Selected Poems and Bibliography
John Lawrence Ashbery (born July 28, 1927) is recognized as one of the greatest twentieth-century American poets. Critics have noted how Ashbery’s verse has taken shape under the influence of abstract expressionism, a movement in modern painting stressing nonrepresentational methods of picturing reality. Ashbery’s poetry, as critics have observed, has evolved under a variety of influences besides modern art, becoming in the end the expression of a voice unmistakably his own. Ashbery’s influences include the Romantic tradition in American poetry that progressed from Whitman to Wallace Stevens, the so-called “New York School of Poets” featuring contemporaries such as Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, and the French surrealist writers with whom Ashbery has dealt in his work as a critic and translator.
Ashbery’s style—self-reflexive, multi-phonic, vaguely narrative, full of both pop culture and high allusion—has become “so influential that its imitators are legion,” Helen Vendler observed in the New Yorker. Although even his strongest supporters admit that his poetry is often difficult to read and willfully difficult to understand, many critics have commented on the manner in which Ashbery’s fluid style conveys a major concern in his poetry: the refusal to impose an arbitrary order on a world of flux and chaos. In his verse, Ashbery attempts to mirror the stream of perceptions of which human consciousness is composed. His poetry is open-ended and multi-various because life itself is, he told Bryan Appleyard in the London Times: “I don’t find any direct statements in life. My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness come to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don’t think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation. My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life.” His poems move, often without continuity, from one image to the next, prompting some critics to praise his expressionist technique and others to accuse him of producing art that is unintelligible, even meaningless.
Ashbery’s poetry—and its influence on younger poets—remains controversial because of just this split in critical opinion: some critics laud what Paul Auster described in Harper’s as Ashbery’s “ability to undermine our certainties, to articulate so fully the ambiguous zones of our consciousness,” while others deplore his obscurantism and insist that his poems, made up of anything and everything, can mean anything and everything. Reflecting upon the critical response to his poem, “Litany,” Ashbery once told Contemporary Authors, “I’m quite puzzled by my work too, along with a lot of other people. I was always intrigued by it, but at the same time a little apprehensive and sort of embarrassed about annoying the same critics who are always annoyed by my work. I’m kind of sorry that I cause so much grief.”
In more recent Ashbery works, such as Girls on the Run (1999), Chinese Whispers (2002), Where Shall I Wander? (2005) and A Worldly Country (2007), critics have noted an infusion of elegy as the poet contemplates aging and death. In the Nation, Calvin Bedient stated: “For all his experimentation, Ashbery writes (as the important writers have always done) about happiness and woe. If the woe he knows is treated comically, it’s still woe.” While praising the poems in Chinese Whispers for their “light touch and consistent pacing,” Library Journal reviewer Barbara Hoffert noted that in “these autumnal pieces a sense of calm predominates” as “things repeatedly fall, ebb, dissipate, or descend.” In the Times Literary Supplement, Stephen Burt compared late-Ashbery to Wallace Stevens, another poet of old age: “if [Ashbery’s poems] do not even seek the kinds of formal completion we find in Stevens, they make up for it in their range of tones—befuddled, affectionate, bubbly, chastened, sombre, alarmed, and then befuddled again.” But, Burt declares, “Ashbery seems more contemporary, more topical, now than when he started writing, though the culture has changed around him more than he has changed: he has become the poet of our multi-tasking, interruption-filled, and entertainment-seeking days.”
Is it possible that spring could be
once more approaching? We forget each time
what a mindless business it is, porous like sleep,
adrift on the horizon, refusing to take sides, “mugwump
of the final hour,” lest an agenda—horrors!—be imputed to it,
and the whole point of its being spring collapse
like a hole dug in sand. It’s breathy, though,
you have to say that for it.
And should further seasons coagulate
into years, like spilled, dried paint, why,
who’s to say we weren’t provident? We indeed
looked out for others as though they mattered, and they,
catching the spirit, came home with us, spent the night
in an alcove from which their breathing could be heard clearly.
But it’s not over yet. Terrible incidents happen
daily. That’s how we get around obstacles.
From Houseboat Days
Daffy Duck In Hollywood
Something strange is creeping across me.
