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An Amplitude of Ashbery : FLOW CHART: A Poem, By John Ashbery (Knopf: $20; 215 pp.)

June 23, 1991|Scott Mahler | Mahler is a free-lance writer who lives and works in New Hampshire

John Ashbery used to be considered a controversial poet, but since he has become a more mature and "established" writer, the controversy has died down to just a smoldering disagreement on the artistic merit of his work. For years, Ashbery was thought of as an experimental poet, owing to the opacity of his writing and poems like "Litany," a work of more than 3,000 lines in two columns meant to be read as "simultaneous but independent monologues."

Ashbery's poetry has been called mysterious, original, difficult, dream-like, Romantic, a part of the continuum of American poetry that includes Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. It's also been called elusive, inauthentic, unmusical and overmannered. "Flow Chart" is easily all of these things.

You can recognize Ashbery's hand in a poem (even if it's just a ghost) the way you recognize the hand of certain painters. Ashbery obviously learned quite a lot about making art from the artists he knows. He tends to manipulate language like a painter, suggesting a mood or an idea rather than rendering it directly in a conventional fashion.

You can practically read "Flow Chart," like many of Ashbery's poems, the way you look at a painting, taking it all in at once, moving in and going back to see it closely and from a distance, sorting out the meaningful passages from the balance of apparently random marks and remarks on the page. Ashbery once explained in an interview that he lets all kinds of things from his immediate environment into his poems while he's writing--bits of news, parts of telephone conversations, words from a letter lying on his desk. These things flow together in his poems, but also give a sense of the discontinuity of our lives.

"Flow Chart" is a book-length poem of more than 5,000 long Ashberian lines, which makes it one of the longest poems ever written by an American poet. All of the qualities of Ashbery's recent poetry are here in amplitude or excess, depending on your point of view.

It's usually difficult to define the subject of an Ashbery poem, and "Flow Chart" is no exception. The work is an accretion of vaguely interconnected reflections, intuitions, premonitions and ruminations on the course a life has taken, over the rocky waterfalls of love and relationships, through forests, and across the vast ranches of everyday life, desolation, tolerance and, perhaps, joy. "Poetry does not have subject matter," Ashbery has written, "because it is the subject. We are the subject matter of poetry, not vice versa."

Reading a typical poem by Ashbery, you almost always experience the way the poet speaks before you know what he is saying. His grammar, syntax and diction are fairly standard, even prosaic, but the meaning in Ashbery's poetry rarely is found on the surface of the language, as in these opening lines from "Flow Chart":

\o7 Still in the published city but not yet

overtaken by a new form of despair,

I ask

the diagram: is it the foretaste

of paint

it could so easily be? Or an emptiness\f7

so sudden it leave the girders

\o7 whanging in the absence of wind,

the sky milk-blue and astringent?

We know

life is so busy, but a larger activity

shrouds it, and this is something

we can never feel, except\f7

occasionally,

\o7 in small signs put up to warn us

and as soon

expunged, in part or wholly.\f7

An Ashbery poem is not an invitation to a treasure hunt for secret meanings. Rather you should let the poem act upon you, allowing yourself to become its subject. Ashbery once was asked in an interview whether his poetry had any hidden meanings, and he replied that it did not, because then somebody might find out what they were and the poems would no longer be mysterious.

Whether the artistic merits of "Flow Chart" are as great as its length is an open question, bound to rekindle the kind of disagreement that has arisen over Ashbery's work in recent years. At a time when most poetry is greeted with little more than stock platitudes and complacent praise, this is at least a measure of the vitality of the poet's work. Ashbery has shown us again that he can go more than the distance we expect of great poets, but neither the terrain he covers nor the course he takes is altogether very exciting.

"Flow Chart" is a great accomplishment, but it sometimes reads more like a big effort than a real \o7 tour de force\f7 .

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