Jim Schley's Essays

Where Shall I Wander, by John Ashbery (Ecco, 2005).

John Ashbery’s poetry elicits such extravagant praise or scorn that a reviewer may be hard-pressed to approach his new book undistracted by partisan vehemence.

One friend, himself a widely published poet and adventurous editor, becomes spitting mad at the mention of Ashbery: "That emperor has no clothes!" The opposite view is evident in the accolades of critics such as Harold Bloom, who has said "Ashbery seems to be to the second half of our century what Stevens and Yeats were to the first," calling Ashbery "America’s greatest living poet." 

Since his first book Some Trees was selected in 1956 by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Award, Ashbery has published more than twenty volumes of poetry as well as plays, fiction, and literary and art criticism, a body of work celebrated with every conceivable honor, including a "triple crown" for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. 

He is inarguably a major force in American letters and the arrival of a new volume tends to be greeted with a hubbub less typical of poetry books than with new releases by critically acclaimed cinematographers or classical musicians. Yet I admit to a lack of strong feelings about Where Shall I Wander, which seems to me decidedly unexciting. 

Ashbery’s "methodology," so jarring and elliptical early on, now has the smooth fluency of long practice. His characteristic poem is made of  shrewdly well crafted (and often gorgeous) phrases and lines that seem to have been cut up and tossed like salad ingredients then re-amalgamated into orderly syntactical structures so they have the look and sound of coherent passages. Rhetorical as an attorney, persuasive as an ambassador, in his recent work Ashbery sounds wry, cosmopolitan, and genteel.

Another’s narrative supplants the crawling

stock-market quotes: Like all good things

life tends to go on too long, and when we smile

in mute annoyance, pauses for a moment. 

Rains bathe the rainbow,

and the shape of night is an empty cylinder,

focused at us, urging its noncompliance

closer along the way we chose to go.

Ashbery frequently sideswipes expectations by mangling sense while maintaining an entirely reasonable manner and posture, mixing the range of diction from literary sophisticate to vaudevillian screwball: 

One might well pick up the pieces.

What else are they for? And interrupt someone’s organ recital—

we are interruptions, aren’t we? I mean in the highest sense

of a target, welcoming all the dust and noise

as though we were the city’s apron.

(from "Counterpane")

In prose or verse form, these new poems are lucidly phrased and paced. But there’s an overall air of fatigue, or boredom — the French word ennuie seems apt — perhaps acknowledged in the title of one poem, "Sonnet: More of Same":

Try to avoid the pattern that has been avoided,

the avoidance pattern. It’s not as easy as it looks:

The herringbone is floating eagerly up

from the herring to become parquet. Or whatever suits it.

New fractals clamor to be identical 

to their sisters. Half of them succeed. The others

go on to be Provençal floral prints some sleepy but ingenious

weaver created halfway through the eighteenth century,

and they never came to life until now. 

Marvelously well written, adroit in translating natural or worldly details into artistic emblems, and never averse to puns, these poems have a distinctive mild-mannered braininess. Their rueful tone is poignant, and their learnedness understated and self-effacing, but this reader kept feeling that the poet is relying upon tried-and-true talent, moseying along.

Evening waves slap rudely at the pilings

and birds are more numerous than usual.

There are some who find me sloppy, others

for whom I seem too well groomed. I’d like to strike

a happy medium, but style

is such a personal thing, an everlasting riddle.

I’d be tempted to apologize for quoting passages out of context, except that in many ways all the passages in the book are out of context, for nearly any phrase, line, stanza or paragraph sounds transportable to nearly anywhere else.

Most beguiling to me of Ashbery’s gifts is a mockingbird ability to echo motley snatches from conversations, advertisements, business and legal memos, news bulletins, therapy sessions, or official edicts, mimicking that cacophony bombarding us day in and day out. 

We used to call it the boob tube,

but I guess they don’t use tubes anymore.

Whatever, it serves a small purpose after waking

and before falling asleep. Today’s news —

but is there such a thing as news,

or even oral history? Yes, when you want to go back

after a while and appraise the accumulation

of leaves, say in a sandbox.

The rest is rented depression,

available only in season

and the season is always next month,

a pure but troubled time.

Finally, near the book’s conclusion, in the clustered prose paragraphs of the title piece, the fastidious urbanity of preceding poems seems to break apart, with a jack-o’-lantern grin both urgent and menacing: 

It matters precisely at the drip of blood forming at the end of an icicle that hisses at you, you’re a pod of a man. You know, forget and dislike him.

This is so very different in temper — the imagery astringent and convulsive, with audible anguish. In a recent National Public Radio interview, Ashbery stressed the difficulties of making sense to other people and the impossibility of drawing any conclusion. In his prose poem "Where Shall I Wander" the typically fluent voice cracks under that pressure:

I like your lingo. We two be here all the same. The Russian sparrows wheel pesteringly, no it is not time to come in., I said no it is not a time to come in. Fine we’ll stay out where it’s mild,

contingency is all the rage here. I said . . . No but there comes a time when contingency itself is contingent on the abrupt desire to happen, a colossal burp brewing somewhere. And moreover what I maintained to you once stands, signpost in the desert pointing the wrong way, we’ll get back whatever way we can, sure as heck. Then you just came around the barn’s edge as though materializing, it wouldn’t have taken much. So why didn’t I . . . didn’t we . . . It’s past time, half past time, too late but another time, so long, so long for a while, geez I don’t know, the answer, if I did, you—and if I did . . .

We’re also given a glimpse of what may be a cameo portrait of the poet in his own lens, aloof as Baudelaire’s flaneur:

Not a bailiff or a rejected suitor from prelapsarian school picnics, nor yet a seemingly indifferent observer, tie-clasp camera getting it all down, nor a truly open-minded member of the cultivated bourgeoisie our grandfathers sprang from or knew about, but a cosmic dunce, bent on mischief and good works with equal zest, somebody fully determined to be and not disturb others with his passive-aggressive version of how things are and ever shall be—the distinguished visiting lecturer.

I realize a rationale could be offered, that writing such as this disrupts ordinary habits of thinking and requires a reader to surrender complacency, but Ashbery’s cerebral new poems seem like painstakingly made lace doilies, pleasing and impressive in design yet for the most part more decorative than useful.