La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars
Of “I Thought about You” or something mellow from
Amadigi di Gaula for everything–a mint-condition can
Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy
Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile
Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged
Stock–to come clattering through the rainbow trellis
Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland
Fling Terrace. He promised he’d get me out of this one,
That mean old cartoonist, but just look what he’s
Done to me now! I scarce dare approach me mug’s attenuated
Reflection in yon hubcap, so jaundiced, so déconfit
Are its lineaments–fun, no doubt, for some quack phrenologist’s
Fern-clogged waiting room, but hardly what you’d call
Companionable. But everything is getting choked to the point of
Silence. Just now a magnetic storm hung in the swatch of sky
Over the Fudds’ garage, reducing it–drastically–
To the aura of a plumbago-blue log cabin on
A Gadsden Purchase commemorative cover. Suddenly all is
Loathing. I don’t want to go back inside any more. You meet
Enough vague people on this emerald traffic-island–no,
Not people, comings and goings, more: mutterings, splatterings,
The bizarrely but effectively equipped infantries of
Vegetal jacqueries, plumed, pointed at the little
White cardboard castle over the mill run. “Up
The lazy river, how happy we could be?”
How will it end? That geranium glow
Over Anaheim’s had the riot act read to it by the
Etna-size firecracker that exploded last minute into
A carte du Tendre in whose lower right-hand corner
(Hard by the jock-itch sand-trap that skirts
The asparagus patch of algolagnic nuits blanches) Amadis
Is cozening the Princesse de Cleves into a midnight
On the Tamigi with the Wallets (Walt, Blossom, and little
Sleezix) on a lamé barge “borrowed” from Ollie
Of the Movies’ dread mistress of the robes. Wait!
I have an announcement! This wide, tepidly meandering,
Civilized Lethe (one can barely make out the maypoles
And châlets de nécessitê on its sedgy shore)
leads to Tophet, that
Landfill-haunted, not-so-residential resort from which
Some travellers return! This whole moment is the groin
Of a borborygmic giant who even now
Is rolling over on us in his sleep. Farewell bocages,
Tanneries, water-meadows. The allegory comes unsnarled
Too soon; a shower of pecky acajou harpoons is
About all there is to be noted between tornadoes. I have
Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live
Which is like thinking in another language. Everything
Depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.
That this is a fabulation, and that those “other times”
Are in fact the silences of the soul, picked out in
Diamonds on stygian velvet, matters less than it should.
Prodigies of timing may be arranged to convince them
We live in one dimension, they in ours. While I
Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek
Deliverance for us all, think in that language: its
Grammar, though tortured, offers pavillions
At each new parting of the ways. Pastel
Ambulances scoop up the quick and hie them to hospitals.
“It’s all bits and pieces, spangles, patches, really; nothing
Stands alone. What happened to creative evolution?”
Sighed Aglavaine. Then to her Sélysette: “If his
Achievement is only to end up less boring than the others,
What’s keeping us here? Why not leave at once?
I have to stay here while they sit in there,
Laugh, drink, have fine time. In my day
One lay under the tough green leaves,
Pretending not to notice how they bled into
The sky’s aqua, the wafted-away no-color of regions supposed
Not to concern us. And so we too
Came where the others came: nights of physical endurance,
Or if, by day, our behavior was anarchically
Correct, at least by New Brutalism standards, all then
Grew taciturn by previous agreement. We were spirited
Away en bateau, under cover of fudge dark.
It’s not the incomplete importunes, but the spookiness
Of the finished product. True, to ask less were folly, yet
If he is the result of himself, how much the better
For him we ought to be! And how little, finally,
We take this into account! Is the puckered garance satin
Of a case that once held a brace of dueling pistols our
Only acknowledging of that color? I like not this,
Methinks, yet this disappointing sequel to ourselves
Has been applauded in London and St. Petersburg. Somewhere
Ravens pray for us.” The storm finished brewing. And thus
She questioned all who came in at the great gate, but none
She found who ever heard of Amadis,
Nor of stern Aureng-Zebe, his first love. Some
They were to whom this mattered not a jot: since all
By definition is completeness (so
In utter darkness they reasoned), why not
Accept it as it pleases to reveal itself? As when
Low skyscrapers from lower-hanging clouds reveal
A turret there, an art-deco escarpment here, and last perhaps
The pattern that may carry the sense, but
Stays hidden in the mysteries of pagination.
