John Ashbery, once set aside as bizarre, now seems one of the central American poets of the latter half of the century. Though he had many associations with the New York school, especially Kenneth Koch (his classmate at Harvard), and uses equally wild and witty imagery, he has also his own quality, characteristically cryptic and unconfiding, even impenetrable. The mixture of surrealist tomfoolery and elegant reserve in Ashbery is convincing, though one rarely can fathom what one is being convinced of.
His poems are resolutely contrary to fact or tangential to it. "Worsening Situation" ends,My wife Thinks I'm in Oslo--Oslo, France, that is.
Needless to say, there is no Oslo, France, and his wife is therefore twice deluded. But delusion and imagination go together. In a more accessible poem, "The Instruction Manual," the poet ignores the manual and conjures up a journey to Guadalajara, which he describes like some archetypal traveler although it becomes apparent that he has never been there.
Ashbery presents reality as do some modern painters, organizing details to create nature rather than imitate it. Old bonding techniques between man, his surroundings, and divinity no longer work. "You can't say it that way any more," he declares in "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her name." Sometimes, like action painters, the process of poeticizing obsesses him; he describes it amusingly yet seriously too:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mindIn "What Is Poetry" he asks whether poetry is beautiful images, or trying "to avoid / Ideas, as in this poem." Or do we
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths . . .
Go back to them as to a wife, leavingThe series of questions is never answered. But his poems do have ideas as well as images, though they are given provisional status only, dependent upon a reality that resists summary and analysis. He is endlessly resourceful in propounding this dilemma. In a book entitled Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the title poem, based upon a painting by Parmigianino, plays with the distorting effect of such a mirror held up to nature. He seems to defend his own work when he says,
The mistress we desire?
But your eyes proclaim That everything is surface. The surface is what's there And nothing can exist except what's there.Then he adds,it is not Superficial but a visible core . . .Sequence and causality being alike in jeopardy in Ashbery's work, he is fond of unexpected juxtapositions, as of the divine sepulcher and Cohen's Drug Store. Levels of diction are manipulated along with places, experience being highly contradictory. Ashbery seems to ask his readers to put aside their presuppositions about reading as about experiencing, and in their absence to observe collisions of images and ideas without asking for logical paraphrases. The tenor of his work is "pure / affirmation that doesn't affirm anything' ("Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror"). The world is an "otherness" in which we dip, largely without comprehension. Wit and circumspection are the means allowed to write about it.
Ashbery was born in 1927 in Rochester, New York, and grew up on a farm near Lake Ontario. After receiving his B.A. at Harvard in 1949, he wrote an M.A. thesis at Columbia on Henry Green, the English novelist. The choice was characteristic, since Green's works are also impersonal-written almost entirely in witty conversation, with no interpretative aids by the author. When Ashbery went to France as a Fulbright Scholar (1955-57) he embarked on a book on Raymond Roussel, a writer more difficult than Green, and even less compromising in his artifice. (Roussel declared that his books had been composed not out of experience but out of verbal games.)
Ashbery returned to France in 1958 and stayed until 1965, writing art criticism for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune and for Art News. Returning to New York in 1965, he edited Art News until 1972. Since then he has taught at Brooklyn College and has been art critic for Newsweek. Among the many books he has published and the many awards he has received, it is notable that Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the three major poetry prizes of 1976.
Ashbery finds his literary predecessors in the early Auden, Laura Riding, and Wallace Stevens, "the writers who most formed my language as a poet."' To be tough, incisive, and mellifluous was perhaps the lesson he derived from these three writers. The musical aspect of his verse has always been the most important to him: "What I like about music is its ability of being convincing, of carrying an argument through successfully to the finish, though the terms of this argument remain unknown quantities. What remains is the structure, the architecture of the argument, scene or story. I would like to do this in poetry." Often, as in "The Tennis Court Oath" and "The Suspended Life," Ashbery appears to be writing on the basis of some solid structure which is taken for granted. The poem follows from postulates which are firm but never divulged. A dreamlike quality ensues, and Ashbery has said that he would like to "reproduce the power dreams have of persuading you that a certain event has a meaning not logically connected with it, or that there is a hidden relation among disparate objects."' The strangeness and authority of his poetry have drawn readers in spite of the hiddenness of many of its relations.