“Readings” of John Ashbery’s poetry have been a contentious point in critical and scholarly circles for more than half a century. It is commonly held by acolytes and detractors alike that there are only misreadings of his work, to the great delight of Harold Bloom. Stephen Burt recently wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, “When you interpret Ashbery at all, you risk having sceptics tell you that you made it all up: that the poems demonstrate ingenuity not from the poet but from his interpreters, who find music in static, meaning in randomness, synthetic silk in a succession of sow’s ears . . . No one can prove that Ashbery’s poems mean anything.” This is as good a maxim as any.
John Ashbery uses language in ways that have been emphatically described as being like music, more about evocation in the reader than symbolic or essayistic communication through the text. Thus, a coherent reading per se is nearly impossible; only impressions and techniques can be described. The techniques of Planisphere (Ecco, 2009), Ashbery’s latest collection, consist mainly of collage and pastiche, as well as a shifting, unstable sense of interiority that has marked his work from the very beginning.
Over the course of his career, Ashbery’s work has presented a prolonged critique-via-exploration of the limits of phenomenological understanding: writing about “the experience of experience,” as he famously put it; trying to explode our coherent sense of the world, time, truth, and the self. This is only the large-scale picture of his work though. Each poem or sets of poems use this larger technique to focus most often on human, personal notions. For the past two decades, Ashbery has been an assembly line of his own late-style verse. Of late, we find him looking back, or rather looking at “looking back,” considering experiences of memory and loneliness alongside themes of generational transition and nostalgia. In “Attabled with the Spinning Years,” for example, he writes:
It’s OK, I don’t mind. I never did. In a hundred years,
when today’s modern buildings look inviting
again, like abstract bric-a-brac, we’ll look back
at how we were cheated, pull up our socks, zip
our pants, then smile for the camera, watch
the birdie as he watches us all day.
These lines evoke images of a post-mortem world, not only for himself but for a whole generation passing away, their last trace left in photographs, existence only by the Hume-esq birdie eternally watching them. The poem ends, “even as the blip in [God’s] narrative makes us whole again” and one feels this is almost his image of utopia — a regeneration of the so-called “big narrative” of history and continuity that postmodernism long ago dismissed.
Perhaps because his themes are, in fact, so familiar — particularly where memory, loneliness, and nostalgia overlap without a restraining sense of irony — there is also a numbness, an almost familiar contempt throughout the collection. This is not wholly a flaw of temperament though; the impression is certainly intentional in a number of poems. It is evoked most directly in lines like “Just as the day could use another hour / so I could use another idea,” from “Breathlike,” and in poems such as “River of the Canoefish,” where first the thriving new species is experienced as “tumbled, tumescent, tinted all the colors of the rainbow [. . .] a swelling scumbled mass, rife with incident;” until, in a jarring turn at the end of the poem, they hold no more music or allure, “Shall we gather at the river? On second thought, let’s not.” They are made mundane with familiarity, not worth the effort of discussion in their dismissal. One can never be sure, but perhaps this, like so much of his work, is a poem about his own poetry; or, rather, it is a poem expressing his own struggle between themes of nostalgia, of tired old age, and the vivacity of his own poetry.
Planisphere is probably the least impressive offering from Ashbery in some time, and those who have just discovered him through his selected later work, Notes in Air, should not expect that same distillation of quality. One senses a lack of sharpness. There is little of that opaque language made vivid and personal by a single, poignant line — the signature effect of late Ashbery. The poem “Episode,” for example (the first of the so-titled pair), seems to land on just the wrong notes of nostalgia and self-concern, attempting (one hopes) to parody that sentimental attitude but missing the mark throughout. It seems to unintentionally evoke a sense of frustrated exhaustion, closing with that put-upon expression of the tough getting tougher that is familiar from all grandparents and, more recently, aging parents:
And if it comes back to being all alone
at the starting gate, so be it. We hadn’t wanted
this fuss, these extras. We were calm
under an appearance of turmoil, and so we remain
even today, an unwanted inspiration
to those who come immediately after
as well as those who came before, lots of them,
stretching back into times of discussion.
I told you so, we can handle it, hand on
the stick shift headed into a billboard
labeled Tomorrow, the adventures of new music,
melismas shrouding the past and the passing days.
The stanza is clearly a pastiche, but somehow never achieves — either it is poking fun or else it’s quite un-ironic, though I find that difficult to believe; the poem gropes at sadness, loss, and memory with too little self-aware reflection. Many of the poems in Planisphereseem to miss the balance in the same way. They’re either too childishly funny (as in his mish-mash of movie titles) or too balefully earnest (or so ironic that one can no longer tell); the humor is duller, the moments of emotional affection scarcer, the expressionist effects less successful throughout — the same ingredients as before, but now somewhat stale.
I hesitate to imply that these elements of his verse mark them all as flawed. What sets apart poets such as John Ashbery is that no book is ever a total loss: there are always some poems that cohere and move, that achieve their desired effect, that, in no small part, delight. “Idea of Steve,” for example, begins, “Too bad I have this idea of him / based on someone else, named Matt” and never strays from that playful mood. “The Tower of London” strikes a similarly bemused chord, detailing the tower (which “isn’t a tower. It’s a square”) and a 1930 film starring Boris Karloff “as Mord the executioner, who dabbled in torture;” it ends in a dizzying spell of names and connections, real actors and historical players, mis-rememberings and self corrections:
Richard’s bride was unlike the Queen
in the play Richard III. She was played by
Barbara O’Neill, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s
mother in Gone with the Wind, although she wasn’t old
enough to be. That’s the way I remember it. Wait, she was
actually Edward’s wife. Richard took
unto him the Lady Anne, who was
played by Nan Grey, though she actually
married Wyatt (John Sutton) after they escaped from
the Tower, or the Castle. In the end Richard
killed just about everybody, except Mord,
who got thrown off a cliff by somebody,
a fitting end to a miserable career.
“The Winemakers” is one of the strongest poems of the collection, a longish piece that seems to revolve around impressions of a summer holiday, perhaps a gathering of academics and artists. The verse utilizes his complete range of late techniques, foraging around from that unique interior impressionism. It ends on an evocative image of memory becoming the material of art itself:
So it is with the things that were more or less
dear to us and are now enfolded in the dream
of their happening. A man comes to the end of the drive,
looks around. No one sees him. He putters
and in the end is the last to leave. We may write about him,
or how his walk affected us. There he goes
again. If tact is a mortal sin
we shall not miss.
There is something ethereal about Ashbery’s project, this language-as-material expressionism and continuous deployment of irony. Outside the context of postmodernism’s boiling-point, Ashbery’s work can seem at times purposefully evasive and self-concerned, without the radical allure his conceptual project once possessed. At times, his poetry elicits little more than frustration; in fact, the critic Adam Kirsch charged that it were “as though, after him, there were nowhere fruitful for poetry to turn.” The insights one gains after much reading and re-reading of Ashbery are personal, aesthetic, almost incommunicable. Readers who seek poets that try to communicate lyrically, in recognizable scenes and metaphors, in some formulation of didactic language, will never find much to appreciate in Ashbery’s poetry. His work evades or undermines these tropes. One must accept the premises of his writing in order to engage with and enjoy it.
It seems as if the issues posed by our post- postmodern context have here given Ashbery his theme. This collection is named after a modernized version of the astrolathe, an ancient star chart once used for navigation. Its arrangement of poems alphabetically by title might be meaningful to the book as a whole, but could just as easily be a red herring (like looking for meaning in the order of the stars); or as Ashbery writes, “wiser to seek the unknown / in the interior.” One brings meanings out of the self through the work. The planisphere addresses the stars in a way that was once crucial to success, to survival; now, it is not only the un-modern device of the chart, but the very reading of stars that is outmoded and expendable. The world acts in ways unimaginable to those ancient sailors. It is the very relationship of the address that has been lost. It may be just that sentiment which Ashbery wishes to explore in Planisphere.
Daniel Evans Pritchard is the founding editor of The Critical Flame. His poetry, translations, and criticism can also be found at Harvard Review online, Slush Pile Magazine, Drunken Boat, Prodigal, Little Star, Rain Taxi, The Battersea Review, The Quarterly Conversation, The Buenos Aires Review, and elsewhere.