Not what we see but how we see it matters; all’s
Alike, the same, and we greet him who announces
The change as we would greet the change itself.
All life is but a figment; conversely, the tiny
Tome that slips from your hand is not perhaps the
Missing link in this invisible picnic whose leverage
Shrouds our sense of it. Therefore bivouac we
On this great, blond highway, unimpeded by
Veiled scruples, worn conundrums. Morning is
Impermanent. Grab sex things, swing up
Over the horizon like a boy
On a fishing expedition. No one really knows
Or cares whether this is the whole of which parts
Were vouchsafed–once–but to be ambling on’s
The tradition more than the safekeeping of it. This mulch for
Play keeps them interested and busy while the big,
Vaguer stuff can decide what it wants–what maps, what
Model cities, how much waste space. Life, our
Life anyway, is between. We don’t mind
Or notice any more that the sky is green, a parrot
One, but have our earnest where it chances on us,
Disingenuous, intrigued, inviting more,
Always invoking the echo, a summer’s day.
Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape
The first of the undecoded messages read: “Popeye sits
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain’s hue, a tangram emerges: a country.”
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: “How
To spend one’s vacation en la casa de Popeye,” she
Her cleft chin’s solitary hair. She remembered spinach
And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.
“M’love,” he intercepted, “the plains are decked out
Today, and it shall be as you wish.” He scratched
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. “But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my
Suddenly they remembered how it was cheaper in the country.
Wimpy was thoughtfully cutting open a number 2 can of spinach
When the door opened and Swee’pea crept in. “How pleasant!”
But Swee’pea looked morose. A note was pinned to his bib.
And tears are unavailing,” it read. “Henceforth shall
Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or
Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
Her long thigh. “I have news!” she gasped. “Popeye, forced as
you know to flee the country
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened,
duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant
Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant
Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the
Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and
She grabbed Swee’pea. “I’m taking the brat to the country.”
“But you can’t do that–he hasn’t even finished his spinach,”
Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment.
But Olive was already out of earshot. Now the apartment
Succumbed to a strange new hush. “Actually it’s quite pleasant
Here,” thought the Sea Hag. “If this is all we need fear from
Then I don’t mind so much. Perhaps we could invite Alice the Goon
One dug pensively–“but Wimpy is such a country
Bumpkin, always burping like that.” Minute at first, the thunder
Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,
The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.
For John Clare
Kind of empty in the way it sees everything, the earth gets to its feet andsalutes the sky. More of a success at it this time than most others it is. The feeling that the sky might be in the back of someone’s mind. Then there is no telling how many there are. They grace everything–bush and tree–to take the roisterer’s mind off his caroling–so it’s like a smooth switch back. To what was aired in their previous conniption fit. There is so much to be seen everywhere that it’s like not getting used to it, only there is so much it never feels new, never any different. You are standing looking at that building and you cannot take it all in, certain details are already hazy and the mind boggles. What will it all be like in five years’ time when you try to remember? Will there have been boards in between the grass part and the edge of the street? As long as that couple is stopping to look in that window over there we cannot go. We feel like they have to tell us we can, but they never look our way and they are already gone, gone far into the future–the night of time. If we could look at a photograph of it and say there they are, they never really stopped but there they are. There is so much to be said, and on the surface of it very little gets said.
There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like. Being immersed in the details of rock and field and slope –letting them come to you for once, and then meeting them halfway would be so much easier–if they took an ingenuous pride in being in one’s blood. Alas, we perceive them if at all as those things that were meant to be put aside– costumes of the supporting actors or voice trilling at the end of a narrow enclosed street. You can do nothing with them. Not even offer to pay.
It is possible that finally, like coming to the end of a long, barely perceptible rise, there is mutual cohesion and interaction. The whole scene is fixed in your mind, the music all present, as though you could see each note as well as hear it. I say this because there is an uneasiness in things just now. Waiting for something to be over before you are forced to notice it. The pollarded trees scarcely bucking the wind–and yet it’s keen, it makes you fall over. Clabbered sky. Seasons that pass with a rush. After all it’s their time too–nothing says they aren’t to make something of it. As for Jenny Wren, she cares, hopping about on her little twig like she was tryin’ to tell us somethin’, but that’s just it, she couldn’t even if she wanted to–dumb bird. But the others–and they in some way must know too–it would never occur to them to want to, even if they could take the first step of the terrible journey toward feeling somebody should act, that ends in utter confusion and hopelessness, east of the sun and west of the moon. So their comment is: “No comment.” Meanwhile the whole history of probabilities is coming to life, starting in the upper left-hand corner, like a sail.
