch to the puzzled. Ashbery, by contrast, frankly adopted pathos. "Look!" he chose to say, "we're all dead in the water! Whose idea of a joke?" In his work, our natures marry time like electricity pouring into a bath.

He has put the matter before us with a paradoxical, inexhaustible variety, but never more delicately -- all right, feelingly, much though his habit of irony makes the word come hard -- than in his fourth book, The Double Dream of Spring (1970):

. . . a rhythm of standing still
Keeps us in continual equilibrium, like an arch
That frames swiftly receding clouds, never
Getting deeper. The shouts of children
Penetrate this motion toward, as a drop of water
Slides under a lens.
In Ashbery, we are always on the blind side of possibility.

Without boarding up the "arch," in fact needing it to frame his pathos, Ashbery's work, together with Samuel Beckett's, marks the "end" of a metaphysics of existence -- of life as something (let alone really something): "And Semele / Moves away, puzzled at the brown light above the fields" ("Clouds"). Wordsworth, we should be living in your hour, before the angel "bandaged the field glasses"! Instead, there's just "One swallow," which "does not make a summer, but are / What's called an opposite: a whole of raveling discontent" ("Fragment")-there's just our skewed lives and logic.

In Ashbery, nostalgia for eternity is good for both nausea and a laugh. Also pathos, which is always this side of the sublime. He's not a terrorist of an inaccessible Otherness (à la Paul Celan). He's the avant-garde with a backward-looking regret and a funny face. Doubtless this humanity recommends him to many readers; almost he's one of us, voluble, not a martyr to the inaudible:

You hold me up to the light in a way
I should never have expected, or suspected, perhaps
Because you always tell me I am you
and right.

"Almost" because he's less self-sparing -- as well as more wittily resourceful ("Scarcely we know where to turn to avoid suffering, I mean / There are so many places").

So, at most, he touches a "continuity . . . fierce beyond all dream of enduring" ("Parergon") as a boy might touch a dead horse with a stick. And it is wonder of a kind . . .

Ambivalence up to here. Ashbery is both the least pathetic of the masters of pathos (Be a little stoical, can't you? Laugh a little, won't you?) and the most pathetic, for his is regret, so he makes you feel, at its historical last gasp: "Everything is being blown away; / A little horse trots up with a letter in its mouth, which is read with eagerness / As we gallop into the flame" ("A Last World").

He cannot or will not leave emotion in one place. Now he sides with Orphic night; now with consenting day. Whitman, our great poet of consent, receives a despairing salute in these lines from "The Double Dream of Spring," which remember (I think) both the earlier poet's "leaves of grass" and his "fierce-throated" locomotive in winter:

And now amid the churring of locomotives
Moving on the land the grass lies over
Beetling its "end of the journey" mentality into your forehead
Like so much blond hair awash
Sick starlight on the night
That is readying its defenses again
As day comes up
Night is sickly, but day is a farce ("Any more golfing hints, Charlie?" he asks elsewhere), when not terrifying: "A pure scream of things arises from these various sights and smells / As steam from a wet shingle." ("The Skaters").

How to write about an essential blankness without falling into an abyss? Is order in order? Is disorder a workable metaphor? Is lyricism a lie? Is discursiveness an evasion?

Ashbery's first five books try out various possibilities. The first three -- Some Trees (1956), The Tennis Court Oath (1962), and Rivers and Mountains (1966) -- hesitate between structural and serial work, normal openness and explicit, extreme openness. Some Trees slips in and out of punctuation as if it might be infested with the lice of old beliefs. Ballad, personification, lilting rhythm, and rhyme dare to show themselves (the book has Auden in it like the fulsome, tipsy smell of sherry). Regardless, a strange new manner is in the making, like "a new / Humorous landscape, without music, / Written by music" ("A Long Novel"). A guilty, not new-enough New World sensibility steels itself for trouble:

The canoe speeds toward a waterfall.
Something, prince, in our backward
You guessed the reason for the storm.
James Fenimore Cooper meets twentieth-century apocalypticism.

"Errors," in the same book, already has the serial virus: "What flower tolling on the waters / You stupefied me." Organic, time-laden life; dissolvent water-you know for whom the bell tolls. Ashbery made no secret then, and still makes no secret, that his subject is (as Aristotle claimed of literature in general) human happiness and sadness.

