States of Wander

The encomiums that plastered the internet in the hours and days following John Ashbery’s death on September 3 were mostly in accord: Ashbery’s poetry was “puzzling,” “enigmatic,” “impenetrable,” “difficult,” “elusive,” “obscure,” “incomprehensible,” “inscrutable,” “confounding,” “indecipherable,” “inaccessible,” “hard to grasp,” “incoherent,” “challenging,” “mysterious.”

I may have sighed. Oh, it’s accurate enough—I was immediately seduced when I first read Ashbery, in college, but I couldn’t have told you precisely what the words that seduced me, you know, meant. Ashbery was at first for me an atmosphere, a climate: tone, color, temperature, texture. The emphasis on difficulty makes him sound forbidding and unapproachable, but I have always found him to be among the most welcoming of poets. You won’t get far if you approach his poems as if they require a guidebook, like the ten-ton tomes explaining every Chinese character in The Cantos. But if you come at them with your guard down and a willingness to be befuddled, you might discover how much more than befuddling they can be. Ashbery will evade you, charmingly, but he’ll usually wait around the corner for you to catch up, perhaps with some funny-melancholy bit of dailiness:

Some months ago I got an offer
From Columbia Tape Club, Terre
Haute, Ind., where I could buy one
Tape and get another free. I accept-
Ed the deal, paid for one tape and
Chose a free one. But since I’ve been
Repeatedly billed for my free tape.
I’ve written them several times but
Can’t straighten it out—would you
Try?

These lines from 1979’s “Litany” (italics in the original) condense much of what I love in Ashbery—the attention to modern life’s banalities and frustrations, the discursiveness that unspools like fishing line, the faux naïveté, the peculiarity, the turn at the end to acknowledge a life with others (friends, lovers, readers).

As for incomprehensibility, it is also of course possible to retort, with Hazlitt on Wordsworth’s alleged conviction that Thomas Gray’s “Elegy” was unintelligible: “It has, however, been understood!” Understanding Ashbery has become something of a cottage industry. Everything that makes Ashbery Ashbery—the rootless pronouns, the serpentine syntax, the phenomenological muddles, the Cowper-to-ad-copy tonal yaws—has been analyzed unto the last nuclear world bank tulip. But sometimes it seems to me that even the most ingenious exegeses—Harold Bloom’s daft musings about “American Orphism,” Veronica Forrest-Thomson on the “destruction of syntax,” John Shoptaw’s theory of “homotextuality,” Angus Fletcher’s ecocriticism, Christopher Nealon’s materialist readings—end up as eisegeses. These and other accounts surely illuminate aspects of the poetry, but Ashbery is a sphere: Shine a light where we will, he remains partly occluded. Small wonder if we see our own face reflected—convexly, of course—in his.

I should say in his many faces: There’s just so damn much Ashbery. The first Library of America volume of his Collected Poems (he was the first poet to be included in the series while still living) runs to over a thousand pages and collects twelve books—not even half his oeuvre (though this first volume contains by far the best of it). The second volume, published a few days after his death, collects the seven books issued between 1991 and 2000 in over eight hundred pages. And there are eight more books after that (or seven and a half: Many of the poems in 2001’s small-press As Umbrellas Follow Rain reappeared in the next year’s Chinese Whispers), presumably destined for a third volume. The first two volumes of Ashbery’s Collected Poems alone contain about as many pages as the collected poems of Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens combined.

So the intricate evasions of Ashbery, like those of life, take many forms. There is the Stevensian opacity of the first book, Some Trees (1956), which flowers into the grand rhetoric of the middle period, its digressiveness punctuated by steep dives into the demotic; the experimental collage of The Tennis Court Oath (1962); the sprightly absurdities of the late work. Ashbery was “as multitudinous and varied / As the drops in a single storm,” as he puts it in “Litany.”

Jane Freilicher, Portrait of John Ashbery, ca. 1968, oil on canvas, 20 1/4 × 18". Courtesy The Flow Chart Foundation and Eric Brown Art Group, private collection.

I confess I haven’t always kept up, especially in the last decade. I never finished Where Shall I Wander (2005), though I loved what I read. A Worldly Country (2007) might be his best late collection, but I’ve hardly glanced at 2015’s Breezeway or last year’s Commotion of the Birds (now his final book, though posthumous collections are sure to follow).