The man with the red hat
And the polar bear, is he here too?
The window giving on shade,
Is that here too?
And all the little helps,
My initials in the sky,
The hay of an arctic summer night?
Drops dead in sight of the window.
Lovely tribes have just moved to the north.
In the flickering evening the martins grow denser.
Rivers of wings surround us and vast tribulation.
My Philosophy of Life
Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea–
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?
That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him–not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough
to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something
wrote in some book of his you never read–it was fine, it had the
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and
It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought–
something’s blocking it. Something I’m
not big enough to see over.Or maybe I’m frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise–I’ll let
things be what they are, sort of.In the autumn I’ll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he’s
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him–
this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know.
Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That’s what they’re made for! Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one…
John Ashbery reads My Philosophy Of Life
Poem at the New Year
Once, out on the water in the clear, early nineteenth-century twilight,
you asked time to suspend its flight. If wishes could beget more than sobs,
that would be my wish for you, my darling, my angel. But other
principles prevail in this glum haven, don’t they? If that’s what it is.
Then the wind fell of its own accord.
We went out and saw that it had actually happened.
The season stood motionless, alert. How still the dropp was
on the burr I know not. I come all
packaged and serene, yet I keep losing things.
I wonder about Australia. Is it anything about Canada?
Do pigeons flutter? Is there a strangeness there, to complete
the one in me? Or must I relearn my filing system?
Can we trust others to indict us
who see us only in the evening rush hour,
and never stop to think? O, I was so bright about you,
my songbird, once. Now, cattails immolated
in the frozen swamp are about all I have time for.
The days are so polarized. Yet time itself is off center.
At least that’s how it feels to me.
I know it as well as the streets in the map of my imagined
industrial city. But it has its own way of slipping past.
There was never any fullness that was going to be;
you waited in line for things, and the stained light was
impenitent. ‘Spiky’ was one adjective that came to mind,
yet for all its raised or lower levels I approach this canal.
Its time was right in winter. There was pipe smoke
in cafés, and outside the great ashen bird
streamed from lettered display windows, and waited
a little way off. Another chance. It never became a gesture.
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is
Sequestered. Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself from that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers . . .
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,”
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.
The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose: his image
Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle.
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.
Pope Clement and his court were “stupefied”
By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission
That never materialized. The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.
But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.
That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.
We see only postures of the dream,
Riders of the motion that swings the face
Into view under evening skies, with no
False disarray as proof of authenticity.
But it is life englobed.
One would like to stick one’s hand
Out of the globe, but its dimension,
What carries it, will not allow it.
No doubt it is this, not the reflex
To hide something, which makes the hand loom large
As it retreats slightly. There is no way
To build it flat like a section of wall:
It must join the segment of a circle,
Roving back to the body of which it seems
So unlikely a part, to fence in and shore up the face
On which the effort of this condition reads
Like a pinpoint of a smile, a spark
Or star one is not sure of having seen
As darkness resumes. A perverse light whose
Imperative of subtlety dooms in advance its
Conceit to light up: unimportant but meant.
Francesco, your hand is big enough
To wreck the sphere, and too big,
One would think, to weave delicate meshes
That only argue its further detention.
(Big, but not coarse, merely on another scale,
Like a dozing whale on the sea bottom
In relation to the tiny, self-important ship
On the surface.) But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.
There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves,
And the window doesn’t matter much, or that
Sliver of window or mirror on the right, even
As a gauge of the weather, which in French is
Le temps, the word for time, and which
Follows a course wherein changes are merely
Features of the whole. The whole is stable within
Instability, a globe like ours, resting
On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball
Secure on its jet of water.
And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,
No words to say what it really is, that it is not
Superficial but a visible core, then there is
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.
You will stay on, restive, serene in
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.
The balloon pops, the attention
Turns dully away. Clouds
In the puddle stir up into sawtoothed fragments.
I think of the friends
Who came to see me, of what yesterday
Was like. A peculiar slant
Of memory that intrudes on the dreaming model
In the silence of the studio as he considers
Lifting the pencil to the self-portrait.
