Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.
—John Ashbery, Soonest Mended
With the recent death of John Ashbery I began thinking about his poetry again.
In a lot of ways his work remains a testament to the death of the individual, to the slow erosion of Western humanism and all those discourses where the human is central. His is a poetry of the fragmentation, the endless atomization of society, the absolute loneliness of desire caught behind the screen of life watching and gazing, wishing to participate but realizing that the body is no longer there to follow the mind into the electric void.
From The Instruction Manual
As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.
I look down into the street and see people, each walking with an inner peace,
And envy them—they are so far away from me!
Even now for many of us we sit behind the screen watching the Buzzfeed world of light, the drift of peoples lives come and go among the media folds of FB, Tweeter, and other social networks that give the appearance of solidarity without its substance. It’s this sense that nothing is real anymore, that our lives online are mere fragments of a collapsing world that echoes nothing more than our ability to truly communicate. We’ve lost the subtle art of writing and speaking, the bodily queues, behavioral markers that once shed light on irony and wit, tragedy and sorrow. Those slight facial filters of an upturned lip, or the snarly voice and sardonic laughter, the power of the body to awaken in us the meanings of the folded words hinting at mysteries that were once all too apparent when body and mind were not cut off in this galaxy of light.
For Ashbery this feeling of loneliness, this desperation of the worker locked away in his cubicle, the slow fading of the human equation sparks a nostalgia for warmth, for flow, for touch and haptic joys of summers on beaches and coasts, roaming the gardens of Guadalajara, a nostalgia for being human. It’s this sense that there can be no return to the human, that we’ve lost our chance, that the dream has been dispersed, lost that pervades our experience as non-experience on the internet. We truly do not have experiences on the net, it’s pure abstraction in a void. As Ashbery puts it:
How limited, but how complete withal, has been our experience of Guadalajara!
Just that, bodily experience is no more, we are but talking heads, cut off in apophatic despair, our minds hollowed out and dispersed among the lost arts of speech and writing…
The Life of a Poet
Harold Bloom a long time friend and advocate of Ashbery’s work once said “no one now writing poems in the English language is likelier than Ashbery to survive the severe judgment of time, he is joining the American sequence that includes Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens and Hart Crane.”
Ashbery’s early work was mostly known in avant-garde circles, but his arrival as a major figure in American literature was signaled in 1976, when he became the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same year, for his collection “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” The title poem of the volume is a 15-page meditation on the painting of the same name by Parmigianino, the Italian Renaissance artist.
Early on Ashbery was associated with the New York school of poetry of the 1950s and ’60s, joining Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara and others as they reveled in the currents of modernism, surrealism and Abstract Expressionism then animating creative life in the city, drawing from and befriending artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Jane Freilicher.
As another critic hints his poetry is by turns playful and elegiac, absurd and exquisite — but more than anything else, it is immediately recognizable. If some poets remind us of the richness of American poetry by blending seamlessly into one of its many traditions, Mr. Ashbery has frequently seemed like a tradition unto himself. It is a cliché to praise a writer by saying no one has ever sounded quite like him, and yet: No one has ever sounded quite like him.
Like many I came upon his poetry during my short academic years, before marriage and life forced my hand to enter the fray of our competitive world or perish. Ashbery stayed with me, goading me on in my own private sanctuary of thought and culture, where at nights I would read through his and other poets and poetesses seeking that indefinable art of the word. If I had a religion at that time, having already taken the first tentative steps out of and away from my own religious heritage in evangelical Christianity, it was poetry. I’d been raised on Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde during those formative years as if the decadent world of flowers were some hybrid realm of lush and rich realms of far away jungles. Of course most of that was nonsense, sense my early life had been bound by the physical world of football and drinking sessions with the hob nob boys spinning our ceaseless jokes and inane masculinity.
And, yet, there was some truth in what Wilde once said: The poet is the supreme artist, for he is the master of colour and of form, and the real musician besides, and is lord over all life and all arts. Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton were my triune gods, with Shelley, Byron, and Keats running in second during those early forays into the poetic canon. Whitman, Poe, and Emerson would rise out of the American yawp like barbarians in an overgrown garden, while for me it was finally the worlds of Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, and the West coast loner Robinson Jeffers with his wild music of the seas that would flow into my veins. Later would come Pablo Neruda and Cèsar Vallejo whose political and regional work awakened a certain combination of revolutionary fervor with the lushness of southern mountains, rivers, and oceans.
I could recite all the lesser lights, not to mention my delving into the feminine strain (a post on this needs a separate offering!), but it was certain poets like W.B. Yeats (not for his political stance, but the music of his lyrics) and Ashbery that would enter that strange harbor of my imaginal and force me to finally disturb the waters with my own voice. Who knows why one is lured to certain poets and not others, I have no answer to this question. Something in certain poets and poetesses appears to meld with one’s inner voice, one’s thoughts, feelings, priorities; begins to overwhelm one’s sense of being and becoming to the point of possession. These are the one’s that like Jacob wrestling his angel force one to wrestle the daemon within: that force of one’s onw deep creative spirit, the productive force of the unconscious, the agency at the core of one’s inhuman being. It’s this one is awakened too in certain poets and not others, this voice of the daemon – or, dark spark that gives hint to one’s “lost majesty” coming back as Emerson spoke of it. A deep influence that is not so much or black stars entering one’s soul, as it is the volcanic depths of some flowing sphere of churning power rising from the secret place of one’s being.
For all his intellectuality Ashbery’s poetry is replete with earthiness, a sensual allure that shifts one from one registrar of being to another so subtly one suddenly begins to fold out of and into a new dimension before realizing it:
Like a dull scholar, I behold, in love,
An ancient aspect touching a new mind.
It comes, it blooms, it bears its fruit and dies.
This trivial trope reveals a way of truth.
Our bloom is gone. We are the fruit thereof.
Two golden gourds distended on our vines,
Into the autumn weather, splashed with frost,
Distorted by hale fatness, turned grotesque.
We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed,
The laughing sky will see the two of us,
Washed into rinds by rotting winter rains.
(—“Le Monocle,” VIII)
Browning’s sense of decay and richness, a grotesquerie of earthy experience envelopes Ashbery’s world, a painterly eye. As Bloom would admonish, Ashbery throughout his career could neither accept or reject the inheritance of the High Romantic sublime, “unable firmly to adhere to or reject the High Romantic insistence that the power of the poet’s mind could triumph over the universe of death, or the estranged object-world”. Caught between the lure of material creation that is forever bound to the fatal gesture of the Real; or, the power of time and history which washes over us all, spilling its waves of erasure and anonymity, crushing and pulverizing the white bones of everything into dust and sand. Rather what remains in Ashbery is that insistence of the voice itself:
remember you are free to wander away
as from other times other scenes that were taking place
the history of someone who came too late
the time is ripe now and the adage
is hatching as the seasons change and tremble…
This knowledge that maybe we have all of us in this late time arrived too late, in the moments when humanity in its sea-change is mutating beyond redress, when the seasons changing and trembling under the pressure of this age of forgetfulness sinks toward some fated abyss we begin to realize the “time is ripe now and the adage is hatching”: and, we, who have dared to peer into the darkness must awaken, each to each in the silences of our lonely gazes, reach out and touch the body of each other and the earth as if it still mattered. For it does…
knowing as the brain does it can never come about
not here not yesterday in the past
only in the gap of today filling itself
as emptiness is distributed
in the idea of what time it is
when that time is already past
“Ashbery’s finest achievement, to date, is his heroic and perpetual self-defeat,” is the almost weird praise Bloom would give this poet and his place in the small canon of American poets. A perpetual self-effacing of the mirror worlds others lavish upon us; for it is others who seem to construct us in words and deeds, shape us into some whole that we ourselves never have known or seen; nor can or will. It’s this defeat of the other in ourselves that is the core truth of one’s life, for the most difficult art is that of pure emptiness: in it is neither the nothing that is nor the nothing that is not, but rather the fullness of that presence emptied of the human except as a small voicing, a spark that escapes time’s dark riddle and lures us into that strangeness and emptiness that is.