Dreamlife Without Angels
Every year that the Nobel committee passes over poet John Ashbery for a socially responsible novelist, it proves that the prize for literature is just an arm of the Peace Prize, rather than--like the Nobels for physics or chemistry--a prize for radical discovery in the field. With the publication this fall of Notes From the Air, readers can follow the development of the latter half of a career that has gone from imaginative discovery to discovery like a geometer unveiling the properties of a world, now with this axiom added, that axiom suppressed. From "The Phantom Agents":
We need more data re our example, earth--how it would behave in a
crisis, under pressure,
or simply on a day no one had staked out for unrest
to erupt. What season would fit its lifestyle
most naturally? Who would the observers, the control group be?
When The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry was published ten years ago in honor of Ashbery's seventieth birthday, who would have guessed that to honor his eightieth we would be treated to a tome of later work that would be almost exactly as thick? Notes From the Air draws from ten books published between 1987 and 2005. It's not easy to keep up with this output, especially if you're among those who fetishize Ashbery's legendary early work. The Mooring of Starting Out retraced the path blazed from his first book, Some Trees (chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956), through the disjunctive Tennis Court Oath (1962), Rivers and Mountains (1966) and The Double Dream of Spring (1970) up to Three Poems (1972), which many consider his greatest work (it is in prose). Beyond that horizon lay the marvelous but comparatively conservative Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), which would win him the Triple Crown of poetry: the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
One defining quality has remained consistent through the decades: Ashbery's utter refusal to treat the self as a knowable entity with fixed psychological coordinates. (There's also a corollary that applies to versification itself: he refuses to treat the poem as a definable entity with fixed formal coordinates. While committed to unmetrical, free-form stanzas and even unlineated poetry, he can toss off a double sestina or pages of rhymed quatrains. His dexterity renders moot poetry's internecine battles over prosody.) He doesn't write poems about mom and dad, his homosexuality, life's watershed events. In his rejection of the confessional, therapeutic, the sociological and the overtly political, his example serves as a rebuke to all instrumental uses of poetry. The Ashbery poem isn't grounded in reportage or fact. And that is at least one of his great discoveries, if not his greatest: the ideal poetry for the Information Age is a poetry of no information.
Oh, the irony that this white male preserves the privilege of impersonal universality under the sign of the avant-garde! Yet this is not exactly Eliot's impersonality or Kant's universality. Rather, it seems collaged from the dreamlife of modern American culture; as the fine writing of Rivers and Mountains or Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror gave way to this later style, Ashbery wielded the American demotic, well, like the daemonic: "We used to call it the boob tube,/but I guess they don't use tubes anymore./Whatever," he writes in "Composition." Notes From the Air consolidates this development. It takes its title from a poem that begins thus:
A yak is a prehistoric cabbage: of that, at least, we may be sure.
But tell us, sages of the solarium, why is that light
still hidden back there, among house plants and rubber sponges?
For surely the blessed moment arrived at midday
It isn't hard to see why, last August, MtvU crowned the octogenarian its first poet laureate. Ashbery can yak. He can apostrophize. He can mock. He can ode and odelay in the same line. His jump-cuts anticipate the music videos that MTV pioneered, and wasn't the first book to mark his late style, April Galleons (1987), published a mere six years after the channel's debut?
For all the doubts that Ashbery's recent prodigious output equals his early achievement, this poetry of America's dreamlife, of eruptions and interruptions and daemonic demotic, has come to signify what poetry is in its pure state. The new benchmark for poetry becomes not formal innovation on a par with the fragments and erasures of The Tennis Court Oath, or the Parnassian purity of the ekphrastic meditation "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," but fulfillment of the stringent demands of its own oneirism. It insists on utter autonomy. This is harder than it looks. The pressure to express oneself surely comes from within as without (so many people mistake self-expression for poetry that they can't recognize any other kind). But within the constraints Ashbery sets for himself, there is infinite variety. Take, for instance, his miniature narratives, which lovingly parody romances, travelogues, biographies. From "Memories of Imperialism":
Dewey took Manila
and soon after invented the decimal system
that keeps libraries from collapsing even unto this day.
A lot of mothers immediately started naming their male offspring "Dewey,"
which made him queasy. He was already having second thoughts about imperialism.
In his dreams he saw library books with milky numbers
on their spines floating in Manila Bay.
Or take these lines from "...by an Earthquake":
A hears by chance a familiar name, and the name involves a riddle of the past.
B, in love with A, receives an unsigned letter in which the writer states that she is the mistress of A and begs B not to take him away from her.
B, compelled by circumstances to be a companion of A in an isolated place, alters her rosy views of love and marriage when she discovers, through A, the selfishness of men.
"Interesting People of Newfoundland," from Where Shall I Wander (2005), is already practically a chestnut:
Newfoundland is, or was, full of interesting people.
Like Larry, who would make a fool of himself on street corners for a nickel....
Doc Hanks, the sawbones, was a real good surgeon
when he wasn't completely drunk, which was most of the time.
When only half drunk he could perform decent cranial surgery.
There was the blind man who never said anything
but produced spectral sounds on a musical saw.