It is time finally to leave behind the long-settled idea of John Ashbery as a postmodernist–but not without some parting glances. Said idea, repeated in various registers rifted with admiration and discontent and puzzlement, has been with us as long as the cultural category of postmodernism itself. Fredric Jameson, for example, the great thinker of postmodernism’s logic, begins his first essay on the topic by mentioning Ashbery; it takes all of two sentences. Indeed, the poet’s name often seems to provide a sufficient defense for the idea of postmodernism: if nothing else, we insist, it has given us Ashbery. Or vice versa: perhaps he has given us it. Either way or both, it is a close marriage.
But which Ashbery are we talking about? There are at least five or six on offer. There is the dreamy and sweet ironist who debuted in 1956, the year after Wallace Stevens’s death, with Some Trees, a Trojan horse snuck into the courtyard of High Modernism. There is the fractured and obdurate revolutionary of The Tennis Court Oath (1962), a book that helped inspire David Lehman’s suggestion that the era of avant-garde experimentation had exhausted itself with the New York School (a chilly verdict indeed on the rest of the century). There is the surreal formalist of Shadow Train (1981); the serene mnemonist and penseur of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) and A Wave (1984); the prose macrologueist of Three Poems (1972). These categories, loosely sketched as they are, still don’t encompass the megastructure of Flow Chart (1991) or the one-off flight of Girls on the Run (1999), nor do they really grasp the more casual and gestural lyrics that fill, say, Houseboat Days (1977) and have registered Ashbery’s room tone at least since Hotel Lautréamont (1992).
One could certainly argue as to which of these is the most postmodern Ashbery. The smart money might be on Three Poems, given its epochal opening to "The System" ("The system was breaking down") and its proximity to the systemic breakdown of industrial modernity, which any number of historians and cultural critics have dated to around 1973. In its place, we get "late capitalism," the shifting faraway-near worldscape of globalization and niche markets, hollowed industrial cores and fantastically elusive financial schemes, a structure in which time is obliterated and returns as endlessly expansive but mysterious spatial arrangements. By now it does not take extraordinary insight to see in this baffling, sensuously abstract and unfixed situation a good portion of Ashbery’s poetics.
But the smarter money might be on not choosing: Ashbery’s postmodernism lies precisely in the way that there are many Ashberys. A collage of Johns, let’s say. The poet is something like a Venn diagram of all his modes, an overlaid spread of common ground and outlying territories, each of those another terrain vague of the imagination. He is his own baffling landscape.
But he is not without familiar markers, and these help orient his new book, Planisphere. The most persistent is the poetry’s conversion of time into space, a longstanding Ashberian trope, which over the years has taken on a sense both of gravity and habit. In the recent work (particularly his superb and moving previous volume, A Worldly Country), it inevitably takes on the weight of mortality.