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.
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.