John Ashbery, Family, 2011, collage, 16 1/4 x 13 1/4 inches. Courtesy the Estate of the Artist and Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.
In 1991, John, David Kermani, and I were waiting to get on a flight to Milan for a poetry festival there. John and David were in a convivial mood and the subject turned to John Shoptaw, who a few years later published a study of Ashbery called On the Outside Looking Out. Shoptaw’s book was one of the first studies of Ashbery’s work that included references to his being gay, which Shoptaw read in terms of what he calls “homotextuality.” Before the early 1990s, Ashbery’s homosexuality was not commonly addressed in print. As far as I know, this is how Ashbery wanted it.
The introduction to Shoptaw’s book is called “Misrepresentative Poetry.” This title speaks of both being out of a closet and elusive.
At the airport, John and I were drinking, though all I remember is that John was. He said he was uncomfortable with Shoptaw writing about him as a gay poet, that he was concerned that this might be a reductive way to see his work, especially if it became a primary frame. I said the obvious, knowing that John knew it better than me—that his being identified as gay was welcome, indeed liberatory, and, in the case of Shoptaw’s work, elucidating.
As we three New Yorkers waited for the plane that would take us to Europe, I thought of John’s coming of age in the 1940s and ’50s. Ashbery’s poetic response to the Second European War, the defining event of his youth, is remarkable for its obliqueness, indirection, aversion—for its intimate rather than grand scale, its particularities of registration rather than largeness of statement. Ashbery’s reaction to fascism (and to the Cold War) was not proclamations and denunciations but deflationary rhetoric, profoundly superficial, as an oxymoron might say.
Poetry is best that governs least. That’s my motto for Ashbery’s work—this great project of Unrepresentative Verse, a search for an alternative to reductive forms of representation, whether it be representation of a person, a place, a group, a nation, a species, or simply of an object. Unrepresentative Verse entails an abiding skepticism toward the authoritative voice of both public and market discourse in a society that moved from the centrist conformism of the ’50s to the more complex varieties of boutique or pluralist conformisms of the present, where the values that reign are moral, market, and atavistic.
Of all the many “difficult” American poets of the 20th century, none was so admired and beloved as Ashbery. He was essential for those of us who searched for formal extravagance and technical wildness in poetry, while he was charming enough to the poetry scolds to win not only awards, prizes, but also, sometimes begrudgingly, consent.
Ashbery was the least polarizing of polarizing radical poets. He joins a small group of 20th-century American poets highly esteemed by the conventionals and inventors alike, up there with William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Gwendolyn Brooks, and T.S. Eliot; poets whose work is seen in very different ways depending from which side of the aesthetic line you are looking.
In the mid-1960s, and especially in “The Skaters,” Ashbery introduced into American poetry a nonlinear associative logic that averts both exposition and disjunction. As I wrote in Pitch of Poetry, Ashbery’s aversion (after The Tennis Court Oath) to abrupt disjunction gives his collage-like work the feeling of continuously flowing voices, even though few of the features of traditional voice-centered lyrics are present in his work. The connection between any two lines or sentences in an Ashbery poem has a contingent consecutiveness that registers transition but not discontinuity. However, the lack of logical or contingent connections between one line and the next opens the work to fractal patterning. To create a “third way” between the hypotaxis of conventional lyric and the parataxis of Ezra Pound and Charles Olson, Ashbery places temporal conjunctions (“meanwhile,” “at the same time”) between discrepant collage elements, giving the spatial sensation of overlay and the temporal sensation of meandering thought.
“The Skaters,” published in Rivers and Mountains in 1966, realizes this contingent connection between lines as “vanishing points.”
The lines that draw nearer together are said to “vanish.”
The point where they meet is their vanishing point.
Spaces, as they recede, become smaller.
As we were getting onto the plane for Milan, John was so wobbly that David and I had to hold him as we walked the gangway. In “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat” (1975), he writes:
A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again?
Halfway down the plank John turned to me and said, “Well, I guess I am a role model.”
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.