John Ashbery’s verse can be hard to understand, but the simple act of reading his latest collection, “Notes From the Air: Selected Later Poems” (Carcanet, 2007), is a pleasure in itself, says Adam Phillips in this review for the Observer (http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/poetry/0,,2233186,00. html)
#1 ‘The worse your art is,’ John Ashbery once said, ‘the easier it is to talk about.’ He meant for the artist himself to talk about. But what if no one else could talk about it because they had no idea what it was about, even though, as is almost always the case with Ashbery’s poetry, it was strangely enjoyable to read? Poets have made similar comments in the past – TS Eliot wrote that ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’ – but only once poetry became famous for being ‘difficult’. People could read the great Victorians – Arnold, Tennyson and Browning – in the way they could never read the moderns like Pound and Eliot and Hart Crane; they might not have liked them, they might have disagreed with their views about politics, love and religion, but they could understand them.
And then being ‘accessible’ became the problem, not the solution. ‘Make it new’ was Pound’s modernist injunction and the new became that which, by definition, couldn’t be easily understood. Suddenly, there were nonsense poets and no-nonsense poets. John Ashbery, as you see if you open this edition of Selected Later Poems at any page, is a nonsense poet. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll are as much Ashbery’s precursors as the great French and American modernists.
His poetry is not difficult in the sense that Eliot’s and Pound’s is. A good crib and a bit of intelligent literary criticism won’t get you very far. Even though Ashbery is clearly a very literary and erudite poet, his poetry never makes you feel that you don’t get it because you haven’t read the right books, or had the same gossipy education, or are the wrong sex or age. Indeed, it makes you wonder whether ‘getting it’ is worth doing at all or what getting it might be. Poetry that is difficult to understand makes you believe that there is poetry that is easy to understand.
Ashbery’s poetry makes you wonder what the wish to understand may protect you from; what the pleasures are of not understanding. The first poem, ‘Vetiver’, begins: ‘Ages passed slowly like a load of hay/ As the flowers recited their lines/ And pike stirred at the bottom of the pond.’ Most of us don’t know what ‘vetiver’ is and the poem isn’t going to say; if you look it up in the dictionary, you find they are ‘cuscus roots’, and if you look up ‘cuscus’, you find among other things that these are fibrous roots of an Indian grass used to make fans.
You can’t be quite sure whether the title is some kind of joke. This seems to be a pastoral poem about the countryside, a traditional poetic genre, but with odd things half-suggested; a load of hay could almost be a load of crap, and if the ages pass like this they’re not very interesting; the flowers are a bit cartoony and are either rehearsing something or performing it, reminding us that flowers speak to us, as lots of poems tell us. But whose lines do they speak? And the pike just seem to be doing the kind of poetic thing they do in realist poems – in Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney – suggesting mysterious, hidden forces.
But you get the feeling Ashbery could be stirring it a bit here because he does just enough to make you think you might be following it without ever letting it get too coherent; the sense-making is never quite as satisfying as the sound of the lines and the images evoked. He doesn’t want to be persuasive, he wants to be seductive. In an Ashbery poem, patterns appear and fade, dramas come and go and unaccountable feelings are stirred. The poems invite you to both make sense and stop making sense, but they never assume they know which is the better thing to do at any given moment. They make it sound entirely plausible to be incoherent, to give up on understanding, and yet ‘there had to be understanding to it,’ he writes.
Ashbery likes to take a traditional poetic theme – the quest, time passing, lost or longed for love – and hand it over to the (ironic) authorities of language to see what they will do with it; as though he writes a poem by following where it takes him, without caring to know where that is or what the point of it might be. ‘In Another Time’ begins conventionally and loses its way: ‘The forest wasn’t too dark and yet,/ you stopped and then went on a little way/ as though to embarrass the idea of stopping./ By then everything/ was involved in night.’ The first two lines are straightforward – Ashbery rarely gets his effects by using unfamiliar words, but by using ordinary words oddly phrased – and the final three lines sound marvellous, but if they were paraphrased, they would sound banal or pretentious.
It is one of the striking things about Ashbery’s poetry that it makes paraphrase slightly embarrassing, as though too much attentiveness to the poetry spoils its power (Ashbery speaks of writing his poetry while watching television and it is often better to read it as if one were watching television). For Ashbery, there is always something faintly ridiculous about being explicit or straightforward (‘For ages, man has laboured to put his dreams in order. Look at the result,’ a poem called ‘The Big Cloud’ begins.)
He is interested in how the intelligible confounds us – ‘Sometimes the drums would actually let us play/ between beats and that was nice’ – and how, in our craving for the authoritative statement, which poetry all too easily panders too, there are always ironies in play that we would rather disregard: ‘All this,’ he writes, ‘because I meant to be polite to someone’ (‘Has To Be Somewhere’). His wonderful titles, among other things, make us suspicious of entitlement.
Ashbery has taken Robert Frost’s dictum ‘Look after the sound and the sense will take care of itself’ to its logical (and illogical) conclusions. He has found a language for poetry that is evocative without being informative. Because he never claims to speak on the reader’s behalf, we can overhear ourselves as we read them. In the words of these late, remarkable poems, reading him is ‘like practising a scale: at once different and never the same’. There are no poems like these.