Seriously playful

Making sense of the crazy eloquence in John Ashbery’s Notes From the Air: Selected Later Poems.

By Marjorie Perloff
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, by John Ashbery. Ecco Press. $34.95

John Ashbery’s 1985 Selected Poems drew on the first thirty years of his career, from 1956’s Some Trees to 1985’s A Wave. The new Selected spans the twenty years following ’85 in roughly the same number of pages. Indeed, the volumes have a nice symmetry: Each covers ten books of poems (the most recent, A Worldly Country [2007], is not included in the new collection); each of the books in Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems is reduced to approximately one-third of its length.

Because Notes from the Air marks Ashbery’s eightieth birthday, readers are sure to wonder how his later work compares with his earlier. The first thing worth observing, perhaps, is that the evolution of Ashbery’s lyric mode is startlingly similar to that of Wallace Stevens. Both poets gained recognition relatively late (Stevens was forty-four when Harmonium was published in 1923, Ashbery forty-nine when Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror appeared in 1975); in both cases, the themes and stylistic habits of the verse (even when, in Ashbery’s case, it is prose) remain the same, but in the late work, the rhythms become more relaxed, the vocabulary and syntax more informal and inconsequential, and there is a new willingness to take risks, even if that means striking out now and again. In late Ashbery, as in late Stevens, “the edges and inchings of final form” (“An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”) are never far away, but Ashbery (unlike Stevens) assumes a playful stance to what one of his titles calls “Autumn on the Thruway.” Laughter, laced though it is with anxiety, echoes through these pages. Given the times we live in, these poems suggest, the comic modality–burlesque, parody, satire, and always a measure of irony–is surely our Necessary Angel.

If Ashbery is, in Harold Bloom’s lexicon, the ephebe of Stevens, he is an ephebe for the information age, our blog- and cell-phone-crazed universe in which, to cite the first poem in Some Trees, “Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is.” Never, after all, have there been more rules than the protocols that govern our daily digital activity: Click one incorrect letter or space, and you’re done for. But is there a “right” click? And where are the words that haven’t been used a thousand times by others? Indeed, doesn’t everything we hear sound as if it’s always already been said?

A 1995 poem called “By Guess and by Gosh” demonstrates this point. Ashbery has always made connections between high art and popular culture, as in his Popeye poem, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape.” But the juxtapositions of “By Guess and by Gosh” strike a new note of absurdity, beginning with the faux parallelism of the alliterating title, with its play on “by hook or by crook,” a cliche that turns out to be quite relevant to this poem’s narrative.

The poem opens with an asymmetrical couplet, recording what sounds like an overheard conversation:

Even so, we have forgotten their graves
I swear to you I will not beat one drum in your absence.

Whose graves? We don’t know, but our interest is immediately aroused by the play on drumbeating. As Ashbery phrases it, his declaration can mean either “I refuse to do one thing to promote your cause” or, conversely, “While you’re away, I will be so sad I won’t play one note of music on my instrument.” Either way, the drumbeat introduces a tale of absurd proportions, in which a Phoenician sailor (known to us from The Waste Land, first as Eliot’s alter ego in the tarot pack and then, in “Death by Water,” as Phlebas the Phoenician) turns into Wagner’s ghostly Flying Dutchman, trying to “garner a spouse” so as to break the curse that keeps him forever on the high seas.

But what is the point of these conjunctions? A clue is provided in the next lines, “I’ll follow / my heart over warm oceans of Chinese lounge music.” The reference, an Internet search reveals, is to the “lost art of improvisational guqin music,” recently revived as lounge music in elegant hotels and restaurants. The guqin is a plucked seven-string instrument of the zither family known as “the instrument of the sages” because Confucius singled it out for praise. So, the poem suggests, forget those ominous legends, those gloomy Wagner plots and Waste Land images: You can always sail those “warm oceans” of music, available, at least, “until the day the badger coughs up that secret.” Follow, in other words, your own lights, for in the public world

Confused minions swarmed on the quarter-deck.
No one was giving orders anymore. In fact it was quite a while
since any had been issued. Who’s in charge here?
Can’t anyone stop the player piano before it rolls us
in the trough of a tidal wave? How did we get to be so many?

It is all very zany, but also serious. Like a player piano, the narrator sees himself as operating on automatic, unable to avoid the “Death by Water” that is the fate of Flying Dutchman and Phoenician sailor. And it is not only the narrator who is threatened. The final question above echoes Eliot’s (or, rather, Dante’s) response to the trimmers in the vestibule of hell, “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Even the prospect at poem’s end of a visit to the local movie theater can’t make us forget that fact.

Ashbery’s mode, in this and related poems, is not collage; indeed, it is not, as is generally claimed, disjunctive and fragmented. On the contrary, this is a poetry that exploits syntactic continuity and a kind of sequential normalcy, only to subvert them at every step by injecting alien items and unexpected references into the sequence. Only someone as learned, curious, wide-ranging, and expert in all manner of writing, music, and media works as Ashbery could bring it off. No wonder his poetry has proved so impervious to imitation.

True, there is a line of poetry popular today that extends from the minor Beats to the “natural speech” lyric still ubiquitous in the journals, a lyric perhaps chiefly designed for the poetry reading, where the audience can “get it” as soon as the performance ceases, there being nothing to cross-reference, whether from Milton or Mahler, Rimbaud or Redbook, James Bond or James Dean. But despite the perennial demand that poetry should satisfy the “common reader,” whoever that is, difficulty has been a quality of the poetry that matters throughout poetry’s history. The difference, in the twenty-first century, is that it has become more essential–and more fun–to look things up.

Marjorie Perloff is currently scholar in residence at the University of Southern California.

Copyright © 2007 by Marjorie Perloff. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at http://www.poetryfoundation.org.

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~ by ericedits on May 28, 2008.

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