My favourite living poet, a poet who seemed like he’d never stop writing, died in his sleep in his home in Hudson, New York, on Sunday 3rd of September, a strangely appropriate way to go, perhaps, for John Ashbery – unconscious, half in this world, half in another, kind of like his poems. I like to think he’s still writing in his sleep:
I sleep when I cannot avoid it; my writing and sleeping are constantly improving. I have other things to say, but shall not detain you much. Never go out in a boat with an author—they cannot tell when they are over water. … Beware of anonymous letters—you may have written them, in a wordless implosion of sleep. (from ‘Sleepers Awake’, Can You Hear, Bird, 1995)
His poems do seem as if they’ve been written that easily, like he was having his way with the liminal. But of course the liminal has always been having its way with him and his poetry; Ashbery, more than most poets, understood the power, as Mallarmé once put it, of ‘ceding the initiative to words’. The liminal dimension to his poetry is also more obvious now that he’s gone because his poems are still here, ‘in the flickering bulbs of the sky’ (‘Soonest Mended’).
I was re-introduced to Ashbery’s poetry on a windy winter night in Bondi in 2009 by poet Chris Edwards, a longtime lover of Ashbery’s poetry. He gave me his copy of Ashbery’s Selected Poems. I’d struggled in the early 2000s with Ashbery’s poetry because I hadn’t yet learned to shake the repressive need to find ‘meaning’ in poems, to solve them; that way of thinking about literature and interpretation we’re all taught from a young age: what’s it about? I remember opening the Selected Poems at some point that night and reading ‘Crazy Weather’ (from Houseboat Days, 1977):
People have been making a garment out of it, Stitching the white lilacs together with lightning At some anonymous crosswords. The sky calls To the deaf earth. The proverbial disarray Of morning corrects itself as you stand up. You are wearing a text. The lines …
From that moment on – when I realised whatever meaning I make from the poem is contingent on the weather, my weather and how I wear it – I’ve anticipated each new volume of Ashbery’s while simultaneously meandering through his back catalogue. My favourite books of his at the moment are Rivers and Mountains, The Double Dream of Spring, Three Poems, Houseboat Days, A Wave, and Girls on the Run.
In 2014, at the inaugural John Ashbery Home School in Hudson, I was lucky enough to hear him read from his then latest collection Breezeway, to engage him in question time, and then meet him afterwards. In question time I drew a bumbling parallel between his poems and the visual collages of Jess, the partner of Robert Duncan and an artist Ashbery admired, and then I asked Ashbery how much his poems are literally collaged together from different sources versus how much of them are a mental collage of whatever’s going on in his immediate life, thoughts, memory. He said, in his slightly amused/bemused way, that it’s like there’s a conveyor belt always rolling through his mind and the way he writes is to select things to take off that conveyor belt and plonk in a poem. He said something similar in his Paris Review interview from 1983, about his mind being like an ‘underground stream’ where one ‘can let down one’s bucket and bring the poem back up’.
The subterranean stream has often been splashed about as a metaphor for Western history. But, while Ashbery had a prodigious recall of the poetic Western tradition, alluding parodically time and again in his poems to various classic and forgotten texts alike, the underground river inevitably brings to mind psychoanalytic concepts of condensation and displacement, as they relate to the resurfacing of repressed memories and to dream-work, which Freud describes similarly to Ashbery’s stream:
the whole mass of these dream-thoughts is brought under the pressure of the dream-work, and the elements are turned about, broken into fragments and jammed together – almost like pack-ice [or ‘drifting ice-floes’ in another translation].
And yet Ashbery’s poems aren’t describing exactly what happens in dreams, rather the way in which dreams happen, or could happen, in the conscious imagination, which then allows a reader of the poem to be affected as if in a dream. In The Poetics of Indeterminacy, Marjorie Perloff describes Ashbery’s poems as ‘imitations of consciousness’ that create a world in which ‘“A” can always be “B”’. She also writes of his ‘calculated oddities’ (an Auden description):
Not what one dreams but how – this is Ashbery’s subject. His stories ‘tell only themselves,’ presenting the reader with the challenge of what he calls ‘an open field of narrative possibilities’. For, like Rimbaud’s, his are not dreams ‘about’ such and such characters or events; the dreamstructure is itself the event that haunts the poet’s imagination.
Not surprisingly, Ashbery tends to describe his own poetry best when writing about others’. Shortly after publishing his first book, Some Trees, he wrote of Gertrude Stein’s work:
Stanzas in Meditation gives one the feeling of time passing, of things happening, of a ‘plot’, though it would be difficult to say precisely what is going on. Sometimes the story has the logic of a dream … while at other times it becomes startlingly clear for a moment, as though a change in the wind had suddenly enabled us to hear a conversation that was taking place some distance away … But it is usually not events which interest Miss Stein, rather it is their ‘way of happening’, and the story of Stanzas in Meditation is a general, all-purpose model which each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars. The poem is a hymn to possibility …
Some Trees itself is a title that blossoms with potential; think of poems as neural networks, branching out, and with networks of roots below. On Ashbery’s networked hymns to possibility John Shoptaw writes that, ‘By making his poetry the stream of everybody’s or anybody’s consciousness, he creates an all-purpose [Ashbery’s adjective] subjectivity which is neither egotistical nor solipsistic.’ In other words, Ashbery was ‘streaming’ long before the internet.
