Saturday, April 22, 2006

John Ashbery's Where Shall I Wander

I've only recently begun to pay proper attention to John Ashbery. I'd known him primarily as an endorser of others. His enigmatic little blurbs appear on the back of several books I own; Lee Harwood's for example, poet of this parish, whose Crossing The Frozen River has been on and off my nightstand these ten years. If memory serves I came to Ashbery through Harwood and simultaneously through Frank O'Hara. Ashbery, O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, some others, constitute the New York School, a bunch of poets associated with that city in the 50's and 60's: abstract expressionism, The Cedar Tavern, yada yada.

The only one of these I really knew was O'Hara, through the charming Lunch Poems which I had in a (slightly misleading - no californian teahead zen wrestler he) City Lights pocket edition. O'Hara's poetry is alive and full of a real and beautiful city, its taxicabs and lunch counters, department stores and news stands. Its protagonist is very much and always Frank. Real, dear Frank rushing from museum to lunch date, swooning camply in a bar, fixing you suddenly with a jewel eye, speaking directly to the sleeping, the famous, the dead, the city itself, exhaling a kind of pheremonal Rodgers and Hammerstein gas, and charming charming charming you. He's at the tipping point between the confident brightness of early adulthood and the beginnings of a more troubled maturity. And sadly is frozen there by his heartbreakingly wasteful death at the age of 39 in a hit and run accident at Fire Island. Here's a bit of Frank:


Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

So beautiful that last line in it's perfectly pitched turn of mild petulance right at the end. The poem is in part just an excuse for Frank to strike that Shirley Temple moue because he knows he'll get away with it. The poem was written on the way to a reading he was doing with Robert Lowell as a rather catty way of demonstrating his privileged values of speed, charm and urbanity to an audience who had probably come to worship at the Church of Lowell. Anyway I realise that I am supposed to be writing about Ashbery and have got entirely distracted. At O'hara's funeral the painter Larry Rivers remarked, "I am one of about sixty people in New York who believed Frank to be my best friend." Everyone's in love with Frank.

Not so John Ashbery. Widely held to be America's greatest living poet, he divides critical opinion in a way that exemplifies the divisions that rive american poetry in two. Early in his career he was the object of praise from the 'right wing' critic Harold Bloom, who saw in him a possible future for lyric poetry. His poem 'Some Trees' was and still is much anthologised, and Bloom loved it and the lease on life it promised for a tradition that had seemed moribund. Then Ashbery went weird. He wrote a book of perplexingly impenetrable poems, The Tennis Court Oath, crossed the Rubicon to Marjorie Perloff's camp, and never looked back. Of course this is a gross and malign oversimplification, but it has a grain of truth.

In the UK, Ashbery has been viewed as a kind of impish figure. Neat, mild-mannered, slightly odd. His forbiddingly strange body of work is little read compared with Ginsberg or Plath, and doesn't quite have the radical cache of the next generation of Bernstein, Bruce Andrews et al. It doesn't seem to emanate from an America we recognise, which is to say it isn't engaged with its surroundings in the heavily figured way we have become used to Americans doing since Whitman. There are places in Ashbery's poetry, cities, gardens, pavilions, coastal margins, but they worry in the way that do the bone-white dream provinces of Pierre Reverdy. His political engagement, if judged against the pants-down, freak-wrangler sort typified by Ed 'Fuck You' Sanders or the overt Marxist Leninism of some Language Poetry, can seem dilatory. How could an American artist have lived through the Nixon Era, Vietnam, Reagan, three Bush Family administrations and countless wars big and small and not have breathed a word about it in his poetry?

This is why I wanted to offer a comparison with O'Hara. In contrast with O'Hara's Manhattan mini-break, its whirl of chatty directness, Ashbery's work has the effect of slowly accreting in the imagination like limescale in a washing machine. The sorts of half-questions, shifts of tense and person, abrupt disjunctions in register and direction, can begin to affect one's way of mediating experience. The Ashbery world, it soon begins to seem, rather than being strange and external, is in fact strange and internal. So that we exclaim quietly not "Yes, the world is like that, and for that reason", but "Yes, speaking and thinking about the world is like that, and for that reason". He goes back through Heidegger to Husserl - you've got to start with the subject, with the fact of apprehension, everything comes from that. What is speaking of? I am aware that this sort of radical phenomenology has been so problematised as to be considered outwith the range of acceptable positions in current philosophical circles. I think of his position in this regard as just that; somewhere Ashbery has put himself, rather in the way that Giotto put himself where you’re standing when you look at his paintings. The peculiar doubleness of that position, occupied both by the viewer and the artist, is figured for me in Ashbery’s reflex use of the first person plural, a stylistic tic so typical of him that it can make other poets use of it open to charges of ‘Ashberyism’ (see John Yau).

