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 Lautréamont, 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
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.