A WORLDLY COUNTRY by JOHN ASHBERYNICHOLAS MANNING "Reviews"
A Worldly Country by John Ashbery
I adore reviewing books by younger poets, so imagine my delight when what should land on my desk this morning but the new collection, evocatively entitled A Wordly Country, by New York native and Harvard graduate Mr. John Ashbery.
It must first be said that if you haven’t yet heard of Mr. Ashbery, you will. He was the winner of last year’s Yale Younger Poets Prize for his collection Some Trees, a book which, though indeed indebted to strong currents of Continental surrealism, nevertheless heralded a recognizably distinct poetic: a tone of competing tensions, at once committed to the ostensible poles of disjunction and connection, melancholy and humour, abstraction and the changing perspectives of the panoptic eye.
At this point in time, however, the question on many critics lips is of course: is A Worldly Country as good as Some Trees? Has Mr. Ashbery lost his edge? Has -- as Harold Bloom recently termed him -- The Great White Hope of American Poetics After Stevens been blunted by Gallic vagueness and general Euro foppishness (Mr. Ashbery currently resides in France)?
Considering this is the poet’s second book, the question seems, at least to this critic, premature. No work is, of course, ahistorical; all collections must be placed at some point along a poet’s particular, and very personal, timeline. But books also perhaps deserve to be seen if not as “autonomous” objects, at least as objects in their own right. This perhaps allows us insight into a more generous view of poetic history, one which, in giving value to different manifestations of poetic sentiment occurring in time, refuses to demand of them a mythic Hegelian advancement, a meliorism wherein the older a poet gets, the bigger he grows until, of now Titanic stature, he finally attains the blessèd summits of Mount Delphi.
History, as Mr. Richards has recently taught, is far from being the sine qua non of criticism. We must thus ask ourselves the question: if Ms. Woolf feels all writers to be writing simultaneously within the same room, can one poet write in such a room surrounded not only by all other poets, but also by all his or her other diverse poetic selves? Mr. Ashbery at 29, for example, passing a note to Mr. Ashbery at 80, (perhaps asking for advice, perhaps upbraiding his greyer Doppelgänger)?
It is apparently this type of comparison which is, for the moment, of primary interest to a good number of practicing critics. Indeed, W.H. Auden, who in fact chose Mr. Ashbery last year for the Yale Younger Poets series, recently remarked, on a different subject altogether, that:
“It is safe to say that one of the primary reasons I, and many other readers, read poetry, is to find out whether the most recent book by a poet is better than all of his or her previous books. Lexical aptitude, formal splendor, rhetorical restraint, beauty: these elements must in the end be subjugated to that most crucial of questions: is this poet ‘out of form’? Should he or she be dropped from the team? Should Jorie Graham be brought in -- again -- as pinch-hitter?”
In Mr. Auden’s wake, readers may thus want, even expect, to be now told how, in comparison to Some Trees, A Wordly Country “stacks up”. Tant pis. As, for this reviewer, it will be interesting to attempt to review this collection not in the context of what has come, but in the context of what may. A poetic is a becoming, and heaven forbid, especially at this nascent stage, that plain chronology should win out over the work.
What is unfortunate is that such a nubile poet as Mr. Ashbery should already be concerned with these dangers of “derivation”, (and for this fear several well-known critics should hang their heads):
They called and said
I was supposed to be thinking
of a way to revise the program,
let in some light and air,
bring in some new people with new ideas.
That Mr. Ashbery’s “program” should, in A Worldly Country, be “revised”, is of course absurd: for what matter if these ideas are “new”, since they are resolutely, and entirely, Mr. Ashbery’s? (As the poet himself remarks: “Do you expect me to actually read this?”)
Thankfully though, we also encounter moments of self-assurance, when Mr. Ashbery seems ready to dismiss the hackneyed demands of unjustified nouveauté so overemphasized by Mr. Pound and his diverse London “schools”:
Painted truths can’t always be lively,
nor unvarnished arabesques straightforward and cool.
“Cool” this poetry is not, and we are the better off for it.
