John Ashbery 101
“To create a work of art that the critic cannot even begin to talk about ought to be the artist’s chief concern,” John Ashbery once wrote in a review for ARTnews. Although famously elusive, Ashbery’s own body of work failed to deter critics. Over a career of 70 years and some 30 books, Ashbery received nearly every major poetry award and was, up until his death in 2017, often considered our most influential living poet. Describing the appeal and importance of his work has become something of a critical sport, his difficulty making him the white whale of the poetry reviewer—awesome to behold but difficult to apprehend. Ashbery was associated with the avant-gardism of the New York School, and many critics explain his work in terms of his coterie or connect him to contemporary artistic movements such as abstract expressionism. Others read his yearning nostalgia through the Romantic tradition running from William Wordsworth to Wallace Stevens or his poetics in relation to the French work he studied when he lived in Europe. A number have also identified his poetic reticence as a queer aesthetic, growing out of his background as a mid-century gay man. All these approaches are useful, but it’s a testament to the abiding strangeness of his verse that no single theory can quite encompass it. Polyphonic and idiosyncratic, yet consistently moving and affirming, Ashbery’s poems are always unmistakably his, yet each is its own experience, an individual “living system.”
Inspired by examples of the form from W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Bishop, Ashbery wrote this sestina the summer before his senior year at Harvard. The oldest poem he included in his Yale Younger Poets Prize–winning debut, Some Trees, “The Painter” offers an early “self-portrait,” prefiguring many of his work’s most enduring stylistic elements—his plastic, recursive sense of language and structure, for example, or his rich, ongoing dialogue with visual art. Most important, however, it’s his first articulation of his major subject: the difficulty of communicating, of representing one’s vision of the world. As Karin Roffman notes in her biography of Ashbery, failure haunts this poem. Ultimately, the painter grows exhausted, and “all indications of a subject / fade”—an apt description, perhaps, of what happens in many Ashbery poems. But in that failure, the artist still conveys something of himself, even if only a prayer: in the final stanza, the envoi, the painter has become the portrait.
This poem from 1970 takes its title from a proverb—“Least said, soonest mended”—it both elaborates on and subverts. Like many of Ashbery’s earlier philosophical lyrics, its style is deliberately maximalist, bristling with cultural bric-a-brac and abstruse reasoning that may sometimes leave us “confused / About how to receive this latest piece of information.” But this obscurity is part of its subject and integral to its inquiry. Influenced by Ashbery’s time in France, where he studied surrealism and experimented with Dadaist composition, the poem refuses easy wisdom and linear thinking. Instead, it seeks to reconcile our deep, private selves with our more public ones, “the avatars / Of our conforming to the rules.”
Published in 1975, John Ashbery’s seventh collection of poems remains the only book to ever win all three major awards—the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award—in one year. Its long title poem is an ekphrastic masterpiece: drawing on Ashbery’s background as an art critic, it mimics an essay, discoursing on its central subject, a Parmigianino painting from 1524, even quoting outside sources. But in the Parmigianino, the very first mirror portrait, Ashbery discovers not only a reflection of his own poetics of reticence—always perched between “shield” and “greeting”—but also a figure for the postmodern condition. Orbiting the sphere of the mirror, departing from and returning to the peculiarities of the image, the speaker reckons with the painting’s “secret,” the same one many writers of the 20th century struggled with: the belief “that the soul is not a soul, / Has no secret, is small, and it fits / Its hollow perfectly.”
Despite its reputation for difficulty, Ashbery’s work is often generous, even gentle. This short piece from Ashbery’s book Shadow Train (1980), for example, tries to include us, addressing a “you” that seems general, like an imagined reader. The speaker wants to be “plain” with us, as the first line suggests, but also knows that is not possible—because neither writer nor reader can imagine the other. Each grows distracted, and the two, ultimately, “miss each other.” The poem is fundamentally dialogic but can (as its questions imply) talk only to itself. But even if real connection “gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters,” Ashbery’s work places us “softly down beside” its author, communicating both the sadness and humor of its gesture. A poem, it reminds us, comes into being only through us, its living conduit, its sublime, unreachable object of desire.
With their shifting pronouns, drifting attention, and unapologetic abstraction, Ashbery’s poems often seem designed to resist biographical reading—it is often difficult to say what they are about, much less how they reveal their author. And indeed, in poems such as “Sleepers Awake,” Ashbery jokes about such efforts. This does not mean, however, there aren’t compelling connections between Ashbery’s art and life. This 1992 ballad, for instance, is often read as an elegy for queer lives and lifestyles before the AIDS epidemic, “a gale [that] came and said / it is time to take all of you away.” Indeed, it is hard to understate how much Ashbery’s writing and career were shaped by New York’s community of gay artists, where he found fellowship, inspiration, and friendly competition with poets such as Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler.
Though more often associated with an improvisational, open-ended free verse, Ashbery also always had a technician’s eye for poetic structure. Over the course of his career, he experimented with everything from pantoums to haibun, exhibiting a particularly acute interest in more esoteric or obsolescent forms. This 2007 poem, for instance, relies on the rhyming couplet, which hasn’t been fashionable since the 19th century. At first, Ashbery seems to parody its insistent music, with rhymes that are somewhere between silly (chickens/dickens) and flippant (hellishness/rebelliousness). But the poem’s cartoon narrative builds to a place of genuine pathos, ultimately disarming us with its guilelessness, rhyming with itself.
Mortality, with its “inquiring goodbyes,” increasingly preoccupies Ashbery in his later work, though his approach to the subject varies widely. Sometimes he strikes a more elegiac tone, as in “Mean Particles,” which ends with “the ballads … retreating / back into the atmosphere.” But just as often he takes a comedic tack, as in this piece from Breezeway (2015). “I was getting on,” he jokes, “and that’s what you don’t need.” Ashbery was always an accumulator in his aesthetics, and these poems amplify the collagist qualities of his work. Full of whiplash register shifts, they pluck treasures from American idiom, finding the sublime in the everyday, the overheard. “Take that, perfect pitch,” he writes here. Ashbery once described himself as a “frustrated composer.” Irreverent to the last, he made music from the off-notes and the out-of-key, expanding our scales and the scale of American verse.
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.