Dreamlife Without Angels
The one way Ashbery's poems may always be fruitfully read is as sheer ear candy. Just glancing through his titles will confirm this (my favorite: "Yes, Dr. Grenzmer, How May I Be of Assistance to You? What! You Say the Patient Has Escaped?"). Yet where literature is concerned, we're ardent believers in the instrumental: how else to explain why the poorest art in the world, with the least influence on American culture, is routinely made the scapegoat of all art's sins? Rock and roll halts no wars; therefore let us stone poets, goes the logic. Meanwhile, the fact that visual artists become millionaires in an art market fueled by a hedge-fund bubble fazes no one.
Caution: Ear candy may segue shockingly into the sublime, as in these lines from "Chinese Whispers":
The trees, the barren trees, have been described more than once.
Always they are taller, it seems, and the river passes them
without noticing. We, too, are taller,
our ceilings higher, our walls more tinctured
with telling frescoes, our dooryards both airier and vaguer,
according as time passes and weaves its minute deceptions in and out,
a secret thread.
Peace is a full stop.
And though we had some chance of slipping past the blockade,
now only time will consent to have anything to do with us,
for what purposes we do not know.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed poetic faith "that willing suspension of disbelief," but little did he know it would become an existential stance toward not literature but life. That is, the laws of fiction are now no more fantastic than what we know of the latest findings of string theory or forensic science. Ashbery's intuition that this has become our default spirituality drives these miniature novellas with their disjunctive comedies. They erupt frequently into acknowledgments of our condition: lonesome souls in an absurd, tragicomic cosmos, where we know not whence we come nor whither we go.
This darker Ashbery is kept somewhat under wraps in Notes From the Air, lest the psychologism of the disappointed romantic sully the purity of the pleasure of the text. Missing from Notes From the Air is the enchanting "Poem at the New Year" from Hotel Lautréamont (1992). Its narrator recounts a moment when he wished that time would "suspend its flight": "We went out and saw that it had actually happened." The poem has a nostalgic bittersweetness that recalls Joseph Cornell's shadow boxes, which of course echo in the title of the book (the Francophilic Cornell made several "Hotels"). If Cornell's boxes are microcosms of the white wooden windowsills--nails jutting out and painted over--of the kind of Victorian house he spent his childhood in (in Nyack), poems like "Poem at the New Year" are haunted by a similar sense of time out of mind. Raised near Rochester, New York, Ashbery has spent his later years shuttling between Manhattan and Hudson. Cornell would have felt at home in Ashbery's upstate antique-filled Victorian.
Another magician of childhood themes, more shadowy yet, inspired the book-length poem Girls on the Run (1999): outsider artist Henry Darger. As Ashbery had lost a younger brother in early childhood, so Darger lost a younger sister; as Ashbery grew into the most prolific, imaginative poet of his generation, so Darger spent his life composing his 15,145-page, illustrated epic, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known As the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The excerpt in Notes From the Air gives a taste of Girls on the Run, its novelistic figures and apocalyptic mood:
A great plane flew across the sun,
and the girls ran along the ground.
The sun shone on Mr. McPlaster's face, it was green like an elephant's.
Let's get out of here, Judy said.
They're getting closer, I can't stand it.
Almost five years into a distant, hallucinogenic war halfway around the world, what American could fail to read at least some prognostic dread in the dislocated saga of children caught up in intermittent war:
I awoke from the dream. A big boom
was passing over my head. I could see clear up the mizzen, if that counts,
anymore, your honor, I just want to say I respects
all what is good, and don't come here any more, I won't.
If you're going to read one Ashbery book from the past twenty years (aside from Notes From the Air), it should be Girls on the Run. If you think Ashbery "writes about nothing," Girls on the Run is for you. Decades after being lambasted (in this magazine, in 1967) for not writing protest poems in the Vietnam era, Ashbery finally gave us his war poem. The world barely noticed:
"All aboard! If there's one thing I hate it's a loner,"
Uncle Philip said, or someone who's beside himself. Please, Uncle,
can't we go out today? Aw, shut up, Philip said. Now there were two bald uncles
who lived in the nearby swamp. One of them knew Shuffle. And he said:
If it's to play in, why not. But if it's just to play over and around
then I don't see why you need to, and indeed shall expend every effort
to see that you don't.
Just so, much of Anglophone poetry seems unmoved by the changes Ashbery has made to our ways of hearing and imagining. It is much easier to represent the metamorphoses of the last century as cultural paradigm shifts (feminism, multiculturalism, confessionalism, Marxism) or to toss in references to e-mail and iPods. What's it like to belong to the vast impersonal world in which airwaves bring information more real and more abstract than the ether and angels of old? As a discredited theory of space, ether at least had spiritual solace. I doubt many readers of this magazine shed tears for the death of God, but what do poets do in the absence of transcendent belief? Our justification for an art neither popular nor remunerative depends on a wager something like Pascal's: why not bet on one life to gain two?
Ashbery has made this wager, and the consequences are damning for those of us who should have moved on, who should have succumbed by now to the cheerful utilitarianism that capitalism and technology promise us. The promise Ashbery holds out to us is this: literature keeps setting the bar for our dreams not higher, but elsewhere. From "Sleepers Awake":
Cervantes was asleep when he wrote Don Quixote.
Joyce slept during the Wandering Rocks section of Ulysses.
Homer nodded and occasionally slept during the greater part of the Iliad; he was awake however when he wrote the Odyssey.
Proust snored his way through The Captive, as have legions of his readers after him.
Melville was asleep at the wheel for much of Moby-Dick.
Fitzgerald slept through Tender Is the Night, which is perhaps not so surprising,
but the fact that Mann slumbered on the very slopes of The Magic Mountain is quite extraordinary--that he wrote it, even more so.
This then is what aesthetic discovery consists of, what it looks like, what it's for: thanks to Ashbery, we see there's more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your sociology.