Notes from the Air


My interest in John Ashbery was first piqued when I read his interview in the recently-released Paris Review compilations. In particular, I was intrigued by his attitude toward ambiguity and "difficulty," which the interviewer asks about because Ashbery has a reputation as a famously "difficult" poet. In response, Ashbery emphasizes that he hates the idea of being intentionally obscure or antagonistic toward the reader; that's never been his goal, and he objects to that kind of confrontational attitude in poetry as well as in clothing. Rather, he says, "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." Genius.

My intention is to present the reader with a pleasant surprise, not an unpleasant one, not a nonsurprise. I think this is the way pleasure happens when you are reading poetry. [...] Ambiguity seems to be the same thing as happiness or pleasant surprise. I am assuming that from the moment life cannot be one continual orgasm, real happiness is impossible, and pleasant surprise is promoted to the front rank of the emotions. The idea of relief from pain has something to do with ambiguity. Ambiguity supposes eventual resolution of itself whereas certitude implies further ambiguity. I guess that is why so much 'depressing' modern art makes me feel cheerful.

I might disagree with Ashbery's definition of "real happiness" here, but I deeply relate to what he says about ambiguity implying eventual resolution whereas certitude implies further ambiguity, and to the way in which supposedly "depressing" modern art makes him feel cheerful. This was one of those moments of shocking recognition for me, in which someone else articulates my exact feelings, not fully realized until I read them on the page. Combine that with his clothing analogy, and I knew I had to seek out some of Ashbery's poetry.

Notes from the Air is a sampling of his later work, selected by the poet himself, from 1987's April Galleons to 2005's Where Shall I Wander (published when Ashbery was 78 years old). The resulting volume did consistently surprise me—in large part, because the sampled collections were all so different from one another. I have read some criticisms of "unevenness" in Notes from the Air, and I would tend to agree that some sections are a lot "better"—more pleasing, more surprising, more memorable—than others, either subjectively or objectively. With such a huge variety of approaches and concerns, this is almost inevitable. Far from being a negative in my mind, though, this wide range is one of the most impressive things about my introduction to Ashbery: even in his late 70s, he never ceases to experiment, to approach poetics from different angles and with different attitudes. What's more, with a few exceptions the vision within each excerpted collection seemed unified, as if each one were a self-contained project.

In general, I found the earlier collections (April Galleons, Flow Chart, Hotel LautrĂ©amont, Can You Hear, Bird) stronger than the later ones. The Paris Review interviewer remarks that in Ashbery's poetry "the details of a poem will be so clear, but the context, the surrounding situation, unclear," and indeed this dichotomy provided many of the pleasant surprises I found in my favorite pieces. Ashbery borrows cadences and figures from informal, colloquial speech and writing, which lends his verses a certain ease—sometimes humorous, sometimes melancholic, but always possessed of an "everyday" quality. At the same time, though, he invokes so many surprising juxtapositions that the reader often finds herself disoriented, despite the familiarity of the language. From the beginning of "April Galleons," the titular poem in the first excerpted collection:

Something was burning. And besides,
At the far end of the room a discredited waltz
Was alive and reciting tales of the conquerors
And their lilies—is all of life thus
A tepid housewarming? And where do the scraps
Of meaning come from? Obviously,
It was time to be off, in another
Direction, toward marshlands and cold, scrolled
Names of cities that sounded as though they existed,
But never had.

The juxtaposition of transitions normally characterizing informal spoken language ("And besides," "Obviously, it was time to be off") and more heightened figurative language (a living "discredited waltz"; "the conquerors and their lilies") is enormously appealing to me, as is the almost fiction-esque tone created by the narrative voice behind the colloquialisms. Combined with the very Eliot-esque line "Is all of life thus / A tepid housewarming?" and this, like several of Ashbery's other poems, had me flashing back to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Even the overall conceit of the poem—finding the speaker on the verge of setting out on a metaphysical journey he imagines will change his life—is reminiscent.

Some of my favorite examples of Ashbery's hybrid colloquial/figurative approach were to be found in the book-length poem Flow Chart, of which only section 5 of 6 is included in this collection. Of all the collections on offer, Flow Chart is probably the one I'm most tempted to read in its entirety, not only because I'm curious to get a sense of the larger picture vis-a-vis this long poem, but because some of the sections therein were the most emotionally resonant for me as well. A short sample:

                                                               A few anomalies
are a help sometimes, confetti that gets lost in the cracks
of some conversation and then you have to take it back again to the beginning
and start all over again, but that's normal, it's no cause for alarm, there are
more people out there than before. If you can think constructively, cogently,
on a spring morning like this and really want to know the result in advance, and can
accept the inroads colorful difficulties can sometimes make as well as all the
fortunate happening, the unexpected pleasures and all that, then there's no reason not to
rejoice in the exterior outcome, sudden
mountain-face, the abrupt slide
into somewhere or other. It will all twist us
closer together, under heaven, and I guess that's what you came about. See these
polished stones? I want them and I want you to have them. It's time, now.

Perhaps it's my Scotch-Norwegian roots showing, but to me all the gruffness and "aw shucks" language here ("the unexpected pleasures and all that"; "I guess that's what you came about") heighten the poignancy of this passage—it's all about communicating with oneself and other people, about negotiating and re-negotiating conversations, and yet the speaker himself is awkward at that very task. I also love the idea that unraveling and starting over from the beginning—whether we are referring to a conversation or a piece of artwork—is a natural part of any process, only to be expected, "normal, no cause for alarm."

The selections from Hotel Lautréamont struck me as slightly more formal, and include two amazing examples of pantoums, a form in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third (respectively) of the one following. The long-ish titular poem "Hotel Lautréamont" is a particularly amazing example of the form; it's striking how the repeated lines often change meaning completely due only to recontextualization.

