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: