Born in Rochester, New York, in 1927, John Ashbery was never an academic. He took his B. A. from Harvard in 1949 and two years later an M. A. from Columbia University where he studied French literature. He did postgraduate work briefly at New York University 1957-58, worked in publishing, then went to France from 1960-65 as an art critic for the Paris edition of the New York Herald-Tribune and Art News, of which he subsequently became an editor. He returned to New York City in 1965.
Ashbery's first collection, Turandot and Other Poems, was published by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1953; despite this previous publication, he won the first book award of the Yale Series of Younger Poets for his Some Trees in 1956. The judge was W. H. Auden who chose the collection over that of Ashbery's friend, Frank O'Hara. Subsequent books were The Poems (1960), The Tennis Court Oath (1962), Rivers and Mountains (1966), Selected Poems, published in London in 1967, The Double Dream of Spring (1970), Three Poems (1972), The Vermont Journal (1975), As We Know (1979). "At North Farm," the first poem from his A Wave (1984), is a good example of the level of abstraction to be found in his poems:
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents,
through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?
Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?
A great many critics have complained about the difficulty of Ashbery's work; indeed, of all abstract poetry. Jonathan Holder says that he admires Ashbery's work "even though Ashbery's 'use' of poetry often seems...too limited — an Olympian, noncommittal language-play that refuses engagement or to make value judgments, poetry that issues from a universe in which one never has to go outdoors or discipline a child or change a tire, from a universe consisting entirely of texts. Yet when I choose to amuse myself in the ludic, whimsical, lyric weathers of discourse, I read Ashbery" (1). Others have criticized Ashbery for being exactly what one would have expected he would not be and, in fact, never has been: an academic poet. Richard Nason wrote, "The Existential poetry of William Carlos Williams, sensible enough perhaps as a reaction to the heavy metaphysical burden of the poetry of Eliot, Pound and, to a lesser degree, Yeats, has in recent decades degenerated to the grudging gibberish of Ashbery and the vacuous, verbless maundering of [A. R.] Ammons. The highly remote, almost indecipherable content of this verse has remained of interest only to those who study it so they may become initiates in the elite academia where it is taught" (Intro.). But it is not at all certain that, as Nason says, Ashbery's poetry is "almost indecipherable”; much more likely is the possibility that it is totally indecipherable, as music is "indecipherable" even as it is enjoyable to listen to.
If Nason is categorical in his rejection of Ashbery, there is an ambivalence in Holden's attitude, almost as though he were abashed to like the poetry and unable to understand why he should do so against all reason. Raymond Carney wrote, "Ashbery has related a wry dialogue between himself and Kenneth Koch that is very much to the point: 'He asked me, "Does your poetry have any hidden meanings" And I said: "No." "Why Not?" "Because somebody might find out what they were and then the poems would no longer be mysterious"'" (3). Ashbery does not want to attach a "program" to his language music, as composers have done to their musical compositions from time to time. He wants to achieve in language, if he can, the mysterious pleasures of music by using abstract syntax.
It is interesting to note the use of the musical term "minor key" at the end of this passage from Carney's essay: "There is no shortcut through an Ashbery text; no possibility of skimming it for key passages. It is a wonderfully democratic verse. Just as in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, the result of Ashbery's almost absolute renunciation of architectonic structures and rhetorical heightening is a paradoxical heightening of everything, of even the most ordinary details, in the poem. The common and mean, at moments, can become almost transcendent in Ashbery as in Bishop, who achieve their grand Romantic moments, as William Carlos Williams did, in a minor key" (14).
Echoing Archibald Macleish's poem "Ars Poetica," Marjorie Perloff wrote, "Not what one dreams but how — this is Ashbery's subject. His stories 'tell only of themselves,' presenting the reader with the challenge of what he calls 'an open field of narrative possibilities'.... For, like Rimbaud's, his are not dreams 'about' such and such characters or events; the dream structure is itself the event that haunts the poet's imagination" (252).
Ashbery's method of composition may also explain something about how his poems manage to gather "mystery" to themselves. In an interview with Sue Gangel, Ashbery said, "I write down phrases and ideas on pieces of paper which I then can't keep track of. I put them in a drawer, and sometimes I can't find them, and sometimes I use ones I've already used before and then I have to do something about that. I don't keep any journal. I write down things that seem suggestive to me when they occur and I think might be usable later on. Then if I can't find them, that's all right too because meanwhile I will have already started to think about something else" (p. 19).
If Ashbery's syntax is "abstract," and if his method of composition is at the farthest remove from the mechanical or even the rational, nevertheless one may point out that the poet's approach to versifying is neither "ludic and whimsical," as Holden suggests, nor "academic," as Nason defines it in these post-deconstructionist days, nor is it entirely without "architectonic structure," as Carney would have it. If it were so, why do some of Ashbery's poems find themselves located in the anthologies of the so-called "New Formalist" movement that was underway in the United States during the 1990s? Formalism might once have been considered academic, back in the 1950s, but formal approaches to poetry had been banned from American poetry since then. Neoformalism was considered by the later academy to be either reactionary or revolutionary, depending on whether one was defending the "tradition of Whitman," as Diane Wakoski has termed it in her apologies for the status quo, or advancing the argument that form, whether traditional or experimental, is necessary to meaning, as Dana Gioia and the other New Formalists maintained.
But this description of Ashbery's method of composition is perhaps rule of thumb rather than categorical, for he had something a bit different to say when he described "Variation on a Noel," with its epigraph from the Christmas carol, "when the snow lay round about, / deep and crisp and even...", in Lehman's Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms (3-4). This poem is written in the form of a pantoum. In his comment on the poem in Lehman's book Ashbery said, "I first came across the word pantoum as the title of one of the movements of Ravel's 'Trio,' and then found the term in a manual of prosody. I wrote a poem called "Pantoum" in the early '50s; it is in my book Some Trees. 'Variation on a Noel' is the only other time I have ever used the form. The poem was written in December of 1979" (p. 5). This is the first stanza:
A year away from the pigpen, and look at him.
A thirsty unit by an upending stream,
Man doctors, God supplies the necessary medication
If elixir were to be found in the world's dolor, where is none.
A pantoum is an accentual-syllabic Malayan form. Its lines may be of any specific length, in any particular meter, and it consists of an indefinite number of quatrain stanzas with particular restrictions: lines two and four of each stanza, in their entirety, are refrains — they become lines one and three of the following stanza, and so on. The rhyme scheme is interlocking. Stanza two of Ashbery's poem reads,
A thirsty unit by an upending stream,
Ashamed of the moon, of everything that hides too little
of her nakedness —
If elixir were to be found in the world's dolor, where is none,
Our emancipation should be great and steady.
"I was attracted to the form in both cases," Ashbery continued, "because of its stricture, even greater than in other hobbling forms such as the sestina or canzone. These restraints seem to have a paradoxically liberating effect, for me at least. The form has the additional advantage of providing you with twice as much poem for your effort, since every line has to be repeated twice" (5). The observation about the paradoxically "liberating" effect of writing in forms had been made by many poets over the years, but increasingly in recent years as young poets rediscovered formal poetry. Here is the penultimate stanza of "Variation on a Noel":
And I have known him cheaply.
Agree to remove all that concern, another exodus —
A form of ignorance, you might say. Let's leave that though.
The mere whiteness was a blessing, taking us far.
The poem can be ended in one of two ways, either in a quatrain whose refrains are lines one and three of the first stanza in reversed order, or in a repeton couplet consisting of lines one and three of the first stanza in reversed order. Ashbery decided to end the poem his own way: lines one and three of the first stanza became lines two and four of the last stanza, in the same, rather than reversed, order:
Agree to remove all that concern, another exodus.
A year away from the pigpen, and look at him.
The mere whiteness was a blessing, taking us far.
Man doctors, God supplies the necessary medication.
Besides Lehman's collection, Ashbery's poems also appeared in the New Formalist anthology Strong Measures, edited by Philip Dacey and David Jauss. One of these, the poet's original "Pantoum" from his book Some Trees, was included in the text as an example of that form. Also included are "Some Trees," the title poem of that collection, which serves as an example of what the editors call "nonce couplets" and "couplet quatrains"; and "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape," a sestina, from The Double Dream of Spring. The poet has always been supposed to make leaps of the imagination that surprise the reader, to make associations that others perhaps would not have made. It is evident that the difficulty readers have with Ashbery and others of the so-called “New York School” is that they jump from one association to another without intervening transitions — it is a modernist technique, one that Ezra Pound discovered in the original draft of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" by editing out those transitions and leaving only the fragments and abstract syntax that mirror the fragmentation and technological leaps of the twentieth century. It is a technique from which Wallace Stevens forged a career of writing poetry for himself, not for readers, but that some readers loved anyway — some, not many, for modernist and contemporary poetry left the common reader behind, just as modern music has done.
David Shapiro noted in the chapter titled "The Meaning of Meaninglessness" in his study, John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry, that "John Ashbery once took a course of lectures in music by Henry Cowell at the New School. Ashbery recalls Cowell remarking that the intervals in music become wider as music grows more sophisticated: 'for instance, if you compare "The Volga Boatmen" and the "Love Duet" in Tristan und Isolde you see how vastly wide the intervals have become; and the ear seemingly becomes accustomed to unaccustomed intervals, "as time goes by"'.... One cannot really anticipate the next note in many serial pieces, and this suspense is a fine quality of Ashbery's own work..."(16). It is, that is, and it isn't, depending on one's point of view...on whether one is Jonathan Holden, Richard Nason, David Shapiro, or someone else. One thing is certain, however: John Ashbery writes his poems in an abstract "musical syntax," and this syntax is sometimes to be found bottled in traditional lyric verse forms. This new kind of poetry began displacing Robert Bly's "deep imagism" as the "avant garde" movement of the 1980s. It made inroads on the West Coast where most of the so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets resided, but in 1986 signs of a further spread became evident, through chapbook publications from the "alternative press" movement, to New England and the South in work by De Villo Sloan and the late George Butterick, two members of the second generation of Black Mountaineers from the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Donald M. Allen, ed., The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.
——, ed., The New American Poetry 1945-1960, New York: Grove Press, (1960)
John Ashbery, The Double Dream of Spring, New York: E. P. Dutton Co., 1970.
——, The Poems, New York: Tiber Press, 1960.
——, Rivers and Mountains, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966.
——, Selected Poems, London: Cape, 1967.
——, Some Trees, New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 1956.
——, The Tennis Court Oath: A Book of Poems, Middletown, Ct.: Wesleyan University Press, 1962.
——, Three Poems, New York: Viking Press, 1972.
——, Turandot and Other Poems, New York: Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1953.
——, The Vermont Journal, Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975.
——, A Wave, New York: Viking Penguin, 1984.
Raymond Carney, "John Ashbery," in Donald J. Greiner, ed., American Poets Since World War II, Part 1: A-K, Detroit MI: Gale Research, 1980.
Tracy Chevalier, ed., Contemporary Poets, Fifth Edition, Chicago: St. James Press, 1991.
Philip Dacey, and David Jauss, eds., Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms, New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
Donald Davie, Articulate Energy, New York: Macmillan, 1958.
Sue Gangel, "Interview with John Ashbery," in Joe David Bellamy, ed., American Poetry Observed: Poets on Their Work, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Lyn Hejinian, The Guard, n.p.: Tuumba Press, 1983.
David Lehman, ed., Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms, New York: Macmillan, 1987.
Frank O'Hara, A City Winter, and Other Poems, New York: Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1952.
——, The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.
——, Jackson Pollock, New York: George Braziller, 1959.
——, Love Poems (Tentative Title), New York: Tibor de Nagy, 1965.
——, Lunch Poems, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1964.
——, Meditations in an Emergency, New York: Grove Press, 1957.
——, Odes, New York: Tiber Press, 1960.
——, Oranges, New York: Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1953.
——, Robert Motherwell, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1965.
——, Second Avenue, New York: Totem/Corinth Press, 1960.
Ron Padgett, and David Shapiro, eds., An Anthology of New York Poets, New York: Random House, 1970.
——, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Marjorie Perloff, Frank O'Hara, Poet Among Painters, New York: George Braziller, 1977.
David Shapiro, John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry, New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Radcliffe Squires, Cornar, Philadelphia, Pa.: Dorrance, 1940.
——, Fingers of Hermes, Ann Arbor, Mi.: University of Michigan Press, 1965.
——, Where the Compass Spins, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1951.
Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, The Complete Poems, ed. N. Scott Momaday, New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
Lewis Turco, The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1968.
——, The New Book of Forms, Hanover: University Press of New England, 1986.
——, Poetry: An Introduction Through Writing, Reston: Reston Publishing Co., 1973.
——, Visions and Revisions of American Poetry, Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986
Alberta Turner, ed., Poets Teaching: The Creative Process, New York: Longman, 1980.
James Vinson, ed., Contemporary Poets, Second Edition, New York: St. Martin's, 1975.
This essay is from Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry, by Lewis Putnam Turco, Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, www.SFASU.edu/sfapress/, 2012, 336 pp., paperback. All rights reserved by Lewis P. Turco, 2012.