Returning to Ashbery’s work in the new Library of America volume—his early late period, I guess—I find myself moved by the persistence of a harrowing theme I’ve been tracking since I first read Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror(1975), spellbound by these lines from “As You Came from the Holy Land”:

it is finally as though that thing of monstrous

interest

were happening in the sky

but the sun is setting and prevents you from

seeing it

Similar visions of endlessly deferred expectation or just-missed revelation recur throughout the poetry. In “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat,” the first poem in Self-Portrait: “And even the least attentive fall silent / To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.” “The New Spirit” (1972): “So it was true, everything was holding its breath because a surprise was on the way,” and “The pure in heart rejoiced for they were sure now that something terrific was going to happen.” “Fragment” (1970): “This time / You get over the threshold of so much unmeaning, so much / Being, prepared for its event, the active memorial.” “Saying It to Keep It from Happening” (1977): “it’s time / That counts, and how deeply you have invested in it, / Crossing the street of an event, as though coming out of it were / The same as making it happen.” “The One Thing That Can Save America” (1975):

All the rest is waiting

For a letter that never arrives,

Day after day, the exasperation

Until finally you have ripped it open not

knowing what it is,

The two envelope halves lying on a plate.

The message was wise, and seemingly

Dictated a long time ago.

Its truth is timeless, but its time has still

Not arrived . . .

In his recent Anatomy of Influence, Bloom, amid a great deal of repetitive blather, has helpfully glossed this theme by citing Wordsworth’s celebration of “something evermore about to be.” Except that Ashbery’s tone, whether hovering on a threshold or arriving a second too late, is never quite celebratory. For every moment of quiet affirmation, as in “Litany” (italics in the original)—

everything gets done

And, more important, ought to be done

This way, and only in this way,

For happiness to sustain, and fish to remain

In the depths, not elbowing the birds of the

skies;

For it all to come right and not be noticed

Until just after it has slipped by, for the noble

And wonderful thing it is . . .

—there is a wistful recognition of deferral:

Indeed this is truly what we were brought into creation for, if not to experience it, at least to have the knowledge of it as an ideal toward which the whole universe tends and which therefore confers a shape on the random movements outside us—these are all straining in the same direction, toward the same goal, though it is certain that few if any of those we see now will attain it. (“The System,” 1972)

Flow Chart (1991), Ashbery’s elegy for his mother, is the first book of the second Library of America volume, Collected Poems 1991–2000. This long poem inaugurates Ashbery’s late period by cranking his native inanity to eleven, so that elegant attentions—

So for the moment, although tomorrow is our

day,

the sun shines through the meshes. You can

have me

for anything I am, or want to be, and I’ll

replace you with me, introduce you to the

sun.

—mingle with placid nonsense:

I think I’ll have a go at the food—

h’mm, squirrel ragout again. No, I’ll opt, I’ll

ope my eyelids for this next one

coming, without food. It was the cutest darn

haunted house you ever saw. It had blue

shutters with squirrel cutouts in them.

Of course silliness, partly inherited from the French avant-garde, dollops the poems from the beginning. But now the little Dutch boy yanks his finger from the dike and chases squirrels as the town floods. Hotel Lautréamont (1992) advises us that “A yak is a prehistoric cabbage: of that, at least, we may be sure,” while Can You Hear, Bird (1995) includes a poem marvelously titled “Fuckin’ Sarcophagi” that begins, “And when they had mounted it on the flatbed, / the dogfish requested a commuter’s ticket.”

Resistance is futile. But the evermore-about-to-be remains, in midst of other ragout than ours. Flow Chart ends with another poignant vision, allied again with night and the sky:

We are merely agents, so

that if something wants to improve on us,

that’s fine, but we are always the last

to find out about it, and live up to that image

of ourselves as it gets

projected on trees and vine-coated walls and

vapors in the night sky: a distant

noise of celebration, forever off-limits.

Or consider how the trope of sleep, like the setting sun of “As You Came from the Holy Land,” prevents a consummation, first in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” where the expected “surprise” is translated into the image of Parmigianino at work in his eponymous painting:

The picture is almost finished,

The surprise almost over, as when one looks

out,

Startled by a snowfall which even now is

Ending in specks and sparkles of snow.

