John Ashbery's poetry evokes the power of dreams and language

April 24, 1994|By Daniel Mark Epstein

Nearly a decade ago, I reviewed John Ashbery's "Selected Poems." The poet, then in his late 50s, had published 10 volumes of verse and had won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. I wrote that the publication of "Selected Poems" was a "celebration of full maturity" and Mr. Ashbery was "a major poet at the peak of his powers."

It turns out that I was wrong -- he had not yet begun to "peak." Now surveying the range of John Ashbery's achievement, I believe his peak shines somewhere in the mists of his 1987 "April Galleons" (that most beautifully named of books), in the book-length poem "Flow Chart" (1991) or the volume in hand, "And the Stars Were Shining."

To his readers, the themes of this new work will be familiar: mutability, the sadness of solitude and loss, the enduring hope of renewal by rediscovering a world through language. The best poems engage all these themes.

What can we do,


clasp, unclasp the hand that never is ours

much as it wants to be? Under a gray skylight

the eclipse burns still, there are lilies, perfection

arrives, and then the tines

unearth fewer embers. Can it be time to go?

from "Local Time"

This poem evokes the moment when one body eclipses another in an erotic encounter, with all of its excitement and frustration.

you reminded me of dragonflies skulking,

of aromatic fires peaking,

and neither of us gets to know the other.

Next thing you know it's winter.

The skylight, now aproned with white,

is our bare harvest.

Story resumes. But the chill does not last. The lover recovers his content in solitude after the "eclipse."

But there is good in reappearing:

the flames roar, beaker of scotch, the old way

things were probably supposed to be all along anyway.

The tone of the speaker in Mr. Ashbery's poems has always been distinguished by its delicacy and humility. A poet of high seriousness, he never takes himself too seriously; he never shouts, complains, or lectures except in fun: And if what others do/ finally seems good to you? Why,/ the very civility that gilded it/ is flaking. At times the tone seems almost frail, asexual, etiolated. Then only humor and irony can keep it fresh.

Yet in this new book one finds a greater firmness of tone, as if the poet had steeled himself against the ravages of time: Originally/ we weren't going to leave home. But made bold/ somehow by the rain we put our best foot forward./ Now it's years after that. It/ isn't possible to be young anymore./ Yet the tree treats me like a brute friend;/my own shoes have scarred the walk I've taken.

It will not be news to followers of Mr. Ashbery's career that critics call him a romantic poet in the tradition of Shelley, Coleridge and Wallace Stevens. He is "romantic" in a sense confined to literary discussion -- that is, his poetry always is seen to emerge from a musical field of pre-conscious or semi-articulate language. Classical poetry clearly expresses what is understood; romantic poetry expresses the struggle to come to an understanding, to salvage meaning from chaos.

Such objects as my endurance picks out

like a searchlight have gone the extra mile

too, like schoolchildren, and are seated now

in attentive rows, waiting trimly

for these words to flood

distraught corners of silences. We collected

them after all for their unique

indifference to each other and to the circus

that houses us all, and for their collectibility --

7+ that, and their tendency to fall apart.

"Ghost Riders of the Moon"

The "objects" sitting like schoolchildren are the subjects of the poet's musing. The poems that preserve the objects will keep them from falling apart -- here we have a new variation on the theme of ars longa, vita brevis, emphasizing the need for poetry as an antidote to chaos.

A few poems such as "Title Search" and "William Byrd" float free of logic, narrative or any unifying principle other than musicality. Some of these "collages" are charming, some are impish -- all serve to provide perspective for the passages of clear meaning that shine the more brightly against a background of mist and darkness.

The most memorable poems follow, with satirical quirkiness, the conventions of discourse, narrative and argumentation. Not since e.e. cummings have we seen a lyric poet who can elicit so much meaning from conventional rhetoric while making a mockery of it. "O Oswald, O Spengler, this is very sad to find!" Thus he echoes Robert Browning's famous opening to "A Tocatta of Galuppi's," at the beginning of his own poem "The Decline of the West."

What! Our culture in its dotage!

Yet this very poem refutes it,

springing up out of the collective unconscious

like a weasel through a grating.

The poem is an elegant, humorous put-down of Spengler's theories: His book, I saw it somewhere and I bought it./ I never read it for it seemed too long./ His theory though, I fought it/ though it spritzes my song . . .

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