Gratifying Provocations: On First Reading Ashbery
When impulse can no longer find pre-established security in forms or content, productive artists are objectively compelled to experiment – Adorno
I first read Ashbery in graduate school, but wasn’t particularly engaged by the work. I only came to read him extensively and seriously later, through his long poem, “The Skaters”, which I think is one of the greatest poems of the last half century. If you read Ashbery, or if you read less conventional poetry, then reading him doesn’t seem all that challenging. But, initially Ashbery can be, not difficult, but separate, apart, and it is reading him that teaches you to do so, like becoming used to an accent that initially makes a speaker hard to understand.
Scholars critical of Ashbery’s work have called it “solipsistic aestheticism”, “detached from external reality”, “purposely lacking in logic”, and “difficult”, which, of course, ignores the simple but important observation that “what is opaque to one bursts out at another”, it also ignores Ashbery’s important resistance to the banal, “his craving for the truly fresh” (Molesworth), and, so, the way in which the puzzle of Ashbery’s poems hook the reader. These critics seem to simply be saying that they cannot find a given stanza, or passage that speaks for the poem, in general; it somehow excludes them, god forbid.
“The Skaters” was written in 1961, when Ashbery had only just begun composing on a typewriter, upon moving to Paris, when Ashbery was 34-years old, though the poem was not published until 1966 in his third book, Rivers and Mountains, which was celebrated by more traditional critics, like Harold Bloom and Daniel Hoffman, as Ashbery’s return from ‘incomprehensible’ experimental poetry. In the meantime, Ashbery was gaining the backing of established writers like Donald Barthelme. Separately he was working as the Art Critic for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune.
The impetus for “The Skaters” was initially born out of Ashbery’s childhood experience of a book called Three Hundred Things a Bright Boy Can Do, a book for children, with an Edwardian tone, about the things children can do to amuse themselves. And, as Ashbery himself has said, “My boredom and a rather lonely childhood on our [snowbound] farm was something, I think, that came back rather strongly to me” (Shoptaw, 94). Here was the emergence of memory, but accompanied by the fragmentariness and foreignness of memory, because memories are inherently fuzzy, partial, and often they are forgotten entirely until suddenly they burst forth. So, it doesn’t matter if the memories put before us are real, or biographical, or entirely fictional because this piecing together of fragments is how memory works, regardless, and it doesn’t matter if we readers are somehow struck with or identify with those memories.
As is typical of Ashbery’s work, in general, “The Skaters” recycles, appropriates, and collages language; it uses parody and irony. Ashbery’s use of irony and parody is socio-cultural commentary, rather than personal jabs or cheap entertainment, so that even when his poems feels humorous, or the speaker of them distant, there is present the same kind of sincerity one might expect from say Frost or Auden, for ‘sincerity is not so much a true account of one’s inner feelings…as an acceptance of what exceeds the self’ (Nicholls 168).
“The Skaters” features various style shifts, and a myriad of registers: autobiographical, bureaucratic, art-critical, high-poetical, low-colloquial, devotional, &c. And the speaker interrupts often to comment on the poem’s content. In the poem no continuous, sustained narrative develops”; it “often appears to make sense locally [at the level of the stanza or page], inducing in readers the unwarranted expectation that the poem’s global sense should be within relatively easy reach” (McHale 564) – this is augmented by the seemingly memory-based nature of the poem, its periods of conventional lyricism, and its focus, at points, on landscape.
In line with the fragmentary, quasi-foreign nature of memory put forward in “The Skaters”, Ashbery’s poetry, in general, is described as disjunctive, so, in Ashbery is the enjoyment of the poem that plays hard to get. It is writing that can be described as ‘generative’ rather than ‘directive’: ‘Reader and writer engage in a collaboration from which ideas and meanings are permitted to evolve’” (Nichols 165) – there is, in other words, room left for the reader’s memories and meanings within the poem. Rather than being the explanatory poet, he puts the poem in the readers’ hands; rather than explaining the poem to the reader, Ashbery rather “calls attention to”, thus creating a dynamic poem that resists didacticism.