But a serious outbreak of poker-face seriality was reserved for the next book, The Tennis Court Oath. The title poem begins:

What had you been thinking about
the face studiously bloodied
heaven blotted region
I go on loving you like water but
there is a terrible breath in the way of all this

This is syntactic entropy; a heat-death equalization of clause and phrases. The clue suspiciously provided by "heaven blotted" may hardly be noticed in the shuffle-shuffle as in: Who dealt this hand, whose is it, and what, please, is the game?

Ashbery's new game was disjunctive to the point of amnesia, somewhat like Gertrude Stein's in, say, Stanzas in Meditation, but still more dissociated-a poetics of dice-throw combinations, blind collage. The results could be weirdly suggestive:

The spoon of your head
crossed by livid stems
You, reader Alice, might even like to go where "The opal snows the moppet," or someone "urge[s] the deep prune of the mirror," with Dali your guide. This is poetry as "barking to hear the night"-noise asking, Am I here? You are, and at times you seem aphasic ("Mufti of the gray crocus silent on the wood diamond floor"), and at other times the king of a horrid new world ("Ice lily of the sewers").

This method stops utterances like a wind hard in the open mouth. It mimics the distractions that pull at consciousness from (really) nowhere. It mimics mortality's senseless terminations. And it plays the game of refusing to play the game of discursiveness if one is handed only hollow dice.

Language wooed by chance or by the imp of the perverse isn't necessarily fooled. With a little help from the imagination (coaxing from the sidelines), it makes points. Thus, the irresistible opening line of "Leaving the Atocha Station," "The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing darkness," is like nothing so much as an Imagist-poem guide to Ashbery's work, what with its oxymoronic "arctic honey," its peculiar blab, and its ambiguous relation to darkness (causing it or honeying it?).

Again, Ashbery's long poem "America" is more a posse of a poem than its dust at first reveals. Here, Whitman's beloved "union" is decimated, stripped of totality-mongering ands and coming-splutteringly-live-to-you suspension dots ("Listener up there! Here you . . . what have you to confide to me?"), pared and pared away until all that's left is

The roof-
rain- pills-
and "We were parked / Million of us." William Carlos Williams complained of our national desire to huddle, Puritan style. Ashbery's America doesn't just hide in offices; "the office hid." This way to the "Inch pageant / of history"; to
The country
lined with snow
only mush was served
piling up
the undesired stars
needed against the night

In sum, if summation is possible, "We get unhappy, off." It's an America T. S. Eliot would have recognized.

If a style is a "system of probability" (Umberto Eco) or a singular agitation, this poetry lacks it. Its game is to be entirely vulnerable to chance and, no less, invulnerable-for what does it have to lose? Nothing risked, nothing lost. Perhaps this is wisdom; perhaps what Lacan calls the Thing (the sublimely unimaginable, somehow internal yet unseizably external totality) has nothinged everything in advance.

Yet Ashbery's passion (or is it kindness and pity?) is for its collapsed rubber mask, for this world, this nothing, skin-deep though it is. So it was inevitable that he would turn back to face it, bringing his own infinitely supple carnival mask.

If Ashbery has a talent for "A wave of nausea-," he has a genius for "the formal tragedy of it all" ("Europe"). Whatever his triple-axle virtuosities, his slips and slides within logical forwardings, his obliquities, he's given to discursiveness. No one this side of St. Augustine so relentless in pursuing the bastard logic of time itself. No one so prolific in generating new perspectives on time's nothing and its everything-probably hundreds of distinct angles could be traced in his work. Taken in its entirety, it's the greatest Cubist collage on the subject yet produced. Those who think he's not about much of anything may or may not be right, but certainly he's about them, us, himself. The trap the heart sets for time. The trap time sets for the heart.

Ashbery's thoughts are not just the outer rags of past philosophical fabric. He pulls unsuspected linings out of familiar ideas; he may even invent new stuffs. As a thinker, he's dazzling. Reading him in the bulk, one may feel he's a whole team of imaginations, voices, styles, surgeons of consciousness, whistlers-up of the unconscious. Again, trying to give language at least a seat-of-the-pants authority, he isn't out to make life vanish. He ponders the whole mess in its stale, infinite variety. He takes up its sadness, pettiness, ugliness (Flaubert) as if they were, after all, poetic in their own way, if only by default: "Night hunger / of berry . . . stick" ("Europe").

