I own five books of poetry. All five of which are John Ashbery’s (Some Trees, The Tennis Court Oath, Rivers and Mountains, Double Dream of Spring, and Three Poems). I first learned about John Ashbery over six years ago when I wrote a long paper analyzing The Ecclesiast. I wish I knew where that was, since nowadays I can’t make heads or tails of it, and a 15 page analysis would be useful.
Anyone reasonably familiar with contemporary American poetry has probably at least heard the name, since he won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award (sometimes known as the “triple crown of poetry”) for his most famous book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. He is one of the first poets in what is known as the “New York School of Poets” which also consisted of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler.
The New York School of Poets is the basis of the book I just finished reading The Last Avant-Garde, though I don’t want to bring up the “avant-garde” discussion again. I must admit that I probably haven’t revisited these works in the past six years, which is sort of a shame, but also gives me a fresh clean way to look at them.
The most striking thing that I want to talk about is that back when I first got interested in Ashbery, it was because his poems were “cool.” They weren’t like any poetry I’d ever seen. Of course, what I didn’t realize was that that was the point. So what I learned from the book were a lot of the methods that the NY school used. They had some Dadaist-type influences. They liked the idea of randomness and chance playing an integral role in their poems. In general, the hated the Beats. The Beats were about rebellion and were intense. The NY school were more formalistic.
I think these ideas might be important as a movement, but Ashbery seems to differ. I didn’t notice this six years ago. Ashbery may have claimed to be using randomness, but his poems are far from it. They are also far from this notion that the NY school weren’t concerned with content. His poetry is actually astonishingly content packed. It isn’t even very obscured. I’m not stretching for some deep meaning. It really sort of slaps you in the face:
I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.
The flowers were.
These are examples of leaving out. But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but–yourself. It is you who made this, therefore you are true. But the truth has passed on
to divide all.
Have I awakened? Or is this sleep again? Another form of sleep?
I can’t seem to get it to format properly. There is more whitespace in there. This is the opening to the huge prose poem The New Spirit. I know I’ve grown in my ability to interpret poetry, but really I think he is being quite clear in this opening. He is laying out (with example) how he is going to write the poem. The meaning is in what is left out. He starts right in after that on the nature of truth and in some sense the nature of consciousness (is life just a dream? how can we tell? things of this sort).
But that may seem sort of cliche or frivolous. Remember that is just the opening to a 31 page poem. And I can literally open up to any part of those 31 pages and get something even more profound (at random):
Nevertheless the winter wears on and death follows death. I’ve tried it, and know how the narrowing-down felling conflicts with the feeling of life’s coming to a point, not a climax but a point. At that point one must, yes, be selective, but not selective in one’s choices if you see what I mean. Not choose this or that because it pleases, merely to assume the idea of choosing, so that some things can be left behind.
This idea that life comes to a point as we get older is certainly not new. The first thing that comes to mind for me is the structure of The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy. I’ve never heard it phrased that way, though. The entire poem is a carefully phrased meditation on the nature of life and death. That is hardly void of content.
So my thesis of this blog post is just that I think Ashbery should be treated as a very special case of the NY school. Sure his poetry uses lots of neat tricks like self-reference and randomness, but when I hear NY school, I think it is too easy to think that the poet falls far from center on the form vs content scale. One could spend their whole life interpreting the content of this single Ashbery poem.