I saw John Ashbery only once before his death last September, in October.
I was a sophomore in college, sitting in room 101 of Lindsey-Chittedenhall at approximately 5:20 P.M., when I watched a a man in a wheelchair silently silence a roomful of several dozen people. “You guys can talk,” we were told, and with the command given the spell was broken. We had been granted permission to speak in the presence of John Ashbery.
If I had read Ashbery’s poetry in the past, I didn’t remember it. As such, I walked into that reading with little idea of what topics his poems broached, of what styles he utilized, and of what talents had made him so critically acclaimed. Ashbery and his poems were an enigma. The reading did little to change that.
What struck me most about Ashbery’s style of poetry was its staunch defiance of lyrical structure and its determined flouting of conventional narrative. No matter how intently I trained my ears or focused my mental energies, I simply could not make sense of Ashbery. “What happened, you ask?” he read, and I let myself fall into the trap of expecting a straightforward answer. “Cutie pie went bye-bye.” The entire reading was but an eternally returning rehearsal of this same exchange: anticipation resolved by confusion. Whenever Ashbery's freewheeling sentences threatened to settle into intelligibility they immediately veered off the cliff of comprehension, as though fearing the consequences of committing to any one set of settled meanings.
Maybe that was the psychological key to unlocking Ashbery's poetry: a fear of epistemic commitment. Ambiguity is the ultimate smokescreen, allowing one to perpetually shape-shift while retaining the appearance of consistency. Defending one's ontological and metaphysical presuppositions, or positions on any issues of any consequence, really, is unnecessary if said presuppositions are indecipherable. This is the uncharitable reading of Ashbery: that he was but a literary Joker, poetry's chaos agent, a prestigious hoaxer who hoodwinked the world's greatest literary minds by hijacking their foolish postmodernist convictions. And indeed, Ashbery's work is quintessentially postmodern: indeterminate, disjointed, and always threatening meaninglessness in its quest to ponder our loss of meaning.
Yet I'm inclined to a more generous interpretation of Ashberry's work. I listened, and when I listened I found much of Ashbery’s poetry paradoxical. It lacked rhythm, and yet didn’t. It made no sense and yet did. Most would say that “The past loves you, baby” is totally incoherent as a precursor to “go sandpaper a horse,” but somehow the sequence seems natural in "context"-- not because the two statements share some evident logical connection, but because they manage to flow regardless. The surface anarchy of Ashbery’s poems belies their idiosyncratic rhythm and internal logical cohesion. That logic may be incomprehensible, but it’s there. The madness has a method.
That is why I couldn’t, and still can't, dismiss Ashbery's poetry as sophistry, and he as a hoaxer stringing random words into meaningless phrases; if that was all he was, his words wouldn’t have the audiovisual power they do. He had an extraordinary capacity for producing striking phrases, the sort that hang tightly to your memory long after the auditory imprint that delivered them has faded. One does not easily forget about the children who were “brutally named,” or the “sky’s determined violet,” or the observation that “rules are honey,” or the suggestion that we “let the birds run with the trees,” or the declaration that the “scones are seduced,” or the time that “Batman came out and clubbed me.”
The mystifying nature of Ashbery’s poetry precluded the possibility of identifying appreciable themes amongst the readings he chose. At most readings I have attended before and since, authors were careful to contextualize their works at the outset so as to deepen the audience's appreciation for what was to come as well as guard against misinterpretation. With Ashbery, though, only the sounds of pages turning filled the wordless gaps between poems. Sustained disorientation, not orientation, is what characterized Ashbery’s approach to the reading, as he repeatedly plunged us into semiotically haphazard worlds with little in the way of warning.
Listening to Ashbery reminded me of reading Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, the sort of book that my classmates in English 127 felt obligated to like (as any self-respecting self-styled intellectual must, I suppose) but ultimately couldn't abide. I confess that reading Stein's work usually feels like an extended exercise in literary masochism. She wields her pen like a fire hose, drowning her reader in a relentless torrent of absurdity. Reading lines like "a piece of coffee is not a detainer" and "colored hats are necessary to show that curls are worn by an addition of blank spaces" forced one to the edge of their sanity, before "elephant beaten with candy and little pops and chews all bolts and reckless reckless rats, this is this" pushed one through and over the edge. Stein's self-assured tone -- "certainly glittering is handsome and convincing" -- has the peculiar effect of suggesting that you, the reader, was the one who didn't get it. You were the problem, you interpretative amateur.