So, gamely and genially, he pilots the little packet-boat Chump Change on waters that are somehow exciting. Not that this poet is consistently amazing (though he comes very close to that in the middle five of his fifteen volumes-with another, Wakefulness, due out this spring). But the adventure seldom flags. Rivers and Mountains climaxes with two long poems, "Clepsydra" and "The Skaters," where his equivocally parodic discursive style (the parody often regretting and recalling itself even as it's uttered) finally fans out its previously tight-against-the-body, sticky wings.

Here he dances around (I would guess) Whitman's statement, "My final merit I refuse you. . . . Encompass worlds but never try to encompass me":

Yes, you are a secret and you must NEVER tell it-the vapor
Of the stars would quickly freeze you to death, like a tear-stiffened handkerchief
Held in liquid air. No, but this secret is in some way the fuel of
Your living apart.
From the adolescent conspiracy of the capitalized "NEVER" to the polite evasion of "vapor" and on to the sure-thing, ridiculous literalness of "freeze you to death" and the droll simile of the "tear-stiffened handkerchief" (try to be dignified in your sniveling after that!), and still further (the play of "Yes", "No"), the writing is as various, insinuating, and entertaining as can be, at once delicious and right! Yes, your secret is vital. No joke. Open it and you're gone. The message is positive. (Whitman was, after all, no fool.) Ashbery, again, thinks, as few poets do, but the many ways he lays out his thought are often as close to vaudeville as to tears.

"You were my quintuplets," he says to the past (or some part of it) in "The Recent Past," "when I decided to leave you." But the quintuplet problem is omnipresent; what followed was not a genie's lamp but "sinking ships" that spelled out "Aladdin"; thoughts came "faster than advice": "If you knew that snow was a still toboggan in space / The print could rhyme with 'fallen star.'" Where to find a singular bed of rest, of Newtonian absoluteness, amid all the falling particles? A still, literate place where print itself would seem natural, however fallen? The deeply operative wit of the poem, the ripple of ideas through one continuous, metaphoric flag of reflection, typifies this poet's brilliance.

Through the scudding mist in Ashbery's work, you can see what the traditions (English and American) were. It's the shadow, vapor, snowfall he churns out of them that makes him major. It takes a large talent, not to say a fundamentally broken heart, to go sweeping that way over the monuments of even the recent past (Eliot, Stevens), tickling and obscuring the granite peaks, turning every solid into elegiac memory. (Impossible to imagine a later poet doing the same to him.)

Ashbery's strength and misfortune is his lucidity, his inability not to know that "The train is still sitting in the station. / You only dreamed it was in motion." Or, more mildly: "This state of being . . . is not so big after all." Philip Larkin put much the same case in meter and street language; Ashbery, with his American idiosyncrasy, buoyancy, license to be wacky, verve, giddiness, profundity, and reach, dresses it in a clown's costume of figures and dips it in a tank of night, the American Sublime (not Emerson's which was father-forgetting, but Stevens's, which is vastly empty).

His subject is the coating of misery on the ordinary, of the uncanny on the common, even of the violent on the vernacular ("Darkness falls like a wet sponge," he writes in "The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers," "and Dick gives Genevieve a swift punch / in the pajamas"). Just when you thought the flabby middle part of things was safe, the great middle of experience, the province of novelists, he riddles it with holes like those in a Henry Moore statue, a Magritte coat. "The hiss / of all that exists terribly near us / Like you, my love, and light" ("How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher . . . ")? Again, from "Night": "The kids came and we all went the briars" [sic].

But praise be, almost, to banality, "which in the last analysis is our / Most precious possession, because allowing us to / Rise above ourselves" ("French Poems"). Ashbery daubs a generalized banality with an impasto of "dark hollyhocks," murder plots ("plot to kill both of us, dear. / pet / oh"), and a fleck or two of loveliness ("the way September moves a lace curtain to be near a pear"). No cries of torment, even banal ones (Rimbaud's appeal to Verlaine, "Oh, come back, I keep crying all the time")-Frank Bidart being in this regard his perfect antithesis. No genocides: when Ashbery says "holocaust," he means morning. Just the middle mass spreading and spreading, taking over every inch of earth. The brilliant Ashbery pretends to be its "transparent diagram." He fails, of course, like "Whitecaps wincing at every point of the compass" ("The Hod Carrier").