It happened while you were inside, asleep,

And there is no reason why you should have

Been awake for it, except that the day

Is ending and it will be hard for you

To get to sleep tonight, at least until late.

Then almost two decades later, in Hotel Lautréamont’s “Notes from the Air”:

It was some stranger’s casual words, over-

heard in the wind-blown

street above the roar of traffic and then swept

to the distant orbit where words hover: alone,

it says,

but you slept. And now everything is being

redeemed,

even the square of barren grass that adjoins

your doorstep,

too near for you to see.

Ashbery’s verse is secular and hardly politically revolutionary, yet there is an expectant or defeated yearning for transformation or redemption running throughout that I can’t help but relate—eisegetically!—to such movements as the Brethren of the Free Spirit or the Situationist International. Hear the millenarian strains of “The New Spirit”:

At this point an event of such glamor and such radiance occurred that you forgot the name all over again. . . . At once the weight of the other years and above all the weight of distinguishing among them slipped away. You found yourself not wanting to care. Everything was guaranteed, it always had been, there would be no future, no end, no development except this steady wavering like a breeze that gently lifted the tired curtains day had let fall. And all the possibilities of civilization, such as travel, study, gastronomy, sexual fulfillment—these no longer lay around on the cankered earth like reproaches, hideous in their reminder of what never could be, but were possibilities that had always existed, had been created just for both of us to bring us to the summit of the dark way we had been traveling without ever expecting to find it ending.

“No future”—five years before Johnny Rotten, five years after Raoul Vaneigem published these words:

For me spontaneity is immediate, the consciousness of a lived experience which, though hemmed in on all sides and threatened by prohibitions, is not yet alienated, not yet reduced to inauthenticity. The centre of lived experience is where we all get closest to ourselves. Within this unique space-time, I am quite convinced, being real exempts me from necessity. It is always the feeling of necessity that alienates me. . . . All it takes is an instant of awareness of authentic life to sweep away all evasions, consigning the absence of a future to the same void as the absence of a past.

Vaneigem: “‘To drag out your days in an air-conditioned greenhouse,’ they began to ask, ‘you call that living?’” Ashbery: “What kind of life is this that we are leading / That so much strong vagary can slip by unnoticed? / Is there a future?”

Well, I hardly mean to suggest a strict genealogy. And one important difference is that for Ashbery (as, alas, for history thus far) the exemption from necessity is almost always just out of reach, as in “The System,” which follows “The New Spirit” in Three Poems:

No one had anything against it, and most reveled in the creative possibilities its freedom offered, yet to all it seemed as though a major development had been holding off for quite a while and that its effects were on the verge of being felt, if only the present could give a slight push into the haphazard field of potentiality that lay stretched all around like a meadow full of wild flowers whose delightful promise lies so apparent that all question of entry into it and enjoyment is suspended for the moment.

No doubt these relations are all in my mind. Many critics would read the above passages in terms of Romantic visions like Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” or of “writing itself.” But this is how it is when you’ve lived with Ashbery in your head for decades, “following the paths in the music” (Your Name Here, 2000): He gets into everything. He starts to make too much sense. The echoes that dot Collected Poems 1991–2000—of Eliot (“You are good at persuading / them to sing with you”; “Perhaps they will sing to us”), Whitman (“these notations that arrive / every day, like letters”), Raymond Roussel (“sugar falling gently on strawberries, snow on a pile of red eggs”), and so many more—come to seem a trope for Ashbery himself. “Everything is like something else” (Can You Hear, Bird ).

I remember reading “Litany” in a park in Chicago not long after I turned forty. The poem, several thousand lines set in double columns “meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues,” had defeated me before (for “impatience / Is the true ether that surrounds us”), but I was determined to come out the other side this time. I was feeling old, a bit melancholy, adrift, and I came upon this passage:

Yet we who came to know them,

Castaways of middle life, somehow

Grew aware through the layers of numbing

comfort,

The eiderdown of materialism and space,

how much meaning

Was there languishing at the roots, and how

To take some of it home before it melts . . .

And I thought: This great poet will follow me wherever I go for the rest of my life. I imagine many other readers must feel something like this. John Ashbery is gone now, but his poems are still you.

Michael Robbins is the author of Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017) and the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (2012) and The Second Sex (2014; both Penguin).