Fall Preview: Poet John Ashbery Makes His Elliptical Way into Library of America

O, happy wrecking ball

For better or worse, John Ashbery looms over the downtown of contemporary American poetry like a gaudy skyscraper: Wherever you wander, it's impossible to lose sight of him.

Given Ashbery's aversion to all things mainstream, his dogged experimentalism, and his notorious "difficulty" as a writer, this is perhaps a somewhat improbable state of affairs. Indeed, at the age of 81, Ashbery still divides readers. There are many who'd agree with one reviewer's verdict that much of his work has "about as much poetic life as a refrigerated plastic flower."

Nevertheless, next month Ashbery will become only the fourth American writer to see his collected works published during his lifetime by the Library of America (the others were Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth). It's an ironic instance of the establishment appropriating a figure who's spent much of his life writing from the margin. (Although the poet has always had his champions—the new volume comes emblazoned with a tagline from that most excitable of blurbists, Harold Bloom: "Since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955, we have been living in the Age of Ashbery.")

A good way to confuse Auden: Ashbery in Water Mill, New York, 1964
Photo by John Jonas Gruen/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A good way to confuse Auden: Ashbery in Water Mill, New York, 1964

Ashbery himself is dry, unsentimental, deflating on the subject of literary immortality. His work tends to emphasize the contingent, accidental, and precarious nature of art. The writers of past ages, he says in one downbeat verse, have "disappeared into libraries, onto microfilm./A few are still interested in them." The casualness, the lack of pretension, the wry acknowledgment that in our mass culture, poetry must jostle for attention with a host of easier, less time-and-thought-consuming pleasures: These are all hallmarks of the Ashbery voice, and no doubt reasons for his popularity. (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the 1975 National Book Critics Circle Award, sold 20,000 copies—in the poetry world, the equivalent of Dark Knight ticket sales.)

Of course, Ashbery's work is renowned more for its opacity than its plain-speaking. W.H. Auden, who chose Ashbery's first collection, Some Trees (1956), as the winner of the Yale Young Poets Award, later confessed that he didn't understand a word of it.

Yet Ashbery's disjunctions and seemingly arbitrary twists and turns represent not mere scatterbrained dilettantism, but an attempt to write—to adapt a title from Stevens—the poems of our climate. Pay close attention to the variety of information we receive in an ordinary day—from television, radio, the Internet, newspapers, books, strangers overheard in the street—and Ashbery's verse begins to seem more familiar, to represent a modern world that is well-known to us, whose often elliptical and incoherent messages we rarely have time to make sense of properly. Consider also that Ashbery has said that his poetry is an attempt to describe "the way time feels as it passes." So it's hardly surprising that his poems should seem to drift in and out of intelligibility.

There's a passage in the poem "Down by the Station, Early in the Morning" that might serve as a fitting epigraph to the new collection:

[. . .] the wrecking ball bursts through the wall with the bookshelves

Scattering the works of famous authors as well as those

Of more obscure ones, and books with no author, letting in

Space, and an extraneous babble from the street

Confirming the new value the hollow core has again [. . .]

The wrecking ball of time, always mangling and disrupting what we like to think of as the permanence of the canon, is also the agent that allows in "extraneous babble from the street" and thus the possibility for fresh creation. Whereas poets of past ages looked forward strenuously to their own posthumous fame, this one predicts, with his typically unflustered cheerfulness, his own demise.

Library of America, 1,050 pp., $40.

The Men in My Life

By Vivian Gornick (September)

A book in which a critic whose sensibility was shaped by second-wave feminism shares her thoughts on a stable of male authors—including such coltish laureates of misogyny as Roth and Bellow—may not strike one as the most happy marriage of writer and subject. Yet Gornick, a reader of immense sympathy and insight, is not out to expose and chasten the unseemly underbellies of the men in her life, but rather, as she says in the preface to this short, elegant book, "to think more inclusively about the emotional imprisonment of mind and spirit to which all human beings are heir." MIT Press, 224 pp., $13.95.

Death With Interruptions

By José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (October)

José Saramago, it would seem, does not so much compose as blurt out, ejaculate, or extemporize his novels (as the author himself, with his lust for verbal proliferation, would probably put it). Most of his books have the air of being transcribed on a beer-stained parchment in the back room of some bucolic tavern around the middle of the 16th century, so copious are they in folksy quirks and archaic turns of phrase. Death With Interruptions, the latest from the octogenarian Portuguese Nobel laureate, returns to the unnamed country that in two previous novels has been ravaged by an epidemic of white blindness (Blindness) and a sudden outburst of mass political dissent (Seeing). This time, the plague to be visited on the hapless population is, of all things, the disappearance of death, a far less pleasant turn of events than one might first imagine. Harcourt, 256 pp., $24.

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