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Published on 22nd March 2020

powerful because of the sheer rational, aesthetic, etc that it evokes. It is a line

blurring the line between thinking and feeling--the main value to this poetry

While I initially found the near-impossibility of deriving coherent meaning from Ashbery’s poetry frustrating, eventually I learned to just let the words wash over me. I shifted from thinking about the poems to feeling them.

And indeed, I think that’s how Ashbery intends us to experience his poetry: not as logical puzzles to be pieced together, but as purely sensory experiences that reveal to us the dazzling limitlessness of the English language.

Even if, during the reading, I had somehow gotten Ashbery to pause so I could mull over the latest baffling line he’d just uttered, I doubt I would have gleaned much. Of course, that didn’t mean that I stopped listening the words being spoken. Much of the pleasure of Ashbery, after all, comes from comprehending how unusual his language is, and you can’t enjoy that if you have stopped thinking about how the words work together.

Of course, that’s not to say that Ashbery and his poetry struck me as elitist. Quite the opposite, actually. In contrast to the sweepingly epic and operatically romantic gestures that characterized much of the “great poetry” I was taught in high school, Ashbery’s writing is casual and sometimes even conversational (and some of his poems appear to be pure conversations, though again they elude easy understanding despite their recognizably casual lingo). American pop culture icons like Shirley Temple, Scooby-Doo, and Batman punctuate his work, giving it a distinctly contemporary feel. His style is humorous and often irreverent, and I lost count of how many times I (and the others in attendance) laughed at his endless displays of sardonic wit. His poetic sensibilities are simply so unusual.

ambiguity straightforwardness of this claim only heightens the

There is a method to the madness.

Clearly, then, the madness had a method. Television shows usually portray the average person’s conversation with a genius as an unequal affair, where the less intellectually gifted doesn’t understand a word out of the mouth of his interlocutor, but understands enough to appreciate his enigmatic brilliance. I felt this analogous to my experience with Ashbery, although he would have likely disagreed. Ashbery, after all, rejected the idea that his poems weren't the epitome of democratic art. He had intended them for mass consumption---a conversation between equals rather than the indecipherable monologue of a tortured genius.

His poems were great, even if I couldn’t articulate a coherent thesis as to why.

Delighted laughter seems to be the most natural reaction to a poem like this:

You will not have heard that

What about the leftover duck

Who will do the kissing?

They have gone ice skating.

Cliché would be the last adjective I’d attribute to Ashbery’s work, but there were times where he would insert trite phrases into his poems without modifying them;

I could tell that he alternated between longer and shorter poems, and that he seemed fascinated with both class structures and modernism, but beyond that I didn’t have a clear understanding of what, exactly, linked the various poems that he read, and Ashbery seemed content with not offering any clarification. In doing so Ashbery delivered a sort of “pure” experience, as we listened to his poems without the oppressive intrusiveness of their backstories or authorial intention.

All we had to go on to understand these poems was the way Ashbery chose to read them.

Ashbery’s voice remained level throughout. Unlike other readings I have attended, he never dramatically raised his voice nor noticeably hushed it to heighten drama or suspense. Generally speaking, none of the inflections in his voice were particularly pronounced, as he kept his tone and pitch largely consistent from start to finish. And yet, he did not read in a monotone. Ashbery’s manipulation of his voice was subtle, not flashy and easy to overlook, but he definitely did it, and the result was a reading as engaging as the text itself. He placed careful emphasis on particular words, manipulating his voice with a seamlessness that indicated decades of experience. One memorable example was when he read a poem that appeared to (initially) take the form of a conversation between a bartender and a customer. “Do you want a cherry with that?” asks the bartender, in response to a request for a Shirley Temple. “I guess so. It’s part of it, isn’t it?” is the response. This is one of those sentences that can be read in any number of ways, and the way Ashbery chose to do it communicated a wide range of emotions: frustration, confusion, impatience, and even slight confusion. Ashbery’s reading added another layer to the poem, one that hinted at how he himself understood it, and one that invited us to consider its potential for multifaceted expression.

and with them see our childhood and share their bafflement as we looked up at the and look up with them, and know what it was to at the strange sh and look up at the world above through a lens of illegiblity. ealm and know what it was to look up and puzzle at the

were inhabitants of a different realm, one from which the world in which we dwelled appeared just as illegible as theirs did to us.