How many people came and stayed a certain time,
Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you
Like light behind windblown fog and sand,
Filtered and influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you. Those voices in the dusk
Have told you all and still the tale goes on
In the form of memories deposited in irregular
Clumps of crystals. Whose curved hand controls,
Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts
That peel off and fly away at breathless speeds
Like the last stubborn leaves ripped
From wet branches? I see in this only the chaos
Of your round mirror which organizes everything
Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty,
Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.
I feel the carousel starting slowly
And going faster and faster: desk, papers, books,
Photographs of friends, the window and the trees
Merging in one neutral band that surrounds
Me on all sides, everywhere I look.
And I cannot explain the action of leveling,
Why it should all boil down to one
Uniform substance, a magma of interiors.
My guide in these matters is your self,
Firm, oblique, accepting everything with the same
Wraith of a smile, and as time speeds up so that it is soon
Much later, I can know only the straight way out,
The distance between us. Long ago
The strewn evidence meant something,
The small accidents and pleasures
Of the day as it moved gracelessly on,
A housewife doing chores. Impossible now
To restore those properties in the silver blur that is
The record of what you accomplished by sitting down
“With great art to copy all that you saw in the glass”
So as to perfect and rule out the extraneous
Forever. In the circle of your intentions certain spars
Remain that perpetuate the enchantment of self with self:
Eyebeams, muslin, coral. It doesn’t matter
Because these are things as they are today
Before one’s shadow ever grew
Out of the field into thoughts of tomorrow.
Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted,
Desolate, reluctant as any landscape
To yield what are laws of perspective
After all only to the painter’s deep
Mistrust, a weak instrument though
Necessary. Of course some things
Are possible, it knows, but it doesn’t know
Which ones. Some day we will try
To do as many things as are possible
And perhaps we shall succeed at a handful
Of them, but this will not have anything
To do with what is promised today, our
Landscape sweeping out from us to disappear
On the horizon. Today enough of a cover burnishes
To keep the supposition of promises together
In one piece of surface, letting one ramble
Back home from them so that these
Even stronger possibilities can remain
Whole without being tested. Actually
The skin of the bubble-chamber’s as tough as
Reptile eggs; everything gets “programmed” there
In due course: more keeps getting included
Without adding to the sum, and just as one
Gets accustomed to a noise that
Kept one awake but now no longer does,
So the room contains this flow like an hourglass
Without varying in climate or quality
(Except perhaps to brighten bleakly and almost
Invisibly, in a focus sharpening toward death–more
Of this later). What should be the vacuum of a dream
Becomes continually replete as the source of dreams
Is being tapped so that this one dream
May wax, flourish like a cabbage rose,
Defying sumptuary laws, leaving us
To awake and try to begin living in what
Has now become a slum. Sydney Freedberg in his
Parmigianino says of it: “Realism in this portrait
No longer produces and objective truth, but a bizarria . . . .
However its distortion does not create
A feeling of disharmony . . . . The forms retain
A strong measure of ideal beauty,” because
Fed by our dreams, so inconsequential until one day
We notice the hole they left. Now their importance
If not their meaning is plain. They were to nourish
A dream which includes them all, as they are
Finally reversed in the accumulating mirror.
They seemed strange because we couldn’t actually see them.
And we realize this only at a point where they lapse
Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up
Its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape.
The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty
As they forage in secret on our idea of distortion.
Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since
Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed?
Something like living occurs, a movement
Out of the dream into its codification.
As I start to forget it
It presents its stereotype again
But it is an unfamiliar stereotype, the face
Riding at anchor, issued from hazards, soon
To accost others, “rather angel than man” (Vasari).
Perhaps an angel looks like everything
We have forgotten, I mean forgotten
Things that don’t seem familiar when
We meet them again, lost beyond telling,
Which were ours once. This would be the point
Of invading the privacy of this man who
“Dabbled in alchemy, but whose wish
Here was not to examine the subtleties of art
In a detached, scientific spirit: he wished through them
To impart the sense of novelty and amazement to the spectator”
(Freedberg). Later portraits such as the Uffizi
“Gentleman,” the Borghese “Young Prelate” and
The Naples “Antea” issue from Mannerist
Tensions, but here, as Freedberg points out,
The surprise, the tension are in the concept
Rather than its realization.
