We discover John Ashbery as the astronomers once discovered the planet Neptune. They could not see it but knew it must be there because of the ripply and uncertain orbits of the planets near by. He is rarely quite visible, yet he bends our paths.
Ashbery, along with James Merrill, must be the most laureled of what, by now, are our senior poets. Auden laid hands upon him 30 years ago for the Yale Younger Poet series. He has since won a Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the Critics Circle Award, as well as receiving the ghostly but profitable visitation of the MacArthur Prize.
In England, he would be Poet Laureate; except that he wouldn't. I am not even sure that John F. Kennedy, were he alive and President, would invite him to swap verses over dinner. Traditionally, when power has intersected with art it was art of a kind that power could figure out; or at least put a cash value upon. And although it is foolish to rank such things, it is possible that Ashbery has written the hardest poetry of any of our major poets still around. Helen Vendler calls it poetry "written at a second order of experience."
The 138 pieces that Ashbery has chosen for his "selected poems" demonstrate both the difficulty and the possibilities of his work. Reading them is like tracking an elusive but valuable creature through heavy brush. For much of the time, we see only brush. The various crepitations we hear, so concentrated is our attention, turn out more often to be the crackle of our eardrums than his footsteps. A poet who can write
. . . a wave breaking on a rock, giving up
Its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape.
gives us back our vision re-born.
To write about Ashbery's difficulty is quite relevant, because it is part of his particularity. His theme, to put a large phrase on it, is the effort to discover patterns of order and grace in the material and emotional actuality of the contemporary world. His poetry is the defeat of that effort. The defeat involves a degree of failure--the poems have their problems--but it is not itself a failure. Surf, to borrow something of the previous image, is the wave's defeat by the beach.
In "Grand Galop" Ashbery takes inventory of the miscellaneous objects and minutes of a small town. "Too bad, I mean, that getting to know each just for a fleeting second/must be replaced by imperfect knowledge of the featureless whole," he writes, and adds:
. . . And the minor eras
Take on an importance out of all proportion to the story
For it can no longer unwind, but must be kept on hand
Indefinitely, like a first-aid kit no one ever uses
He ranges over a multiplicity of subjects but almost always his attack is indirect and referential, as if to assert the existence of anything he wrote about would be far too large a claim to make. Things and feelings are named and disappear. His writing is adjectival and adverbial in its sense, though not in its structure. Nouns melt immediately, and verbs, with nothing to act upon, mill helplessly about like unhorsed cavalry.
People come into it occasionally but almost invariably not by name but by pronoun. Usually the pronoun is you; sometimes it is he or she; rarely is it I . None of the pronouns has any real substance to it. Ashbery will write of love or passion but they attach to no voice. He sets out the shape and effect of an emotion; he does not embody it.
It is as if he were leading an expedition through a cemetery and describing the gravestones in the most particular detail, yet unable to convey that anyone is buried beneath them. Beauty, hatred, anguish, sorrow are mollusks that have long since perished and been leached away in the tide. Ashbery pads along the beach, collecting the shells and arranging them according to color and shape, not according to their original or inherent nature.
He wants things to inhere in his universe but he can't declare that they do. Reversing the biblical order, he blows upon man and creates a handful of dust. And he writes his poetry so that it, too, throws up an image for a moment and immediately dissolves. It makes it, as I say, difficult. Most hard poets use a foothold, even if it is only as frail as the "I," to precipitate their clouds. Ashbery's footholds are clouds.
He is an art critic as well as a poet. Sometimes he will go back to painted images to recall what pattern and order could be. "Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror," one of his longest, most lucid and best poems, is an extensive, shivering meditation on a painting's circle of meaning, and its inevitable decay.
You can't live there.
The gray glaze of the past attacks all know-how:
Secrets of wash and finish that took a lifetime
To learn and are reduced to the status of
Black-and-white illustrations in a book where colorplates
Ashbery the poet evicts himself from the tangibilities of both art and what we still may recognize as reality. It is a personal extreme, and I don't know how widely it can be shared. Except that in serving his extreme with such artistry, he cannot help but serve us too.