Poetry as an antidote to the status quo

POET'S CORNER

John Ashbery turns cliches around, into inspiration, perhaps

April 14, 2002|By Michael Collier | By Michael Collier,Special to the Sun

In answer to the question, "Why does one write poetry?", Wallace Stevens, one of America's great 20th-century poets, responded: "Because one is impelled to do so by a personal sensibility and also because one grows tired of the monotony of one's imagination."

Since 1956, when his first book was chosen by W.H. Auden to win the coveted 1956 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, John Ashbery, like Stevens, has used poetry to avoid the boredom of a sedentary imagination. It is typical and telling about modern poetry that both Stevens and Ashbery do not claim to write from "inspiration," though their sensibility impels them, but from monotony, tiredness and perhaps impatience with the status quo.

In the service of his imagination, John Ashbery has published more than 20 volumes of poems, a collection of plays, a novel, essays and art criticism. He has received almost every award a poet can receive, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and a MacArthur Fellowship. At least three generations of American poets have been profoundly influenced by his presence.

If "Short-Term Memory," reprinted here, is the first Ashbery poem you've encountered, you're apt to find it puzzling. That's all right -- Ashbery himself finds his poems "hermetic" and rarely tries to explain what they mean.

While his refusal to describe what his poems mean is mostly genuine, it is also part of a strategy to deflect attention away from "meaning" as the goal of poetry and back onto the experience of the poems themselves. Although the context of Ashbery's poems might be difficult to recognize, the colloquial diction he uses isn't: "I could have pretended not to be in." "Instead I came to the door in shirtsleeves." "It was as though no one cared." And "What about those Orioles ...?" which will have a particular resonance for Sun readers.

If we can call it inspiration, Ashbery finds his in the language of common speech. In this way his poems echo "The Lyrical Ballads" of the English Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. Ashbery's genius lies in his ability to combine phrases that are really little more than cliches so that, at one moment, as he demonstrates in "Short-Term Memory," we can be standing on the porch in our shirtsleeves being ambushed by a squad of Jehovah's Witnesses and, in the next, asking "What about your immortal soul?"

Maryland poet lauteate Michael Collier's Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.

Reading

John Ashbery will read Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the Joshua Ringel Memorial Reading Series. The event is free, and a reception will precede the reading at 5:45 p.m. The annual Ringel reading is co-sponsored by the Teachers & Writers Collaborative and the Center for Talented Youth at the Johns Hopkins University.

Short-Term Memory

By John Ashbery

A few things came to observe me:

a terrible explosion,

flowers, dustiness in the boroughs,

planners plagued by increasingly goofy proposals.

I could have pretended not to be in.

Instead I came to the door in shirtsleeves,

extending a hand to the vexed guests. "What about those Orioles,

this terribly warm weather we've been having?" Truthfully,

I was suffering from the heat and didn't know it.

It was enough just then to perceive life as a sandbar,

or a mirage of one, that the tide is frantically

trying to erase so as to cover its tracks.

Broken discoveries invaded my short-term memory,

but not so you'd notice. Continuing the polite

palaver I asked after the health of this one and that one,

how little Lois was doing in school, what Howie was up to

in his treehouse. It was as though no one cared.

Or had seen me. They shuffled aimlessly away

to come alive later no doubt in some sex sequence,

while here leaves are browning before the end of summer

and the groundskeeper waits.

What about your immortal soul?

I may have lost it, just this once, but other chapters

will arrive, bright as a child's watercolor,

and you'd want to be around me.

From Your Name Here (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000). Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux,

copyright 2000.

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