The great American poet John Ashbery died this past weekend at the age of 90. He published his first collection of poetry in 1953, his last in 2016; he won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956 and then almost every other major literary prize since. For a years, he’s been one of my favorite contemporary poets (not that I know as many as I should). Along with W.S. Merwin, Stephen Dunn, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, Mark Strand, Edward Hirsch, Billy Collins at his best, and a handful of others, he helped me feel like I could read and be enriched by contemporary poetry, that poetry is still vital and, importantly, can be fun. I cannot pretend to know what Ashbery’s poems “mean” most of the time; nevertheless, they hold a power over me, using language to push me to the edge of my consciousness, and then over the edge. Along that route I feel at various times a deep sense of searching, of darkness, and, most notably when I think of Ashbery, of comfort.
I was thrilled about a month ago to receive a copy of the newest addition to The Library of America, a second volume of Ashbery’s poems, John Ashbery: Collected Poems 1991 – 2000 (the first, which I don’t have but that I must get collects his poetry from 1956 – 1987; hopefully there is a third on the way, because Ashbery didn’t slow down after 2000). This particular volume was slated to be released the first week of October, but with Ashbery’s death The Library of America announced yesterday that it is now available to purchase. Though plenty of his poems are being tweeted, there’s no substitute for diving in head first into page after page of his poems.
And the first selection in the book, actually, cannot be tweeted; it is the book-length 1991 poem Flow Chart. I do mean book-lenth, too: Flow Chart is divided into six parts, and its nearly 5,000, long lines run 224 pages in this edition. I admit that I’ve never read through Flow Chart. Long contemporary poetry still frightens me, though I hope someday to overcome that weakness. Benjamin Kunkel said, “Anyone who cares about what’s going on in American literature must sit down [. . .] and read the poem through.” Perhaps a good place for me to start will be his shorter, but still long (50 pages) 1999 poem Girls on the Run, which looks to be a hoot.
If you’re like me, though, and tend to steer away from the longer poetry, particularly as Ashbery’s can be so strange, there are hundreds of bite-sized poems in this volume. Just to run the numbers, his 1992 collection Hotel Lautréamont contains around 80 poems; 1994’s And the Stars Were Shining has around 50; Can You Hear, Bird?, from 1995 (just the next year!), has 100; in 1998 he published another 50 in Wakefulness; and then, in 2000, there was another spill with just under 100 in Your Name Here. Most of these (and the 26 uncollected poems included) are about a page long.
This is a period of Ashbery’s poetry I haven’t explored well. I started reading him in the early 2000s, and he’s put out enough to keep me as busy as can be. But I have been perusing the volume and, man, it’s refreshing. Again, it’s not that I have the first clue what the poem is saying, but I love how it’s saying it. It usually feels so welcoming, so familiar I can just about get it, in spite of the strangeness, even strange words, employed. I’m sure that at some level it makes sense.
For example, from Your Name Here, here is a bit of “Pot Luck”:
You always leave me where we left off.
You bring me every little thing,
which is probably a mistake.
You shaved my canary once.
I am anxious to be out by the speedway.
At least, almost nothing happens there.
I was drugged by a cat once
on the edge of Lake Lucerne. Woke
feeling like a businessman without portfolio.
Wait, here goes a new one. He’ll examine the fork
to see if it’s rooted. Well, it is. In danger.
In the past, which is much the same thing.
The poem goes on, each line surprising in how far it feels from what came before. We may argue whether this could ever make sense to someone who is not John Ashbery, but I think Ashbery would say it doesn’t even “make sense” to John Ashbery. Yet — and folks do disagree; there is a large contingent who think Ashbery is a hack, famous for being difficult — there’s something about getting lost in thicket of curiosity. It’s a pleasant dream.
Speaking of dreams, here is “A Waltz Dream,” another that seems to start so familiar, before veering off in another direction:
She wasn’t having one of her strange headaches tonight.
Whose fault is it? For a long time I thought it was mine,
blamed myself for every minor variation in the major upheavel.
Then . . .
It may have been the grass praying
for renewal, even though it meant their death,
the individual blades, and, as though psychic,
a white light hovered just above the lake’s layer
like a photograph of ectoplasm.
The poem keeps getting stranger. Note, though, that any given line makes a bit of sense, the words are comprehensible, relatively simple. It’s a feel. It’s language and image, masterfully conveyed.
One of my favorites continues to highlight this. It’s the title piece from And the Stars Were Shining:
It was the solstice, and it was jumping on you like a friendly dog.
The stars were still out in the field,
and the child prostitutes still plied their trade,
the only happy ones, having learned how unhappiness sticks
and will not risk being traded in for a song or a balloon.
Christmas decorations were getting crumpled in offices
by staffers slumped at their video terminals,
and dismay articulated otherness in orphan asylums
where the coffee percolates eternally, and God himself is not light
but God, as mysterious to Himself as we are to Him.
A few more examples, and then I should just close this and let you go get into them yourself. Here is one from Can You Hear, Bird?:
No Longer Very Clear
It is true that I can no longer remember very well
the time when we first began to know each other.
However, I do remember very well
the first time we met. You walked in sunlight,
holding a daisy. You said, “Children make unreliable witnesses.”
Now, so long after that time,
I keep the spirit of it throbbing still.
The ideas are still the same, and they expand
to fill vast, antique cubes.
This straightforward, and lovely, opening turns to this, where “one” does not seem to refer to anything we’ve read:
My daughter was reading one just the other day.
She said, “How like pellucid statues, Daddy. Or like a . . .
I do not know how this relates to the lines above. Some probably have theories. I’m okay that I don’t know, or, if I think she’s reading some kind of “antique cube” that I can only feel that without understanding it rationally. The poem continues to its sad conclusion:
In this house of blues the cold creeps stealthily upon us.
I do not dare to do what I fantasize doing.
With time the blue congeals into roomlike purple
that takes the shape of alcoves, landings . . .
Everything is like something else.
I should have waited before I learned this.
Let’s end with one that I think is less tricky but still beautiful and warm and hopeful . . . and sad.
A Sedentary Existence
Sometimes you overhear them discussing it:
the truth — that thing I thought I was telling.
What could it have been that I said?
To be more or less like other men and women
and then to not be at all — it’s
like writing a book that is both beautiful and disgusting.
Because we can’t do it now. Yet this space
between me and what I had to say
is inspiring. There’s a freshness
to the air; the crowds on Fifth Avenue
are pertinent, and the days up ahead,
still formless, unseen.
To be more or less unravelling
one’s own kindness, nothing
the look on others’ faces, why
that’s the ticket. It is all the expression
of today, and you know how we keep an eye on
today. It left on a speeding ship.
We have so much of Ashbery’s poetry to enjoy, and I do think he meant for us to enjoy it, to feel stronger because of it. May he and his work be remembered and treasured.