The consonance of the High Renaissance
Is present, though distorted by the mirror.
What is novel is the extreme care in rendering
The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface
(It is the first mirror portrait),
So that you could be fooled for a moment
Before you realize the reflection
Isn’t yours. You feel then like one of those
Hoffmann characters who have been deprived
Of a reflection, except that the whole of me
Is seen to be supplanted by the strict
Otherness of the painter in his
Other room. We have surprised him
At work, but no, he has surprised us
As he works. The picture is almost finished,
The surprise almost over, as when one looks out,
Startled by a snowfall which even now is
Ending in specks and sparkles of snow.
It happened while you were inside, asleep,
And there is no reason why you should have
Been awake for it, except that the day
Is ending and it will be hard for you
To get to sleep tonight, at least until late.
The shadow of the city injects its own
Urgency: Rome where Francesco
Was at work during the Sack: his inventions
Amazed the soldiers who burst in on him;
They decided to spare his life, but he left soon after;
Vienna where the painting is today, where
I saw it with Pierre in the summer of 1959; New York
Where I am now, which is a logarithm
Of other cities. Our landscape
Is alive with filiations, shuttlings;
Business is carried on by look, gesture,
Hearsay. It is another life to the city,
The backing of the looking glass of the
Unidentified but precisely sketched studio. It wants
To siphon off the life of the studio, deflate
Its mapped space to enactments, island it.
That operation has been temporarily stalled
But something new is on the way, a new preciosity
In the wind. Can you stand it,
Francesco? Are you strong enough for it?
This wind brings what it knows not, is
Self–propelled, blind, has no notion
Of itself. It is inertia that once
Acknowledged saps all activity, secret or public:
Whispers of the word that can’t be understood
But can be felt, a chill, a blight
Moving outward along the capes and peninsulas
Of your nervures and so to the archipelagoes
And to the bathed, aired secrecy of the open sea.
This is its negative side. Its positive side is
Making you notice life and the stresses
That only seemed to go away, but now,
As this new mode questions, are seen to be
Hastening out of style. If they are to become classics
They must decide which side they are on.
Their reticence has undermined
The urban scenery, made its ambiguities
Look willful and tired, the games of an old man.
What we need now is this unlikely
Challenger pounding on the gates of an amazed
Castle. Your argument, Francesco,
Had begun to grow stale as no answer
Or answers were forthcoming. If it dissolves now
Into dust, that only means its time had come
Some time ago, but look now, and listen:
It may be that another life is stocked there
In recesses no one knew of; that it,
Not we, are the change; that we are in fact it
If we could get back to it, relive some of the way
It looked, turn our faces to the globe as it sets
And still be coming out all right:
Nerves normal, breath normal. Since it is a metaphor
Made to include us, we are a part of it and
Can live in it as in fact we have done,
Only leaving our minds bare for questioning
We now see will not take place at random
But in an orderly way that means to menace
Nobody–the normal way things are done,
Like the concentric growing up of days
Around a life: correctly, if you think about it.
A breeze like the turning of a page
Brings back your face: the moment
Takes such a big bite out of the haze
Of pleasant intuition it comes after.
The locking into place is “death itself,”
As Berg said of a phrase in Mahler’s Ninth;
Or, to quote Imogen in Cymbeline, “There cannot
Be a pinch in death more sharp than this,” for,
Though only exercise or tactic, it carries
The momentum of a conviction that had been building.
Mere forgetfulness cannot remove it
Nor wishing bring it back, as long as it remains
The white precipitate of its dream
In the climate of sighs flung across our world,
A cloth over a birdcage. But it is certain that
What is beautiful seems so only in relation to a specific
Life, experienced or not, channeled into some form
Steeped in the nostalgia of a collective past.
The light sinks today with an enthusiasm
I have known elsewhere, and known why
It seemed meaningful, that others felt this way
Years ago. I go on consulting
This mirror that is no longer mine
For as much brisk vacancy as is to be
My portion this time. And the vase is always full
Because there is only just so much room
And it accommodates everything. The sample
One sees is not to be taken as
Merely that, but as everything as it
May be imagined outside time–not as a gesture
But as all, in the refined, assimilable state.
