The Mysteries of John Ashbery

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Once upon a time there were
two brothers.

Then there was only one:

I grew up fast, before
learning to drive,

Even. There was I: a stinking

note Ashbery strikes is not one of grief, but of bafflement: The suddenness of
Richard’s death is linked to the suddenness of adulthood; both are examples of
the way things can change irrevocably. (The mock-poetical inversion “There was
I,” a typically goofy touch, contributes to the sense of passivity, by making
“there,” as opposed to “I,” the subject of the sentence.)

narrators of Ashbery’s poems typically present themselves as more or less
average people living more or less average lives (with “thoughts and ideas,” in
this case, “at least as good as the next man’s”) who are always at the
universe’s mercy: a brother can disappear without warning, or “a great
devouring cloud” can come and “loiter,” obliterating the “horizon” toward which
that average life had been oriented. Such images of unexpected, unexplained change—often
visualized as natural forces like clouds, storms, or waves—are common in
Ashbery’s poetry. His protagonists (if that’s the word for them) are never far
from having their worlds transformed.

Like all biographical accounts of the early years of famous
writers, The Songs We Know Best has
an archeological aspect, devoted to reconstructing detail by detail the edifice
of a style. Ashbery wrote his first poem, “The Battle,” at the age of eight,
inspired by a viewing of the 1935 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s
. It tells the story of a clash between an army of fairies and rabbits
and an army of anthropomorphic bushes and trees. (Shades of Girls
on the Run
Ashbery’s 1999 epic inspired by the art of Henry Darger.) “The Battle” was so well received by the author’s friends and
family that he immediately came down with a case of writer’s block, unable to
produce another poem for seven years.

As might be expected, Ashbery’s early poems show facility and talent,
though it took quite a while for his distinctive manner to appear. They’re
interesting, though, as a register of his literary influences. As a child he
loved Tennyson, Shakespeare, and the Romantics; poems like “Miserere” (“Ah!
Bleak and barren is the moor / The orphan girl she sheds a tear / And thinks of
home, her parents dear / Departed from the worldly sphere / Full seven months
ago!”) are firmly grounded in a conventional Victorian idiom that still rears
its head from time to time in Ashbery’s work. Later, he discovered modernism
via anthologies like Louis Untermeyer’s Modern
American Poetry, Modern British Poetry
, gravitating especially to H.D., Hart
Crane, and Gertrude Stein. A poem like “To Rosa,” written in 1943, is a good
example of his teenage style:

            You came

            To me like vines

            Reaching up to

            An abandoned
house with quiet


The poem is notable not only for the influence of Imagists like
H.D. and Ezra Pound but for its being written in a set form: the cinquain, a five-line
poem pioneered by the poet Adelaide Crapsey. A fondness for obscure or antique verse
forms (sestinas, pantoums, centos, et cetera) would eventually become a hallmark
of Ashbery’s writing, distinguishing him from contemporaries who preferred to
abandon these old conventions in favor of postmodernist innovations like projective verse. 

Ashbery’s career as a professional poet got off to a rocky start. Unbeknownst
to him, two of his early poems ended up published in Poetry magazine under the name “Joel Michael Symington.” A high
school classmate, Bill Haddock, had presented the poems to the poet David
Morton, who in turn submitted them to Poetry;
when they were accepted, Haddock tried to cover his tracks by inventing a pseudonym.
Amazingly, Ashbery forgave Haddock, who went on to publish yet another of
Ashbery’s poems—this time under his own name—in the little magazine Voices.

At Harvard, which he attended from 1945 to 1949, something like a
recognizable Ashberyan canon of influences starts to cohere. He falls in love
with W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Marcel Proust, Henry James, and
Ronald Firbank, and nurtures contrarian antipathies toward Eliot, Frost
(“Something there is that doesn’t love Robert Frost,” he wrote in his lecture
notes), and Robert Lowell. (Ashbery’s parody of Lowell’s turgid style—“Mudgulping
trawler, Truro in the ooze / Past Peach’s Point, with tray of copper spoons /
For Salem’s Mayer Caldecott to suck”—belongs alongside Frank O’Hara’s acid commentary on Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” in the pantheon of sick
poet-on-poet burns.) Already the contours of what Ashbery would eventually term
“the other tradition”—defined, like all
traditions, by what it eschews as well as what it includes—are becoming visible.

It was at Harvard, too, that Ashbery met many of the friends that
would make up his post-collegiate literary coterie: O’Hara, whom he called his
“identical twin”; Kenneth Koch, who encouraged him to apply for a position on
the editorial board of the
, despite their unenforced policy against homosexuals; and Bubsy
Zimmerman, later known as Barbara Epstein, one of the founding editors of the
New York Review of Books, who had a
hopeless unrequited crush on Ashbery. After college they all gravitated to New
York City, where they cross-pollinated with the groups around the Abstract
Expressionist painters, the Living Theatre, and other assorted avant-gardes.

The social entanglements of the various members of the so-called
“New York School” are legendary, but Roffman wisely avoids getting bogged down in
too much detail about who drank or slept or collaborated with who—matters that,
given the tendency toward gossip of the parties involved, are uncommonly well
documented. (For those who are
interested, David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde and Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Hara are good places to start.) She does, however, devote considerable space
to the wrangling over Ashbery’s first book, Some
, which W.H. Auden selected, over O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, for
the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1955. Auden was actually rather ambivalent
about the manuscript, which was somewhat too surrealist for his taste, and made
Ashbery excise poems that included the words “masturbation” and “farting”—though he left in the line “the sun pissed on a rock,”
which survived to scandalize the poet’s mother. 

A writer like Ashbery is, in one way, a scholar’s dream. His work
is full of cross-references to be tracked down and mysteries to be decoded, and
it is in consistent dialogue with both its contemporary historical moment and
with the literary canon (however eccentrically that canon is defined). On the
other hand, a sense of privacy and inscrutability is intrinsic to the
experience of reading him: An Ashbery whose work had been fully explicated wouldn’t
be Ashbery at all. The Songs We Know Best lets us see, clearer than ever
before, how the poet’s mind works, and how it developed. Still, you can’t help remaining
a little nostalgic for the mystery.

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