And so, if we can say that his poems are about anything, it’s anything and everything, from the sophisticated to the demotic: how we see it represented and how it all smashes together in our minds like pack-ice. His layers of semantic abstractions – that flow and discombobulate – get at the interconnectedness of things, the ‘absolute modernity’ of being in the present, or, as Ashbery defined this phrase of Rimbaud’s, ‘the simultaneity of all life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second’.
It’s a political gesture as much as an aesthetic one (the two are inseparable) – writing in ways that aren’t reductive forms of representation, writing in ways that subvert the domineering public voice of market discourse and the pat truths of an authorial lyric voice. It has been argued that he was not a political poet, but his queer politics, while never essentialised, are a subtler kind of resistance across his poems. Ashbery first rose to prominence as a poet during McCarthy’s Lavender Scare and then moved to France for a decade. There, he wrote his second and third books, The Tennis Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains, which look back on ‘the land of the free …’ from a distance, experimenting with and developing his own poetics, you could say, of liberty, fraternity and equality. And so Ashbery’s poetry came to open you out to experience, thought, play, empathy, strangeness and otherness – through continuously flowing voices, shifting pronouns, whacky vernacular, fractal patterning, temporal emulsions, curveball humour, permeable borders and layers of unresolved yet contingent meaning. Like with love, you have to be open to receive it. Or, as the first line of his poem ‘The Recent Past’ (from Rivers and Mountains, 1966) slyly urges: ‘Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination.’
In the future, more will be discovered in Ashbery’s poetry, and more will be written about the political implications of its attempts at imitating consciousness. For a world that is increasingly contorting language to shirk and malign and destroy and deny the rights of others, we could do worse than look to poetry such as Ashbery’s, of gentle play, minor affects, and complicated interconnectivity.
When I came back from New York, my partner Frances and I had our first daughter, Evie, and when Evie turned six months, we moved her into a larger cot in her own room. To help put her to sleep, I read her a few poems each night from Breezeway. It worked, oddly enough, where repetitive rocking and cuddling wouldn’t. When she was nearly two I tried poetry again, for a lark, and to avoid pawing over the same picture books. This time it was Ashbery’s latest and last collection (at the time of writing this) Commotion of the Birds. This time, Evie began to recite fragments of the poems back to me as I read them, testing out the words on her teeth, tongue and lips, the strangeness of them and the way they’d been juxtaposed with one another. Even the titles – which in Ashbery’s poems are often non-sequiturs, or obliquely related to what’s to follow in the body of the poem – even these weird floating fragments of language turned something on in her brain. With each new poem, she would stand up in her cot, jump up and down and yell the titles back at me: ‘ “Featurette”! “Tales from Shakespeare”! “The underling”! “Rainbow Laundry”! “A Funny Dream”! “The National Debt”! “Beleaguered”! “But Nobody Says So”! “Text Trek”! “Understandably”!’ She’d lie back down for each poem and listen to it in its entirety, then ask, ‘Another one? Another poe-tree?’
So many of the words and phrases were obviously first encounters for Evie, but it’s the same for most people of any age that come to Ashbery’s poems. Ashbery creates that sensation – and it is sensorial – of reading and seeing things for the first time, in all their strangeness as they butt up against each other and speak to their very thingness. Language is a system. A tree is a system. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Ashbery’s poetry simultaneously comments on and becomes your experience of language as you read it:
The unsatisfactoriness, the frowns and squinting, the itching and scratching as you listen without taking in what is being said to you, or only in part, so that you cannot piece the argument together, should not be dismissed as signs of our chronic all-too-human weakness but welcomed and examined as signs of life in which part of the whole truth lies buried. And as the discourse continues and you think you are not getting anything out of it, as you yawn and rub your eyes and pick your nose or scratch your head, or nudge your neighbor on the hard wooden bench, this knowledge is getting through to you, and taking just the forms it needs to impress itself upon you, the forms of your inattention and incapacity or unwillingness to understand. For it is certain that you will rise from the bench a new person, and even before you have emerged into the full daylight of the street you will feel that a change has begun to operate in you, within your very fibers and sinews, and when the light of the street floods over you it will have become real at last, all traces of doubt will have been pulverized by the influx of light slowly mounting to bury those crass seamarks of egocentricity and warped self-esteem you were able to navigate by but which you no longer need now that the rudder has been swept out of your hands, and this whole surface of daylight has become one with that other remembered picture of light …
(from ‘The System’, Three Poems, 1972)
Vale John Ashbery.
Lead image: A Dream of Heroes, John Ashbery, 2015, mixed media collage, 15 3/4 x 20 ½.