But what is this universe the porch of
As it veers in and out, back and forth,
Refusing to surround us and still the only
Thing we can see? Love once
Tipped the scales but now is shadowed, invisible,
Though mysteriously present, around somewhere.
But we know it cannot be sandwiched
Between two adjacent moments, that its windings
Lead nowhere except to further tributaries
And that these empty themselves into a vague
Sense of something that can never be known
Even though it seems likely that each of us
Knows what it is and is capable of
Communicating it to the other. But the look
Some wear as a sign makes one want to
Push forward ignoring the apparent
NaÏveté of the attempt, not caring
That no one is listening, since the light
Has been lit once and for all in their eyes
And is present, unimpaired, a permanent anomaly,
Awake and silent. On the surface of it
There seems no special reason why that light
Should be focused by love, or why
The city falling with its beautiful suburbs
Into space always less clear, less defined,
Should read as the support of its progress,
The easel upon which the drama unfolded
To its own satisfaction and to the end
Of our dreaming, as we had never imagined
It would end, in worn daylight with the painted
Promise showing through as a gage, a bond.
This nondescript, never-to-be defined daytime is
The secret of where it takes place
And we can no longer return to the various
Conflicting statements gathered, lapses of memory
Of the principal witnesses. All we know
Is that we are a little early, that
Today has that special, lapidary
Todayness that the sunlight reproduces
Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe
Sidewalks. No previous day would have been like this.
I used to think they were all alike,
That the present always looked the same to everybody
But this confusion drains away as one
Is always cresting into one’s present.
Yet the “poetic,” straw-colored space
Of the long corridor that leads back to the painting,
Its darkening opposite–is this
Some figment of “art,” not to be imagined
As real, let alone special? Hasn’t it too its lair
In the present we are always escaping from
And falling back into, as the waterwheel of days
Pursues its uneventful, even serene course?
I think it is trying to say it is today
And we must get out of it even as the public
Is pushing through the museum now so as to
Be out by closing time. You can’t live there.
The gray glaze of the past attacks all know-how:
Secrets of wash and finish that took a lifetime
To learn and are reduced to the status of
Black-and-white illustrations in a book where colorplates
Are rare. That is, all time
Reduces to no special time. No one
Alludes to the change; to do so might
Involve calling attention to oneself
Which would augment the dread of not getting out
Before having seen the whole collection
(Except for the sculptures in the basement:
They are where they belong).
Our time gets to be veiled, compromised
By the portrait’s will to endure. It hints at
Our own, which we were hoping to keep hidden.
We don’t need paintings or
Doggerel written by mature poets when
The explosion is so precise, so fine.
Is there any point even in acknowledging
The existence of all that? Does it
Exist? Certainly the leisure to
Indulge stately pastimes doesn’t,
Any more. Today has no margins, the event arrives
Flush with its edges, is of the same substance,
Indistinguishable. “Play” is something else;
It exists, in a society specifically
Organized as a demonstration of itself.
There is no other way, and those assholes
Who would confuse everything with their mirror games
Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or
At least confuse issues by means of an investing
Aura that would corrode the architecture
Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery,
Are beside the point. They are out of the game,
Which doesn’t exist until they are out of it.
It seems like a very hostile universe
But as the principle of each individual thing is
Hostile to, exists at the expense of all the others
As philosophers have often pointed out, at least
This thing, the mute, undivided present,
Has the justification of logic, which
In this instance isn’t a bad thing
Or wouldn’t be, if the way of telling
Didn’t somehow intrude, twisting the end result
Into a caricature of itself. This always
Happens, as in the game where
A whispered phrase passed around the room
Ends up as something completely different.
It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has omitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place. Seduced by flowers,
Explicit pleasures, he blames himself (though
Secretly satisfied with the result), imagining
He had a say in the matter and exercised
An option of which he was hardly conscious,
Unaware that necessity circumvents such resolutions.
So as to create something new
For itself, that there is no other way,
That the history of creation proceeds according to
Stringent laws, and that things
Do get done in this way, but never the things
We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately
To see come into being. Parmigianino
Must have realized this as he worked at his
Life-obstructing task. One is forced to read
The perfectly plausible accomplishment of a purpose
Into the smooth, perhaps even bland (but so
Enigmatic) finish. Is there anything
To be serious about beyond this otherness
That gets included in the most ordinary
Forms of daily activity, changing everything
Slightly and profoundly, and tearing the matter
Of creation, any creation, not just artistic creation
Out of our hands, to install it on some monstrous, near
Peak, too close to ignore, too far
For one to intervene? This otherness, this
“Not-being-us” is all there is to look at
In the mirror, though no one can say
How it came to be this way. A ship
Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor.
