John Ashbery, a genius of modern poetry and one of the most influential figures of late-20th and early-21st-century American literature, died on September 3 in New York at the age of 90.
“I’m quite puzzled by my work too, along with a lot of other people. I was always intrigued by it, but at the same time a little apprehensive and sort of embarrassed about annoying the same critics who are always annoyed by my work. I’m kind of sorry that I cause so much grief.”
~ John Ashbery (1927-2017), in an interview to Contemporary Authors
A tale is often told about John Ashbery’s first book of poems, Some Trees (1956), winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize. W.H. Auden, who judged the competition, had confessed later of not understanding a word of the winning manuscript. Hyperbole this, with more than a grain of truth in it perhaps, but despite some understandable incomprehension of Ashbery’s sometimes expansive and languorous, often fearsomely cryptic, poetry, Auden had felt, unerringly, the pulse of its urgency. He had sensed in his own poetic gut its standing-apartness, if we will, amid a slew of poets still in the throes of modernist adventurism in the 1950s – despite the fact that Ashbery was a poet who grew to stand in contradistinction to the poet-as-editor figure that Auden as well as others like Pound and Eliot then embodied. It is not surprising perhaps that this young poet was largely inaccessible to the older man, nor unthinkable that Ashbery, however, named Auden as one of the earliest, strongest influences on his writing; and it is probably poetic justice that a youthful Ashbery still won his first prize adjudged by the first modernist poet he had read at length.
It is just this fist-in-the-gut response that Ashbery has continued to elicit from his readers in the six decades that have followed that early recognition from Auden: compounded of awe, bewilderment, amazement, disquiet, love. What makes both Ashbery’s poetry and our collective response stand apart is indeed the poet’s wry self-consciousness about writing poetry, much remarked upon, but also a doubling when it encounters ours: as readers who are overly-conscious of the art of poetry composed about the art – as well as the artlessness – of poetry. In ‘Uptick’, for example, two of the arts that Ashbery is popularly known to be an insider to – painting and poetry – flow together, fusing images one from the other:
‘To come back for a few hours to
the present subject, a painting,
looking like it was seen,
half turning around, slightly apprehensive,
but it has to pay attention
to what’s up ahead: a vision.
Therefore poetry dissolves in
brilliant moisture and reads us
A faint notion. Too many words,
The painting is a ‘subject’ the poet brings back to the present discussion in the poem, and one that takes on a living presence upon focusing on it after an earlier distraction. The painting is a discomfited presence, caught ‘half turning around, slightly apprehensive’ when it knows it ought to ‘pay attention to what’s up ahead: a vision.’ Instead of being an inert artifact that offers a visual rendition of an idea, whose life is contained in the contents of the picture it offers to the spectator, the painting now appears (‘looking like’) to have assumed life and movement. Having assumed personhood, it is caught at an awkward moment doing what it is not supposed to do – which is to turn around – and thus exhibits slight apprehension when caught, because it knows it is entrusted with, and has slightly failed, the task of concentrating on what lies ahead to offer, instead, ‘a vision’.
Before looking at how Ashbery achieves a mesmeric sleight-of-hand in the finishing lines of the poem which glide, without awkwardness or apprehension, from painting to poetry, it might be worth stopping to consider Ashbery’s relationship, both complex and very simple, with painting – and how it entered his own art, which was poetry. It is common knowledge that Ashbery was inspired by, invested in, and knowledgeable about art, that he earned money from a young age by writing art reviews, that he has written essays on painting; that his poetry is inspired by some of the best-known avant garde art movements of the 20th century like Surrealism and Dadaism (as also their poets). None of this is necessarily unique, for legions of writers have been closely bound up with painting in some way or other, many even wielding both paintbrush and pen.
But Ashbery is understood by critics to have a symbiotic relationship with art, perhaps because art criticism was what he did to earn a living for a good part of his life. It is probably because of this assumption that he was asked in an interview for The Paris Review (published in 1983) whether he had ever thought he might have to make a choice between art criticism and poetry as professions, or had ‘the two just always worked out well together?’ Ashbery, in reply, was airily dismissive of any deep inner calling for painting, and merely recounted a series of everyday events that catapulted him into writing about it to make ends meet as a college student, as well as later in life: ‘I was never interested in doing art criticism at all – I’m not sure that I am even now.’
What he then inferred from this accidental tumbling into finding a parallel profession as an art critic is what holds Ashbery’s signature whimsical world-view up to light, perhaps. After listing a few paid writing assignments on art that he happened to find himself in, that established him as an art critic and secured him subsequent jobs in the field, he says to his interviewer, “It didn’t pay very much, but it enabled me to get other jobs doing art criticism, which I didn’t want to do very much, but as so often when you exhibit reluctance to do something, people think you must be very good at it. If I had set out to be an art critic, I might never have succeeded.”
