Sunday, March 27, 2011

Three Poems by John Ashbery

I happened to pull this one off the shelf, and remembered its influence and challenge. Hard to believe that a major publisher could publish such a book. Granted Ashbery represents a cash cow, poetry division (7 bucks in the black?). But 3P is a difficult book, at least in terms of what the heck it’s about.

I found the book difficult because it abounds in indefinite pronouns. You don’t know to what he, the poet, refers. Ashbery’s poetry depends on the inferences that you make. When I first came upon his work, I did not know what to do with such license.

Add to that the sense of distance in the voice, of shyness. I met him at Franconia College (close encounter of the 3rdest kind) around the time of the book’s appearance. He was brought to read at the school by Robert Grenier. He was friendly and gracious, in this visit to a certified non New York outpost. At dinner, he grew something like animated at the discovery of so many Leos like himself, including moi-meme, Grenier, and at least one other person. He mentioned O’Hara and the simpatico between Leos and Cancers. Of course it was later discovered that O'Hara’s June birth was in sooth 3 months earlier.  And so I rattle on, about my moments with les tres fameux.

His reading that evening was a qualified failure. The room in which he read was too large and non-intimate. He read without much inflection, in an introspective way that failed the venue. I have the same amplitude, so I can commiserate. Memory swears that he read “The Skaters” and parts of A Nest of  Ninnies (I don’t think I had read it at the time, a perversely influential book for me, somehow). I felt I had to thank him at the end, just to reassure him.

But this book here, what of that? The prose is simple enough. He pulls the rug occasionally, syntax-wise, but mostly the sentences read straightforwardly. Straight to what looms less clearly. Implicative, suggestive, and mysterious.

Ashbery writes within a social formality both restrictive and personal. The poem “Europe”, from Tennis Court Oaths, is probably my first venture into cut up, tho I did not know this when I first read it. I just saw the push of formal engagement fringed with idiosyncratic diversions. 3P more firmly stalks the precincts of ordinariness, radiating from the clammy news of everyday events. I wonder if there isn’t a there I am that can make this approach a bestseller (poetry division). One gets whence he writes, if not what up.

This is interesting news, don’t you think? And his poems are New Yorkerified, displacing the committed blither of experiential enumerators with something skewed from the atlas. She has funny cars, as Jefferson Airplane said, with Spencer Dryden on drums.

Later books of Ashbery kinda blur, and I have read nothing recent by him, not for years. God, don’t let Bramhall besmirch the Ashmeister! Well, I am not! I read Flow Chart with impulsed interest. I’m unsure what the quell and not quell are in Ashbery, speaking in terms of the effective career, but I’ve had my eye on him right along.

John Ashbery is the veritable postcard from an era, one with poetry almost on the front page. I’m thinking without saturation that Samuel Beckett, for one, also posited a similar trick of integration into the nervy naysaying mass of readership. I need not pose an inflation for Ashbery, just accept this occupied space as declaration.

If I have to have a poetry dad to replace the real man, Olson would be. I know, however, or let us say admit, that Ashbery posed questions and spectacles for the slow learning child here. Here I am, as ‘Poet”, pressing prose into poems.

The New Yorker, and all those brands, flick cigarette ash on the chance that poetry will emphasize non-failure in the communicative enterprise. Poetry, you are a possible ointment, without pictures.

Poetry is kinda throwoutable nowadays, don’t you think? It declares itself some barnstorming increment of developing inquiry, pressed into service. I don’t mean to push the snark button, but the lampreys of dialectical obviousness are making poetry a trick of the educated class. It’s rather exciting to see Ashbery enumerate the seconds and millisecs when he paid attention. Buddhist thinking presses on the idea of continuum. We don’t, as brilliant animals, really regard time as continuous. We cannot easily hold consecutive events in active streaming. Ashbery’s net seems especially attentive to the straying and unregulated. He quandaries the non-emphasized. Which is cool.

I would suggest, dear Reader, that a good way to genuinely explode would be to hunt out 3P, and see if the mine still offers _____.

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