So it's a shift in emphasis. O'Hara, who here I use to stand for all of those who delight in the great poetic naming of America, it's fetching, makes me want to go there. It excites desire for its object of desire ( all those Odes...). It is young in its own eyes. Ashbery meanwhile names very little of America, does not count its wars, list its venalities or name its restaurants. Rather he slowly incubates the techniques of precision in the writing of the little broken distance that is thought in the world. Now, with his late near-masterpiece Where Shall I Wander, we begin to see what the real benefit of having had Ashbery with us may prove to be. A fresh address to death; a new poetics of old age, loss, memory and death. Throughout his career there have been bursts of intensely personal self-examinatory poetry, sometimes microscopically precise and detailed like the long poems that make up Three Poems or Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, whose complex accounts of subjectivity tied loosely to individually lived lives promise his great theme. Which seems to me now to be a poetry which seeks to apprehend the particular quality of a human life span as it is lived, to account for and include its changing sense of itself in the specificity of its travelling forward through time, whose days are remarked In Self-Portrait...:

"....No previous day would have been like this.
I used to think they were all alike,
That the present always looked the same to everybody
But this confusion drains away as one
Is always cresting into one's present."

Later in the same poem he worries about life's circumscribed parameter, a day in the museum and "...the dread of not getting out / Before having seen the whole collection". The poem ends as Ashbery's poems often do with a beautifully turned passage that takes the risk of elegy and the dying fall:

"Each part of the whole falls off
and cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time."

One such "cold pocket" being the poem itself, another being Francesco Parmigianino's astoundingly peculiar painting from which the poem takes its title. Here, with that "except...", a last silver trumpet phrase as the music fades, he can't help but offer a chink of light, however chill and delimited, to refute Sir Thomas Browne's bleak assessment that "oblivion is not to be hired". Ashbery was in his mid forties at the time, a way away from death, both his own, still appropriately distant, but also from the impending disaster of the AIDS epidemic which encircled and laid siege to Ashbery's world in the years to come, as New Yorks artistic community went down like a badly hit WW1 regiment. "In the rash of partings and dyings (the new twist) / .../...paintings are the one thing we never seem to run out of." (from More Pleasant Adventures in the early eighties collection A Wave)

By 2005, a 78 year old Ashbery is right up close and as far away as ever from his inscrutable old opponent. The game has taken on a quality beyond urgency, a quality so hard-won and available to so few, spared in body and mind, that we hardly have a vocabulary for it. This, then, might be Ashbery's final vindication, and the job that puts him in the category of a requirement for every person alive today in the parts of the world where such things can help. I honestly think that my attitude to old age and death has had a more thorough and useful going-over since I've been carrying this little book around than it has ever had.

Ashbery has great lines. There's often a rather blank feeling on first encountering his poems. There seems no way in. You can read it OK, it's not resisting you at the level of phrase or line like, say, Prynne, and there's a vague sense of terrain, or tone, but it's a self erasing sort of tone. It's talking to itself in a dream, it's back turned to you, and what you thought was the way in, the clear greeting (there're often great first lines: "Attention shoppers...";"Is it raining yet? I quit.") usually turns out to be something else. Occasional striking things do appear, though. This from The Situation Upstairs

"These not any more for our adornment:
talking to new rulers and insight gained
sunflowers over and out
ashes on the clapboard credenza"

That 'sunflowers' - a relatively conventional visual image, connotes the rottenness of high summer, a badge of gone-overness, as well as some kind of satellite dish (over and out) no longer recieving what? Ash on the credenza (sort of shelf, bookshelves), but also includes "clapperboard" and "cadence", a kind of cinematic ending, the actors wander away, the shot widens to include the studio lot. "Credenza" is a very Ashbery word. It's strange in the mouth to most of us, not part of a shared register, trailing the sense of another culture, fictive, European, Borgesian. The sense is of travelling through an elaborately imagined world, its tropes and strophes peeling away like outriders or shuttle fuel tanks in the teleological drift towards the violet and lemon sunset of the cover image - a detail from Friedrich's 'Large Enclosure' painted at a time when he believed himself to be dying (you can just see a little boat crossing that wetland, heading for the dark trees...).

