Reading John Ashbery

I’ve read James Joyce’s Ulysses three times, and after the third reading, I was even able to offer independently formed (if perhaps not original) ideas and opinions about it. I write this not to brag (there are, after all, those who have been able to offer independently formed and startlingly original ideas and opinions about it after only one reading), but to claim that I can at least manage a common reader’s grappling with difficult literature. I can be dogged and have even seen my doggedness rewarded. I can read without needing to know what the writer means, what happened, or what the point is. I can appreciate aesthetics on their own terms, without being improved by the experience. But I still have no idea how to read John Ashbery.

For reasons that I’d be hard pressed to identify, let alone justify, I’ve been drawn to read John Ashbery’s poetry. I have over a dozen of his books at this point, and I get every new one as it’s published. I flip through them, read a few poems, am overcome with the feeling a small child might have watching his first Catholic Mass, that unverifiable intuition that something profound but ineffable is happening, and set it aside for a later that never seems to come. Prose has always resonated more deeply with me than poetry. If language is a map of experience, I’m more comfortable when the experience, however indirectly and elaborately it might be mapped, is more objective. But poetry is often less to do with the depth of the experience mapped or the degree to which the experience is conveyed by its map, and more to do with the aesthetics of the map for its own sake. Especially in the last century or so, poetry tends to map more subjective experience, even the experience of mapping. But even considering all of those possibilities, it’s still hard to know quite what Ashbery is up to.

In a recent attempt to revisit this question, I read Helen Vendler‘s Invisible Listeners, which discusses the ways in which the lyrics of George Herbert, Walt Whitman, and John Ashbery seek to portray and even create an intimacy with one who isn’t present. It’s a fascinating and well-argued thesis that seems to offer more to understanding Herbert (with whom I wasn’t familiar, but about whom I’m now curious) and Whitman than Ashbery. But in the conclusion of her chapter on Ashbery, she offers this: “For Ashbery, one of the dilemmas of [the late twentieth-century] social order as he encountered it in youth was the quarrel among his painter-friends between figurative realism and abstract expressionism (corresponding to the quarrel between mimesis and surrealism in poetry).” Though not central to her discussion, I found this suggestion extremely helpful.

When read aloud, most of Ashbery’s poems sound superficially like prose or speech. They have familiar, even comfortable tones, rhythms, and structures. They tend not to use arcane words or unusual phrasings, and often use commonplace idioms and sayings. In that sense, they’re figurative realism—they look like familiar maps. But read more closely, what seemed familiar becomes disorienting. The familiar words, phrases, idioms, and sayings don’t quite come together into something we can recognize. And in that sense, his poems are abstract expressionism—though well rendered, they’re not maps of any actual experience. This is nicely illustrated by the first two stanzas of his “Cantilever“:

I knew we should have stopped back there
by the pudding station
but the pudding people were so—well—
full of themselves.

The Sphinx didn’t want us to come this far
even though we answered her questions
and threw in a bonus answer: “As honey is to the jaguar.”

I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by reading any of these images as metaphors for something else. I don’t think that pudding is, say, oil, and this poem is somehow an explication of the Middle East. As convincing as it is as a map, I don’t think it describes to us some as yet unexplored realm of our experience—I don’t think it’s a map of any experience at all. The first time I read this poem, I spent the next day or so trying to form a question whose answer would be “As honey is to the jaguar,” and I failed. I think that this poem is best appreciated as a map of itself, or metaphor for itself. That’s the best I can do with this or any other Ashbery poem.

5 Replies to “Reading John Ashbery”

  1. If there was a perfectly fitting question for the answer “as honey
    is to the jaguar” that would reduce the line to a riddle, which
    would, in my opinion, make it less, not more, interesting. Isn’t
    “unverifiable intuition that something profound but ineffable is
    happening” a valuable feeling in and of its self? The fact that we
    can’t paraphrase a poem neither implies that we don’t understand it
    nor that it lacks meaning. Why should I have to justify what I do
    and don’t like? (Though of course having some sense of it is
    worthwhile, even if only for the sake of conversation.)I think the
    best poems offer, in the words of Wallace Stevens, “the hum of
    thoughts evaded in the might.”

    Part one of “Brigitta Suite”
    By Stig Dagerman
    Translated by Vera and Thomas Vance

    In what water has the wing been dipped
    that drips its melancholy over earth’s forehead?
    In what darkness has our tree lost its way,
    the one where the dove has slept so long?
    Don’t ask the night. Nor the sky either.
    The night is a bridge, its handrail is made of dead questions.
    The sky is a vault arched of all dead tears.
    The night’s sickness is the glare of a wakeful eye.
    The sky’s sickness is called stars.
    What my own is called I don’t know.
    But there is an aching in the universe
    which only one not loved can know.
    There is a tomb for our open boats.
    There is a sea where fallen stars are asleep
    when their ache has burned out forever.
    I am a fallen star myself, Birgitta.
    I fell wrong. I fell to the earth.
    I am a part of earth’s pain.


  2. Dawn, welcome, and thanks for the thoughtful comment. I appreciate it.

    I was trying to stay away from the question of the value of a poem (or any other writing), not because I don’t think poems have value, but because the value of a poem is entirely subjective. As you suggest, it’s something everyone decides for themselves, and I’m not saying that I want someone to tell me objectively why Ashbery’s poems are good.

    I’m taking what I think is a more pragmatic approach. Ashbery had an intention in writing these poems and publishing them, and I have an intention in picking them up and reading them (even if I’m not quite sure what it is). I’m focusing more on the process of writing and reading than on the aesthetic object. This may be naive, but I suspect something different happens if those intentions can be aligned or reconciled. I can kid myself that I’ve managed that with, say, Ulysses or Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, but I don’t feel I’ve managed it with Ashbery’s poetry, yet I want to. Which brings me back to the feeling of a small child watching his first Catholic Mass.

    I do think there’s value in that sense, and it bears exploring. But there’s also a feeling of being left out. The priest and worshippers are having an experience that he’s not, right there in front of him. I don’t really have any formal education in how to read, so in the face of Ashbery’s poetry and its acclaim, I feel that the poet, academics, and critics are having an experience right in front of me, from which I’m excluded and in which (again, for reasons I’d be hard pressed to identify) I’d like to participate.

    Ashbery himself seems to write about this in Flow Chart:

    Something has been said. You’re right about that. But no two people
    can agree on what it means, as though we were sounding boards
    for each childish attempt at wireless communication the gods can invent,
    and so return to our refectory…


  3. Hmm, this is interesting what you
    say about aliging the intention of
    the poet and the reader. It makes
    me wonder, though, if mystery and
    the edge of meaning aren’t where
    John Ashbery wants to keep us.
    Perhaps part of his intention is even
    sharpening the at least somewhat
    inevetibale disconnect between reader
    and writer’s experience of a poem.

    You can find an interesting interview
    with him here:

    And here is the poem they keeprefering to:


  4. You may very well be right about Ashbery’s intention, and I would certainly be okay with that (not that my approval is the issue here). But the few critics and academics I’ve read on his writing seem so sure that they know what he intends. It could be that they know something I don’t, and it could be that they’re bluffing, but I’m not in a position to determine which it is, which is frustrating, but perhaps that’s right where Ashbery would like us all to be.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: