Seven years ago, I grew obsessed with "Errors"—the poem, that is, in Ashbery's first book, Some Trees. In particular, the first line fascinated me: "Jealousy. Whispered weather reports." I can, with what someone might call critical distance, tell you that I probably loved the strangeness of it; the abstract particulars; the things unsaid; the benign obscurity, to borrow a phrase from Donald Justice. But truthfully I was just seduced, and it didn't much matter why. During my lunch break, I would walk down to Ninth Avenue Books in the Sunset in San Francisco, thumb to "Errors"—and stare and stare at the poem. This went on for weeks. I didn't know what to do with this line, and since I wished I had written it, I just stole it and started my own poem with it. The poem is called, cunningly, "Poem Beginning with a Line by John Ashbery." After it was published, I received a brief note from him, in which he wrote that he was "intrigued"—I like that, intrigued—by my theft. He also wrote that it took him a while to remember where the line came from, which I read as a sidelong reference to both his age and his prolific output.
A few years later, I was walking on Polk Street in San Francisco, past the rent boys and sex shops, and I stopped into Acorn Books, where I picked up a faded pink and green Poetry magazine, August 1974, Adam and Eve and the serpent in all their Seventies glory. Inside? "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror." What it must have been like I can only guess (since I was aged two in 1974), reading that new poem in a magazine, one of the greats, so exquisite it makes me tear up, one of the few poems I share when I share poems. (There's a peculiar pleasure coming across an Ashbery piece in a lit mag, when it no doubt makes the poor poems around it turn green and kick and squirm; a critic friend of mine once posited that this is where Ashbery is served best). In one of the most moving parts of "Self-Portrait," Ashbery writes that we accomplish things, "but never the things / We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately / To see come into being." Because of the humility, the charity, of such words, they have the force of knowledge—though of course Ashbery has always been suspect of the very idea, he who would write soon after, in "Houseboat Days," that there is very little to learn "once the stench of knowledge has dissipated."
Everything's suspect, and there is so much withheld. In a recent New York Times interview, when asked about the prospect of being named poet laureate, he replied, "I don't think so. To be poet laureate you have to have a program for spreading the word of poetry. I'm just willing to let it spread by itself." And so the words do have a wonderful way of continuing in an Ashbery poem, with only his mild glance over his spectacles at some hypothetical reader, maybe. By reading Ashbery, I step into a delicious, endless party, a bizarre and towering table-talker at the head of the table. His brilliance is not merely that he can swoop from high to low diction, but that his method provides the illusion of intimacy, all the while holding back, just so. This is not a defense against feeling but sentimentality. There is something so appealingly pitiless about his work—in, say, "Street Musicians," where he writes that our legacy will be "Our trash, sperm and excrement everywhere, smeared / on the landscape."
Meanwhile, I admire his architecture as much as his ruins: the sestinas ("The Painter" and "Faust" are among the best written by American poets, and there is no underestimating the ball-scratching social commentary of "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape"); or the poem "Some Trees," which is so lovely in its mixed iambic, almost Larkinesque yoking of landscape and language; or "It Was Raining in the Capital," an unforgiving little ballad; or the careful rhetorical turns of those sixteen-line distant cousins to the sonnet of Shadow Train. And so on. And though my favorite long poems such as "The System," "The Instruction Manual," and "Self-Portrait" have the appearance—the deception—of meandering, there is a fierce, knowing containment to them. As he writes in "The System," "better the erratic approach, which wins all or at least loses nothing, than the cautious semi-failure."
It's fair to say that John Ashbery is the most admired and honored living American poet, and it cheers me that, in the age of accessibility and tinny irony, there sits at the top of the dump, anxious but pleasant, this "dark-hatted charlatan," as he says in "Worsening Situation." His verse for the most part lacks the brands of time that often disfigure even the best poets' work; there are so few nods to period fashion that he himself has become the fashion, couture when so many poets buy their language off the rack. He began as a minor and will end as a major curiosity, and how the anthologies, those grave markers, will see him in time—well, time will say nothing but I told you so. But like, say, Marianne Moore, he has created a glittering, curious, and difficult world—and, as with Moore, about whom he once wrote, "She gives us the feeling that life is softly exploding around us," an assessment that seems as applicable to Ashbery—I often feel exhausted by and exasperated with the poems. But I end up grateful that I've done the work to read the work.
John Ashbery's open-ended wordplay doesn't long for approval, doesn't want to be "authentic" with those little scare quotes attached. No, he's our sly genius of slippage and swinging syntax: he's inimitable, his anxiety, that Stevensian inheritance; his search for not only the latent but the erotic double in the word, the longing that words have for each other in order to create some sort of meaning, and the telling distance between them—also a form of meaning—that keeps language alone together. And when he writes, in "The Bungalows," "You even avoided / The monotony of perfection by leaving in certain flaws: / A backward way of becoming," this could be a defense against criticism—in a way, it is—but it's also one of many aesthetic markers. He continues in this poem, continues as he does in his bracingly lovely and vulnerable way—and I will let Ashbery have the last words: "Who cares about what was there before? There is no going back, / For standing still means death, and life is moving on, / Moving on towards death. But sometimes standing still is also life."
Copyright © 2007 by Randall Mann. Appears with permission of the author.