For, historical considerations aside, Mr. Ashbery’s poetry is, in simple terms, superb. But why is it superb? Let us delve into its universe:
In all plays, even Hamlet, the scenery
is the best part. Battlements, wintry thickets
forcing their edge on you, cough up their promise
as the verse goes starry.
Mallarméan commitment to the evocation of the object over the object? Not quite; for in Ashbery’s most “starry” verse, though the scenery may indeed be “the best part”, this poetic is not entirely, or simply, a mis en avant, a prioritization of such scenery over the diverse personages who move there. It is both:
Objects, too, are important.
Some of the time they are.
They can furrow their brow,
even offer forgiveness, of a sort.
Mr. Ashbery’s poetry is, then, encompassing. It “isn’t flummoxed by brandy and cigars.” It is not the flower absent of bouquets, but rather the flower inseparable from, wreathed within, a larger spatial ensemble:
One has to endure
certain systems, then profit by them later
Already there has been unfortunate speculation as to where Mr. Ashbery should be situated in terms of the sempiternal Scylla and Charybdis of poetic partitions: Georgian or Modernist? Parnassian or Symbolist? Expressionist or Impressionist? School of Quietude or Post-Avant? Gallic-fed Europhile or True American Voice in the Whitman-to-Williams heritage?
“One fluctuates as a shadow, like one’s shadow” as Mr. Ashbery puts it. As intensely beautiful in their fragments as in their ensembles, these poems are not one, but many: postmodern baroque (“if it’s loveliness you want, here, take some,/ hissed the black fairy”), phenomenology (“this was the real thing”), epistemology (“farewell nightmares, simulacra”), Continental cadences (“A collective European rhythm pierced the veil with sighs”), exegetical wonderings (“God will find the pattern and break it”), Wittgensteinian analytic rigour (“the bonds of cheap thinking repositioned us anyway”), Romanticism (“the albatross held and dissolved in mid-midst”), war-poetry (“it’s OK, it’s only a flesh-wound. It’s almost healed”), American pastoral (“No longer shall the grasses weave quilts for our revenge”), repressed Neo-Platonism (“Tonight we have tension and oneness”), Nietzschean will (“We’re leaving again of our own volition”), Mafioso soliloquies (“The deal is off. The rest is silence”), astronomy (“All across Europe a partial eclipse”), medicine (“a low-grade fever installs itself”), sentimental Realpolitik vehemence (“Barbara Allen’s cruelty, the night wind/ biting at scarves”), delicate and intimate Confessionalism (“why I am happy with you, alone, just us”), John Barr brokerage fantasies (“After finishing everything up/ I pay a formal call to the broker”), Gautier-esque French fantastique (“Easy enough to say, if you’re a ghost”), Steinbeckian rural squalor (“We were grape children”), Lacanian mirror-paradigms (“I guess what I’m saying is/ don’t be more passive-aggressive”), Life’s sweet contingencies (“After he found a million dollars in a slot”), sex, and dashes of the new avant-garde (“the hat hasn’t worn too well”).
All these different poetic exemplars compete; and John Ashbery is simply there, if he is there at all, to:
Prop up the “meaning,”
take the trash out, the dog for a walk,
give the old balls a scratch
There is something so fresh and vibrant to Mr. Ashbery’s verse, an ingenuousness, a frank and communicative candour, that this reviewer, at least, hopes will never be blunted:
I don’t know–spring came and went so fast this year,
sex on the river–and one observes it.
By the way, only minors are allowed.
Though we cannot know what poetry this new century will bring us, my only advice for the moment, is this: keep an eye on this poet. I predict that we will see great things from Mr. Ashbery; his is a rare talent, Promethean -- in both the regular and the Greek sense (that of “forethought”) -- and a pleasure for the dispassionate critical eye.
“Still hungry?” Mr. Ashbery asks us. “Read on.”
Nicholas Manning was born in Rochester, New York and raised on a farm near Lake Ontario. He maintains a weblog at www.thenewermetaphysicals.blogpsot.com