Linked to the open-ended nature of his poems, when critics cite Ashbery as “difficult”, “illogical”, “opaque” and so on, they seem to simply be lamenting that his poems don’t broadcast a “message”, and in fact, one can easily argue that Ashbery’s poems resist putting forth an explicit “message”, and they certainly resist the moment of revelation found at the conclusion of poems from Pope to Billy Collins, but these same critics seem to forget that writers who have become canonical, who are considered to be the height of literature, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, were in their own time considered both, experimental and very difficult. Like the poet, George Oppen, one could say Ashbery sees poetry not as a “purveyor of ‘truth’, but rather it submits ‘truth’ to a kind of ‘test’” (Nichols 158). One can even read into Ashbery’s resistance to providing the reader with the kind of poem they are familiar with as a kind of commentary on the way in which we consume products out in the world: familiar package, familiar form and content, and easily digestible.
One of Ashbery’s approaches to a poem is through the idea of a work of art as a record of its own composition, itself an idea drawn from the Abstract Expressionist school of painting – remember here Ashbery’s associations with the art world. “The simultaneity of Cubism is something that has rubbed off on me, as well as the Abstract Expressionist idea that the work is a sort of record of its own coming-into-existence; it has an “anti-referential sensuousness”, but it is nothing like flinging a bucket of words on the page, as Pollock did with paint. It is more indirect than that. As Ashbery has stated, “When I was fresh out of college, Abstract Expressionism was the most exciting thing in the arts. There was also experimental music and film, but poetry seemed quite conventional in comparison. I guess it still is, in a way. One can accept a Picasso woman with two noses, but an equivalent attempt in poetry baffles the same audience” (Ashbery, Paris Review).
In turn, Ashbery refers in “The Skaters” to the leaving out of things – what should be included and what should be left out. He says in an interview that this is a major theme in his poetry. “Rauschenberg once asked de Kooning to give him a drawing so that he could erase it. I got to wondering; suppose he did erase it? Wouldn’t there be enough left so that it would be something? If so, how much? Or if not, how much could be erased and still have the “sense” of the original left?” (Moramarco). But, it strikes me that Ashbery isn’t simply talking about what remains once you take certain things away, in general, but specifically about what’s included in the poem in relation to what’s been left out.
(From Paris Review Interview)
You have often been characterized as a solipsist, and I wonder if this isn’t related to your reputation for obscurity. The way the details of a poem will be so clear, but the context, the surrounding situation, unclear. Perhaps this is more a matter of perspective than any desire to befuddle.
This is the way that life appears to me, the way that experience happens. I can concentrate on the things in this room and our talking together, but what the context is is mysterious to me. And it’s not that I want to make it more mysterious in my poems… When I originally started writing, I expected that probably very few people would read my poetry because in those days people didn’t read poetry much anyway. But I also felt that my work was not beyond understanding. It seemed to me rather derivative of or at least in touch with contemporary poetry of the time, and I was quite surprised that nobody seemed to see this. So I live with this paradox: on the one hand, I am an important poet, read by younger writers, and on the other hand, nobody understands me. I am often asked to account for this state of affairs, but I can’t.
Is the issue of meaning or message something that is uppermost in your mind when you write?