He writes as if he's the Columbus of the vanity of human wishes. The first to formulate himself "around this hollow empty sphere," the breath "as it is taken in and shoved out." And it's just this conviction that gives his art power-that starts the emotional quiver in its parodic skin. How well he catches the always original shock of learning that we are not dream-perfect in a perfect dream. "My head among the blazing phlox / Seemed a pale and gigantic fungus," he writes in "The Picture of Little J.A." And little J.A. is just anyone.

In the first five books, the banality lacks furniture, a greasy nub; its life is putative. Always in Ashbery abstraction allows him a sentiment of freedom-emptiness is at least cold and steep enough to toboggan in. But if you can smell the "smell of steaks in passageways" in Eliot's "Preludes," Ashbery's poems, by comparison, merely discourse about "the new school of the trivial . . . / Something of sludge and leaf-mold."

Yet to say that "Another feeble, wonderful creature is making the rounds again, / In this phraseology we become" arrests because of the mutual splintering of "feeble" and "wonderful" and even the far-back petty-Olympian perspective of the statement and of course the Age-of-the-Sign claim that phraseology is the vehicle of the rounds. Ashbery is a wizard at giving abstractions flutter and twist. He communicates his zest for them.

Whatever grumbles one may have about the discursive poems, they are an achievement equal, I think, to the other glory in the first five, a dozen or so gnomic lyrics, or after-lyrics. From the ironically naive sublimity of "Glazunoviana,"

And all the little helps,
My initials in the sky,
The hay of an arctic summer night . . .

(one's initials as the aurora borealis! Scattered like mown hay in the seen! As helps!) to the deadpan enigmatic banality of "The Chateau Hardware,"

I pursued my bodily functions, wanting
Neither fire nor water,
Vibrating to the distant pinch
And turning out the way I am, turning out to greet you.

these poems are rich studies in not hastening to explain. (Others are "Errors," "Illustration," "A Long Novel," "Sonnet," "White Roses," and "The Recent Past," to stop there.)

By contrast, his discursive poems-whatever their disclaimers, however sly and molting-are voluptuous feats of explanation. Ashbery has advanced with both prongs before him, antelope-like, through the desert where "Square doctrines" have "Come apart" ("Landscape").

The discursive work is not only a less likely, a more original, accomplishment; it preponderates over the creepy short gnomic poems. Almost entirely in prose, the last of the first five, Three Poems (l972), is the logical outgrowth of this poet's turn for fabulous blab. Here the mimicry of familiar kinds of discourse, taking off on all the well-meant jabber in the world, is simultaneously a hoot and an effort to get at the truth (and, for all his playfulness, the truth is Ashbery's passion). Those who find in him a poet of religion and love, reassuringly traditional in the last analysis, may miss the transparent layer of disingenuous facility when he speaks of "you, dear," and other high themes. To say "Thus the sadness as I look out over all this and realize that I can never have any of it, even though I have it all as I in fact do. To be living, in each other, the perfect life but without happiness" is to be an Amiel with contradictory-tongue-in-cheek. It is high-class meditative soap opera, a new achievement of faintest self-mockery-neither a confession nor a love note. The sentiments are, I think, an ironic performance-the self-conscious savoring of yesterday's oh-so-sad sentiments on today's bitten tongue.

Trust Ashbery to subvert the phraseology we have become, to know something increases nothing: as he put it earlier, in "Sonnet,"

A building is against the sky-
The result is more sky.
Something gathers in painfully.

He's not only likely to be more radical than any of his readers; he's more radical than himself. Just to write is already to be behind what he knows. As
he knows.

His tableau for his own abstract
distance from things came earlier, in "Clepsydra":

A telescope protects its view of distant mountains
And all they include, the coming and going,
Moving correctly up to other levels,
preparing to spend the night
There where the tiny figures halt as darkness comes on,
Beside some loud torrent in an empty yet personal
Landscape . . .

Ashbery's writing is, after all, an act of generosity; its purpose is not just to bark to hear the night, but to befriend, often with fairly soothing tones (never mind that they are moths in an invisible flame), all those in the distance, journeyers in a melancholy reality.

Originally published in the April/ May 1998 issue of Boston Review

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