What the two writers share in common, ultimately, is a profound capacity to induce linguistic nausea. Ashbery's and Stein's writing is so unrecognizably English because it is recognizably English. It looks like English but sounds like a foreign language, and so the native English reader always feels that he is on the cusp of understanding but never does, a thirsty traveler convinced that the oasis peeking over the sand dunes will eventually bloom into full view. Ashbery and Stein are this if it were the centerpiece of one's lifelong artistic project. "It's on the edge of my tongue," but whatever it is never retreats from that edge and more often than not leaps off it. Ashbery's poetry can only ever be an exercise in frustration, so long as one insists on a narrow understanding of understanding.
Ashbery once said that his goal was "to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about." He, like Stein, teases conventional meaning only insofar as it allows him to amplify confusion. His sentences typically make perfect sense in isolation, but become strange mutants when read in a linear, consecutive fashion. "What about the leftover duck?" Ashbery will ask, before responding with "Who will do the kissing?" and concluding with "They have gone ice skating." Stein rarely relieves her reader with even independently comprehensible sentences, but when she does it is only to more thoroughly alienate her audience. "A little lace makes boils," Stein observes, before helpfully informing us that "this is not true." The perfect clarity of this latter remark only heightens its incomprehensibility, suggesting as it does some perfectly obvious--and obviously wrong--meaning in the former sentence. Stein corrupts the the most lucid of her formulations by embedding them in a matrix of unclarity. She thus succeeds in rendering even the most experienced English-speaking reader incapable of understanding the simplest English.
This weaponization of context is similarly integral to the obfuscatory quality of Ashbery's poetry, and he deploys it with particular relish in the realm of cliche. Trite phrases like “looks can be deceiving” and “careful what you wish for” punctuate his work, yet are situated within such unfamiliar contexts that they are effectively defamiliarized. Ashbery forces us to see such banalities anew, thereby destabilizing the definitions, and worldviews, that we thought settled. In this Ashbery is much like Nabokov and Tolstoy, but instead of defamiliarizing metaphors there are defamiliarizing syntactical and semantic landscapes. An office desk appears perfectly ordinary in the corner of a corporate office, and quite extraordinary in the depths of a lunar crater. Context is not incidental to an object--it is constitutive of it. Ashbery's poetry is about as pure a literary expression of this truth as one can imagine.
There was a time when, confronted with the near-impossibility of deriving coherent meaning from Ashbery’s poetry, I concluded that his art was best experienced by feeling rather than thinking. I assumed that this is how Ashbery intended 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. This conclusion was not nearly radical enough.
In truth, Ashbery's poetry challenges the very distinction between thinking and feeling. Therein lies the true value of Ashbery's stylistic experimentation: it allows the listener, who in all likelihood is an English-speaking Westerner raised in the lap of the Enlightenment, to momentarily escape the false Cartesian divorce of reason from feeling. Ashbery's poetry can be understood, but only by an alchemy of the mind and heart not easily captured by the vocabulary of our cultural paradigm. It's not that one must stop thinking to experience Ashbery's poetry; it's that one must think differently, even emotionally. One must accept that emotion is a tool of cognition (sorry, Ayn Rand).
A line like "rules are honey" is deserving of its own article, or perhaps even its own book. It immediately evokes a cascade of meanings, some of which outstrip conscious understanding, others why bypass it entirely. One fears robbing the line, via over-explanation, of its polychromatic, almost psychedelic valence. Rules, and our adherence to them, as something thick yet malleable, sticky yet sweet. There's much to extract from this pulsating semiotic vein.
As I read the last few lines of Tender Buttons, following a draining night of futilely mining meaning from every turned page, I suddenly struck nirvana. I suddenly saw, with a euphoric clarity, what Stein was saying--or rather, I saw that she was saying. At last, text had yielded treasure. I tried explaining the crucially important meaning of the book's last page to my roommate and close friend, who humored me with polite nods of not-understanding.
Stein's text was a dream from which I awoke only a day later, its momentarily pellucid waters disrupted and distorted by the pebbles we willingly hurl at that which promises to disturb our waking slumber. I would eventually return to that pond of poetry, but try as I might, I couldn't see the depths after the ripples. If I wanted to re-access the insights I had had, I'd need to re-immerse myself. I'd need to sink alongside Ashbery and Stein, looking up with them at the shimmering, opaque shadows cast by our childhood home across the undulating, watercolor sky. The deeper and longer I sink, the more precious seconds I'll have, when I finally surface, before the bright, naive sun dries away the memories of my voyage.