Meaning yes, but message no. I think my poems mean what they say, and whatever might be implicit within a particular passage, but there is no message, nothing I want to tell the world particularly except what I am thinking when I am writing. Many critics tend to want to see an allegorical meaning in every concrete statement, and if we just choose a line at random, I think we will find this isn’t the way it works…
Importantly, Ashbery’s work is a poetry that captures perception rather than story, rather than an ordered telling. “The Skaters” mimics “The operations of mind in the time of their happening… tracking the operations of [the] mind” (Herd 109), or as Ashery himself put it in a 1983 Paris Review interview, “I write with experiences in mind, but I don’t write about them, I write out of them”. His poems evoke a shadow or an aura of understanding which is to say it forms its relation to the reader via similar or evoked experiences, so that one cannot say exactly what will be evoked, what the experience of the poem will be like. In other words, if someone asks me what is Galway Kinnell’s poem “Last Gods” like, or what is John Donne’s poem “The Sun Rising”, I can explain to them what those poems are like, which is to say, what those poems will likely evoke in them. This is harder to do with Ashbery – as the painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, was asked by a friend and interviewer: “Do you ever comply with requests to describe your work” – and it’s clear here that by “describe”, “meaning” is implied – and Basquiat answers, “It’s like asking Miles [Davis]: how does your horn sound?”
Entertainingly, Ashbery says in a 1964 interview with his friend, the poet, Kenneth Koch, “It’s rather hard to be a good artist and also be able to explain intelligently what your art is about. In fact, the worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about…” Here, one might look at what Theodor Adorno said: “What is today called a ‘message’ is no more to be squeezed out of Shakespeare’s great dramas than out of Samuel Beckett’s works” (Adorno 27). Further, Adorno reminds us that “Among the dangers faced by new art, the worst is the absence of danger”, the artist though he or she begins with the models and tools of his or her predecessors, indeed he or she emulates and idolizes some of those predecessors, but the poet cannot do, as Beckett’s characters at the end of Waiting for Godot do: and that is to simply find themselves walking in place, for that keeps the art form itself merely walking in place. “The Skaters” created a particular configuration of words and images readers had not seen before, but which have already become recognizable with time. Fifty years from now, Ashbery’s poetry will seem no stranger to us than Donne’s or Dickinson’s seem to us now, and yet still enjoyable and intelligently idiosyncratic.
Ashbery, in general, seems to be playing with and acknowledging the inability of narrative to explain things (this is of course the struggle every writer comes up against: capturing the thing, regardless of aesthetic preferences, style or politics), while also implicitly arguing for the value of narrative through its numerous variations, or iterations (of course, the self is itself iterative), and also confronting the possibility that despite its inadequacies narrative may be nearly all that’s left. Which may point to the complications if not the impossibility, in general, of forging a direct or rhetorical relationship with the other, such as the reader. Yet, the scholar Peter Nichols argues that the ‘non-narrative poem offers us an opening into “presentness” rather than the dead weight of experience’ (Nichols 161). There is a feeling of “provisionality”, resolution is postponed – Ashbery’s poem is not the movie you go to the theater to see for it’s climactic, revelatory, and neat ending. Rather, “The form of” his writing “enacts [arguably one of] its main themes, which appears to be the inadequacy of narrative as explanation” (Nichols 161).
Through Ashbery’s resistance to the traditionally linear, concrete narrative approach to poetry – through his “negation of what no longer holds” as Adorno put it – he disrupts myth, disrupts the one story, and the one way of telling a story. And as Jean Luc Nancy states, “when writing interrupts myth we may recover history” (Nicholls 164), so paradoxically, there is the possibility that it is not through retelling a narrative as we remember it (one might think of the John Wayne film, The Green Berets with its patriotic, conventional telling of the American perspective of the Vietnam War story), or as it has always been told, but by somehow twisting the narrative that we might get at a kind of “truth” (and here, one might think of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now). This disruption of myth in “The Skaters” is exemplified by the way in which the speaker’s voice in the poem is forceful and controlled, but trails off into reverie, memory, distraction, meditation. Thus, a keyword in the poem: “Meanwhile”. Which seems to point to the blurry line between where our self ends and begins. So, fittingly, “The Skaters” is built through quilting or collage (again, think of Rauschenberg, Johns, Schwitters) – the poem is associative – “always in this poem the consciousness is drifting away from its occasion… [and] always, eventually, the poem will come back”.