Can You Hear, Bird surprised me in turn by being laugh-out-loud funny. This is probably the second volume I would investigate in its entirety, just because I found Ashbery's wry humor so delightful (and often effective in bringing out his melancholia by contrast), and it's shown off to particular advantage in these poems. In "...By An Earthquake," each line gives us a hypothetical plot point in a loosely connected and sometimes petty melodrama. An excerpt:

A and A-2 meet with a tragic adventure, and A-2 is killed.
Elvira, seeking to unravel the mystery of a strange house in the hills, is caught in an
        electrical storm. During the storm the house vanishes and the site on which is stood
        becomes a lake.
Alphonse has a wound, a terrible psychic wound, an invisible psychic would, which
        causes pain in flesh and tissue which, otherwise, are perfectly healthy and normal.
A has a dream which he conceives to be an actual experience.
Jenny, homeward bound, drives and drives, and is still driving, no nearer to her home
        than she was when she first started.
Petronius B. Furlong's friend, Morgan Windhover, receives a wound from which he dies.
Thirteen guests, unknown to one another, gather in a spooky house to hear Toe reading
        Buster's will.

And so on. The line about Petronius B. Furlong tickles me in particular. The poem as a whole is oddly compelling in addition to being funny, playing with stereotypes of plot and character. The poem "Sleepers Awake" has similarly literary/meta concerns, as does "Chapter II, Book 35, which was one of my favorite pieces in this whole book. Can You Hear, Bird has touches of the sinister and melancholy as well, as in "The Problem of Anxiety," which begins "Fifty years have passed / since I started living in those dark towns / I was telling you about." These more troubling touches coexist with the humor in a surprisingly compelling way, and the tension between them made Can You Hear, Bird stand out (although there were flashes of humor throughout the other collections, as well).

There were so many poems I loved in this collection, and it's so difficult to decide what to include in a blog post. The later pieces tended, I thought, to be less pressurized, more prone to rambling, and didn't transport me as consistently as the earlier ones did, but there were still some very memorable points in the latter pages. Overall Notes on the Air was a great introduction to Ashbery, since it gave me a good idea of the different characters of his later collections, which in turn allows me to decide which ones I'd like to investigate more fully. His output is so diverse that I would highly recommend someone new to his poetry starting out with a similarly bird's-eye view; it seems to me that given a panorama of Ashbery's work, most readers could find something to love.


Notes from the Air was my seventh book for the Challenge that Dare Not Speak its Name (although it's not a major theme in his poetry, Ashbery does happen to be gay), and my third book for the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Challenge.


  • I took a class with Seamus Heaney in college where we talked about some Ashbery. I especially loved the Convex Mirror. It must have been twenty years since I read him. Sounds like it is time to pull out my copy!

  • LifetimeReader: Or maybe it's time to do a little dance because you TOOK A CLASS WITH SEAMUS HEANEY. How cool is that? Or actually, how cool was it? Was he a good teacher, in addition to a good poet? On an Ashbery-related note, I'm curious about his earlier stuff, especially having seen how diverse his later output was. I feel like I have no idea what kind of thing he might have written as a younger man, despite 300+ pages of reading...Convex Mirror sounds like a good place to start. Thanks for the comment. :-)

  • I've n ot read Ashbery yet, he is on my perpetual list. I love the excerpts and your descriptions of his poems. And I love the quotes about the clothes. That made me laugh out loud which doesn't work so well when I am sitting at the public service desk in a library and supposed to be working! :) I believe I will have to get a copy of this book and read the Paris Review interview.

  • Yes! I still think it is one of the coolest things I ever did. It was a 2-semester poetry writing seminar with some amazing young poets in the class (including Kevin Young, if I'm remembering which class we were in together). I was not one of the amazing ones, in case you had any doubts! He was an inspiring teacher of other poets and a terrific mentor for young writers. But he wasn't giving us the intellectual discussion of Ashbery that I think I want now.

  • Stefanie: Ha, glad to make you laugh even at the expense of your professionalism. :-) I highly recommend the Paris Review interview; even by the high standards of those interviews, I thought it was a good one. Hope you enjoy Ashbery, too - if you liked those excerpts, you will probably find a lot to love.

    LR: Oh, it's so satisfying to me to hear he was a great teacher and mentor. Makes me want to take my Heaney volumes off the shelf and bask in their glow. :-) That's an interesting point about fostering a creative environment versus getting into the weeds with intellectual analysis, as well - sometimes they're not automatically complementary.

  • I'm like Stefanie and have been meaning to read Ashbery for a while now, but I've felt intimidated. I have his early book The Tennis Court Oath, but maybe that's not the best place to start, I'm not sure. I'll have to look out for Notes from the Air.

  • Dorothy: If I recall correctly, Ashbery talks at length about The Tennis Court Oath in that Paris Review interview I linked above, so if you do decide to start there, you might take a look at the interview for some possible insight. I haven't read any of his earlier stuff so can't compare, but I did enjoy Notes from the Air.

  • Oh my, poetry that is appealing to me in the extreme! That clothing analogy, and those excerpts you quote, and the juxtaposition you note between informal transitions and more poetic style...well, now I want to seek this fellow out too. And you've almost got me thinking I really should make a point of getting serious about some poetry this year. Just as I'm making my resolutions/plans...

    Wow, seriously, thanks. I think discovery is my biggest problem with poetry. That and trying to write about it, of course.

  • Nicole: Yay, you're welcome! I know what you mean about the difficulty of discovery. Especially since comparatively few book bloggers write about poetry. I found I was glad for the motivation of the Clover, Bee & Reverie challenge, due to which I actually got in the habit of reading more of it.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography