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.