There is some reason why Ashbery is thought of as melding a romantic sensibility with avant garde leanings. He was known to be particularly partial to John Keats, whose ‘theory’ of ‘Negative Capability’ articulated exactly 200 years ago to his brothers George and Thomas what kind of creativity he was thinking of – “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (in a letter dated 21st December, 1817). Such a ‘negative capability’ may well be seen as a hallmark of Ashbery’s poetry, if not his life. Reluctance, distance and uncertainty, without seeking to alleviate or resolve them through any irritable, persistent scramble for truth and logic, threads his poetry and bleeds into the forms it takes, which are never consistent in tone or content.
Signal markers of his poetic oeuvre have earned Ashbery the epithet of ‘difficult’: the constant shifting of gears, the rising and falling of cadence as well as of thought, the disappearances into either obscure, ambiguous, philosophical ideas or into impossibly and unexpectedly quotidian phrases. These are what his edgy, intense avant gardism brought to his soft-shell but ‘negatively capable’ romanticism, a marriage perhaps echoed by his gay marriage in real life, his death at the age of 90 last week being ‘confirmed by his husband David Kermani’ as carried by news reports. In his poetry, most definitely, he executed an unconventional marriage of styles and registers, one that has consistently stood outside the pale of schools and clubs and coteries of poets in the long twentieth century.
To now return to the final, shimmering words of the poem ‘Uptick’ again, which slide – like a marshmallow upon one’s tongue – from painting to poetry:
Therefore poetry dissolves in
brilliant moisture and reads us
A faint notion. Too many words,
In the lines preceding these, quoted earlier – ‘a painting…/half turning around, …/but it has to pay attention/to what’s up ahead: a vision’ – Ashbery has suggested with an evocative image that the painting has fallen short of providing a vision; he then turns to poetry as an antidote. ‘Therefore’, he says; and this conjunctive adverb is significant. Since painting has slipped up, therefore ‘poetry dissolves in/brilliant moisture’. The image, of course, is from painting: one dissolves paints in water, and brilliant colours emerge. Ashbery deliciously collapses this vision of radiantly coloured wet paint into a receptacle for poetry – ‘dissolves in/brilliant moisture’ – that now ‘reads us/to us.’ It tells us about ourselves, in place of the vision the painting was to look ahead for. It is a ‘faint notion. Too many words/but precious.’ The answer, dear reader, is not in the visions ahead but in us, that we are strugglers and stragglers. It is a faint notion of reassurance; meaning gets lost in the inevitable wilderness of ‘too many words’, but yet, it is ‘precious.’
“I would like to please the reader, and I think that surprise has to be an element of this, and that may necessitate a certain amount of teasing. To shock the reader is something else again. That has to be handled with great care if you’re not going to alienate and hurt him, and I’m firmly against that, just as I disapprove of people who dress with that in mind—dye their hair blue and stick safety pins through their noses and so on. The message here seems to be merely aggression—“hey, you can’t be part of my strangeness” sort of thing. At the same time I try to dress in a way that is just slightly off, so the spectator, if he notices, will feel slightly bemused but not excluded, remembering his own imperfect mode of dress.”
– John Ashbery, in an interview with The Paris Review, issue 90, winter 1983
Arguably, Ashbery’s best-known poem is the long narrative ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, which is also the title of a collection of poetry published in 1975 that received three prizes in the United States that year – the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The poem talks at length to a painting with the same title, by 16th century Italian artist Parmigianino. Early in the poem, Ashbery is troubled by the soul of the portrait, pushing through its eyes, both restless and restrained in its confinement to a room:
The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.
But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.
This gaze confined to a room that combines ‘tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful/in its restraint that one cannot look for long’ is one that stays with Ashbery, returning in different faces and guises and seasons as the years roll on. Twenty-five years after ‘Self-Portrait’, it returns in the opening poem of his collection Your Name Here (2000) – short, succinct, and self-contained (in more ways than one). It returns to the room and the restless, restrained gaze that travels around it:
The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
This is Ashbery grown more tender, more amused, more regretful with age and loss, with weathering and withering. As he had said in the interview to The Paris Review, he does not want to shock his reader, but he wishes to surprise and tease. He will not hurt, but ‘at the same time I try to dress in a way that is just slightly off, so the spectator, if he notices, will feel slightly bemused but not excluded, remembering his own imperfect mode of dress.’ The last two sentences of ‘This Room’ achieve this effect to perfection; it is, indeed, what we may say to Ashbery, so that even in his absence he may feel ‘slightly bemused but not excluded’:
Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
Brinda Bose teaches at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.