Ashbery’s conjuring mind is full of huge amounts of information — philology, movies, Old French, camp slang, archaeology, cartoons, the poetry of the ages, bibliography, Victoriana, television ads and more…
Ashbery has always liked to play games on many planes. This volume is an “A to Z” of life (like the guidebook line, “London A to Z”): we know this because the titles are arranged in alphabetical order, from “Alcove” to “Zymurgy” (“the chemistry of fermentation in brewing” — not a bad description of the making of a poem). Overturning clichés is another familiar Ashberian game: we’re not startled when someone says “King Alfonso of Spain,” but we are when we hear “Alphonse I of Bemidji.” The bane of language, for Ashbery as for Flaubert, is the “received idea” — the idea everyone mouths and takes for granted…
In his rendering of American speech, slang, cliché, Ashbery has surpassed most of his contemporaries. But his persistent reach into the “rut” of tradition should not be forgotten. He could say (with the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío) that he is very 18th century and very archaic and very modern, daring and cosmopolitan. When he becomes most serious, it is in the presence of either catastrophe or truth. His onslaughts of tragedy, emotional or physical, are of geological force while not relinquishing the vocabulary of irony: “and the land mass teeters once more, crashing / out of gloaming onto the floor near your heels.” As for truth, it always hovers out of reach: he speaks of “today’s version of the truth,” on which “The enamel is just not going to keep.” Or, in a more sinister vein, the desired truth “just kind of sails overhead / like a turkey vulture, on parenthetical wing, / empty as a cupboard.”
So you have some actual poetry to look at, here’s an excerpt from and a link to Ashbery’s “The Burden of the Park“, from 1998:
Each is truly a unique piece,
you said, or, perhaps, each
is a truly unique piece.
I sniff the difference.
It’s like dust in an old house,
or the water thereof. Then you come
to an exciting part.
The bandit affianced
to the blind man’s daughter. The mangel-wurzels
that come out of every door, salute the traveller
and are gone. Or the more melting pace of strolling players,
each with a collapsed sweetie on his arm, each
tidy as one’s idea of everything under the sun is tidy.
And the wolverines
return, with their coach, and night,
the black bat night, is blacker than any bat.
Just so you know, this is the falling-off place,
for the water, where damsels stroll and uncles
know a good thing when they see one.
The park is all over.
It isn’t a knee injury, or a postage stamp on Mars.
It is all of the above, and some other things too:
a nameless morning in May fielded by taut observers.
An inner tube on a couch.
Now that academic critics, who, not so long ago, dismissed Ashbery’s poems as so much obscurantist doubletalk, have been forced to concede that the Ashberyan mode doesn’t seem to be going away, that, on the contrary, its particular modulation of voices and performative registers speaks to poetry audiences from Austria to Australia, a new explanatory narrative is in the making. According to this account, there’s nothing so unusual about Ashbery, who, so it now seems, has all along written under the sign of Eliot or Stevens, leaving Modernism firmly intact as the movement or epoch of choice, the movement from which no later twentieth-century poet (not even Ashbery) can actually deviate.
Perloff rejects this reading — the “tame” Romantic/Modernist Ashbery in these accounts ignores or erases anything that might be difficult or postmodern:
Ashbery attained almost no recognition prior to the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, published in 1976 when the poet was fifty. It was only after the relatively accessible title poem of this volume became well-known, that the Establishment started to come around.
And even then, it had to do so by erasing such troubling volumes as The Tennis Court Oath (1962), and, in Longenbach’s case (see ALH 114), As We Know (1979), Shadow Train (1981), and that loose baggy monster Flow Chart (1991). Indeed, the “acceptable” poems, both for [James] Longenbach and [Vernon] Shetley almost always come from The Double Dream of Spring (1970), which contains the lyrics like “Soonest Mended,” most readily assimilable to a Modernist poetic.
The most egregious example of this erasure belongs to Shetley, who writes that “”Ashbery did not appear in the leading antiformalist anthology, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry.” Perloff counters:
This last sentence, I must admit, took my breath away when I read it because it is of course incorrect. Ashbery is very much included in Allen’s anthology (he gets ten pages), even though in 1959, when The New American Poetry was put together, he had published only one book, Some Trees (1956). Far from being a casual error, Shetley’s is highly revealing: it indicates that he has never so much as leafed through Allen’s groundbreaking anthology.
But what’s even more amazing is that Ashbery is able to pull this stuff off. He’s lived and written through more avant-garde and revanchist movements than one can count, and somehow hovered at the margins of all of them. Like progressives who thought Obama didn’t really mean his campaign promises to expand the war in Afghanistan, traditionalist critics can look at Ashbery’s postmodernism without really seeing it. Likewise, post-avant critics can look at Ashbery’s traditionalism and see ONLY postmodernism. He is all things to all people, the only poet equally embraced by the Vendlers and Perloffs, Blooms and Sillimans, for completely different reasons.
In 1909, when Swinburne died, Yeats ruefully joked, “Now I am king of the cats.” Right now, Ashbery is king of the cats among poets the English-speaking world — and I don’t know who could claim to replace him.