Here is The Injured Party in full:

This one knows;
this one went hence like a conversion
as Chopin played in their living rooms
and bats tilted through the long summer.

Making love to the cement, a dropout
had seen sheaves before.
The appeal wound its way through the courts,
pausing, now and then, for a drink of water,
ending in a "stale mate."

And for a number of years, our track record
was zero and polite. Those who remembered us at all
were amazed to be greeting us this side of heaven.
We fidgeted with our hair, pleaded with the presiding judge,
but the end was my initials, and the date, carved in roman numerals.
Oh, I see. You're here of those who love us.
The others are outside.
The wind is blowing.

we paint the word "winter" on the door

There's a suggestion of 'this little piggy' in those first two lines, counting off, enumerating fate's varieties. But 'went hence'? Converted to what? There's a suggestion of suicide, but also a remote slapstick echo of conversion in the football sense, punted high in the air, picked up again in 'track record'. The punted protagonist meets a wet end in line 5, somehow recalling the 9/11 jumpers ('zero' in line 11). The appeal that accompanies this period ('long summer') of death and falling meets no success, is stale, thirsty. Everything is on hold, everyone is surprised that the end which had seemed so near has held off, spared 'em for another year. Eventually the season turns, they call it up themselves, paint its name on the door they will open. Here I am reminded of the story of Bran from the Mabinogion, how, having been injured in battle, he commanded his band of seven supporters to cut off his head and carry it to London, but on the way they spent eighty years in the Hall of Gwales overlooking the Bristol Channel, where there were three doors, two open, the third, on the Cornwall side, closed. They spent eighty years feasting and singing until one day:

"...Heilyn son of Gwynn said 'Shame on my beard if I do not open this door to see if what is said about it is true.' He opened the door and looked out at the Bristol Channel and Cornwall, and as he did so they all became as conscious of every loss they had suffered, of every friend and relative they had lost, of every ill that had befallen them, as if it had all just happened...."

Incidentally this story is also referenced in Ashbery's old friend Lee Harwood's poem The Heart and Hand, North Road, Brighton, another poem about loss of lovers and friends: "How many of us left? It's all out there falling around, and us too.". There's a framed copy of the poem on the wall in that pub - Brighton's best and my second home for ten long years.

It would be wrong of me to characterise Where Shall I Wander as about age or death. It isn’t. It’s a bunch of Ashbery poems written a couple or so years ago about all kinds of things, but they seem to be so strongly from old age and death’s proximity that they offer a good long look at that phenomenon first intuited by Whitman in another poem about what it is to be someone in the world:

“To die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier”

Anyway, as a blog post I realise this is ridiculously long and apologise to anyone who's given themselves scrollers ague to get this far and discover I have nothing of interest to say apart from - get this book, carry it around with you for a month, then get the Carcanet selected. You'll thank me.

You're the Don, Alan Hay. I started off reading this after downloading "Copacabana (At The Copa)" on a whim when I couldn't get it out of my head. Now I'm going away wanting to buy a book of poetry for the first time ever in my post-teenage life.
That makes a lot of tedious linkmongering seem worthwhile. But why are you downloading Barry Manilow at twenty to nine on a sunday morning, Jon? Shouldn't you be enjoying the build-up to the Flora London Marathon?
I know several perfectly decent people who do it, but when I see joggers I always wonder if they're running away from something they'll never escape, or pursuing something they'll never have.
Excellent appraisal. I'm going to use my leisure time at work this week looking into JA.

Freak-wrangler. Now there's a thankless footnote task.
This afternoon, I wandered back through the West End from a physio. appt. in Gower St. and Where Shall I Wander drew me into Waterstones near Trafalgar Square. I was looking for history, but saw a lone copy.

I read some lines as I walked through Whitehall.

"The distant bight
freezes over when it has to"

It'll be a good train journey back.
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