Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, May 15, 2008

I read a review of John
Ashbery’s stuff which finally began to
Explain to me why people go ga-ga over
He’s a poet’s poet.
He writes poetry about poetry for poets.
Don’t take my word for it – that’s
What the reviewers have been saying, first a reviewer
I admire in The Nation magazine a couple of months ago, and now
Someone I’ve never heard of in the New York Times.
They both said the same thing. They didn’t
Say that he’s a poet’s poet or that he writes poetry
About poetry for poets – that’s what I
Concluded after reading the reviews. Both
Reviews say that Ashbery parodies traditional
Poetic forms and approaches, and that he
Proceeds by digression (frequently, I would
Add, by syntactically obscure
Digression, with much reliance on the
Antecedent-less “it,” so that
He suddenly casually refers to “it” as if you –
The reader – knew what “it” is, though he has
Given you no information about it – I mean, “it” [those
“scare quotes” are mine, not
Ashbery’s]). Ashbery’s
Digressions will suddenly veer into
Glory, some gorgeous
Phrase or image that
Makes it, apparently, all worth-
While, though, I must
Admit, these poet-reviewers (both reviewers are poets themselves) seem
To like – or, love – the
Obscure digressions for their own sakes
Me, give me the
Give me the
Gorgeous phrases neat.
The digressions, you can
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the whole thing were like the good part?”
A wise man said that. I’m probably
Misquoting. I could – I will – look it
Up later, but may or may not
Fix it. Ken – that’s the wise guy’s name – I’m
Betting wouldn’t mind too much being
Misquoted. I could be
Wrong. I should write him a
Letter. I think he has
Email but I don’t know it. I don’t know his
Address either but I can write to his workplace, my old
College. I have set up, I realize, an
Expectation that this poem will
Uncover its own
Or gorgeous phrase, and yes, I, too, will
Be disappointed if it doesn’t. Sometimes
Disappointment is its own
Reward, but I’ve lately had my
It’s also true that the implied critique of
Ashbery – that he cares more for
Literature than life; or, rather, his work
Does – applies to this poem as
And that does sadden me, not that
I love literature too, but that
Imagining showing this poem to my
Only a few of them care about
Ashbery, and many
Have never heard
Of him. Well, friends, Ashbery is the most
Respected poet in America now, has been
For many many years, and I’ve never quite
Cottoned to him. It’s not that
I expect poetry to make clear
Statements necessarily, not at all, it’s just –
And again, this applies to this one
Too – that the Death of Pan grieves
Me, even as I, too, wear the mask of the great
Dead Pan, I mourn his death, I feel in my
Boggy depths the trembling loss his absence
Tear off the mask, you might
Say, and I am curious to know whether
This poem would allow me to, because
I am not master of this
Poem, but its servant, doing
My best to fill it pleasingly, regardless of mood, mine
Or the poem’s. Melodrama fills the
Drama with music. The god hums
In your ear, you are
The actor, away from the poem the drama
Unfolds. Keeping the drama offstage might feel
Like a cop-out, but
The Athenian tragedians proceeded thus. You
Know more than you realize, know
More than you
I had thought that that last line
would end the poem but then
I went and bought Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
by John Ashbery
at the dollar bin of the used book store and
read some of it. Dude can write! No
He had me in serious chuckle mode a number
of times, and then would reel off these gorgeous
images and phrases.
The book starts with one of the great catchy lines of
the last half-century:
“I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.”
Absurd, funny, romantic all at once. And therein
lies Ashbery’s secret. It’s the romanticism
wrapped in jokes. Piled in layers of irony.
“Each thing” is a clunky, ugly phrase, and it’s
perfect. The vision of Ashbery as a poet of
romanticism wrapped in a protective
husk of irony comports with the verdicts of
the two reviewers with whom this poem
commenced. It makes me wonder whether
Anglophones are uncomfortable with the grand
style. It often occurs to me as I read someone
in translation -- Lorca, say, or Rilke -- as I
get swept along in the swelling phraseology,
I wonder whether I would feel so pleased
if I thought the poet wrote originally in English.
A puritanical spirit runs through Anglophonic poetry,
since after the Victorians anyway, with
a few latter exceptions, such as Robert Duncan, whom
I love. Ashbery’s romantic swells might be
even more impressive than Duncan’s, but they’re
or at least usually
staged in a deflationary context. I admire the
romanticism and find the undercutting
irritatingly intriguing.
When I showed some of these prosy poems to some
friends, strangers, and acquaintances a month or so
ago, a friendly correpondent, who is a considerably
more learned, elegant, and accomplished
writer than I, said that they reminded him a little
of Ashbery in his talky mode, which I found
appalling, saved only by the qualifying “a little,” since
Ashbery is king of the hill, A Number One, top of the
heap. Also, since I don’t particularly like
Ashbery, in particular one of the poems this correspondent
cited, “The Instruction Manual,” though now I should
consider how much Ashbery’s tongue was in
his cheek. Absurd of me to say I don’t like
Ashbery, absurd of me to complain of an irritatingly
undercutting tone in a text that relentlessly
undercuts. Absurd of me to criticize someone’s
deflationary style in such a
deflationary style. Absurd. Obviously
insufficient. Obviously
weak. Obviously
self-contradictory. Obviously
absurd. Obviously.
The poem takes a deep breath, looks
around, sighs. “Sighs” and “size” are homophones,
which is only funny when the Shirelles or
Carole King wonders
whether she can believe the magic of
your size. Love
lurks around dark
corners, a night-time
shuffle of
the deck, of
feet hurrying
homeward. Don’t
run away, love wants
to catch you, and even though it’s
personal it exceeds its
lack. The merely personal is
necessary but
insufficient. I’ll take what’s
necessary and keep my eyes open
for what’s sufficient.

* * *

-- mask of Pan, ca. 460 B.C.E., Greece

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