You are allowing extraneous matters
To break up your day, cloud the focus
Of the crystal ball. Its scene drifts away
Like vapor scattered on the wind. The fertile
Thought-associations that until now came
So easily, appear no more, or rarely. Their
Colorings are less intense, washed out
By autumn rains and winds, spoiled, muddied,
Given back to you because they are worthless.
Yet we are such creatures of habit that their
Implications are still around en permanence, confusing
Issues. To be serious only about sex
Is perhaps one way, but the sands are hissing
As they approach the beginning of the big slide
Into what happened. This past
Is now here: the painter’s
Reflected face, in which we linger, receiving
Dreams and inspirations on an unassigned
Frequency, but the hues have turned metallic,
The curves and edges are not so rich. Each person
Has one big theory to explain the universe
But it doesn’t tell the whole story
And in the end it is what is outside him
That matters, to him and especially to us
Who have been given no help whatever
In decoding our own man-size quotient and must rely
On second-hand knowledge. Yet I know
That no one else’s taste is going to be
Any help, and might as well be ignored.
Once it seemed so perfect–gloss on the fine
Freckled skin, lips moistened as though about to part
Releasing speech, and the familiar look
Of clothes and furniture that one forgets.
This could have been our paradise: exotic
Refuge within an exhausted world, but that wasn’t
In the cards, because it couldn’t have been
The point. Aping naturalness may be the first step
Toward achieving an inner calm
But it is the first step only, and often
Remains a frozen gesture of welcome etched
On the air materializing behind it,
A convention. And we have really
No time for these, except to use them
For kindling. The sooner they are burnt up
The better for the roles we have to play.
Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand,
Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,
The shield of a greeting, Francesco:
There is room for one bullet in the chamber:
Our looking through the wrong end
Of the telescope as you fall back at a speed
Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately
Among the features of the room, an invitation
Never mailed, the “it was all a dream”
Syndrome, though the “all” tells tersely
Enough how it wasn’t. Its existence
Was real, though troubled, and the ache
Of this waking dream can never drown out
The diagram still sketched on the wind,
Chosen, meant for me and materialized
In the disguising radiance of my room.
We have seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant. One feels too confined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the ease of its
Parameter. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.
John Ashbery reads the poem “Interesting People of Newfoundland “
from Notes from the Air, winner of the 2008 International Griffin Poetry Prize.
Turandot and Other Poems (chapbook), Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1953
Some Trees (poems), foreword by W. H. Auden, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1956, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1978.
The Poems, Tiber Press (New York, NY), 1960.
The Tennis Court Oath (poems), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1962.
Rivers and Mountains (poems), Holt (New York, NY), 1966.
Selected Poems, J. Cape (London, England), 1967.
Sunrise in Suburbia, Phoenix Bookshop (New York, NY), 1968.
Three Madrigals, Poet’s Press, 1969.
(With James Schuyler) A Nest of Ninnies (novel), Dutton (New York, NY), 1969.
Fragment (poem; also see below), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1969.
Evening in the Country, Spanish Main Press, 1970.
The Double Dream of Spring (includes “Fragment,” originally published in book form), Dutton (New York, NY), 1970.
The New Spirit, Adventures in Poetry, 1970.
(With Lee Hawood and Tom Raworth) Penguin Modern Poets 19, Penguin (New York, NY), 1971.
Three Poems, Viking (New York, NY), 1972.
The Serious Doll, privately printed, 1975.
(With Joe Brainard) The Vermont Notebook (poems), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1975, reprinted, Granary Books (Calais, VT), 2001.
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1975.
Houseboat Days (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
As We Know (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1979.
Shadow Train: Fifty Lyrics, Viking (New York, NY), 1981.
(With others) R. B. Kitaj: Paintings, Drawings, Pastels, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC), 1981.
(With others) Apparitions (poems), Lord John Press (Northridge, CA), 1981.
Fairfield Porter: Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction, New York Graphic Society (New York, NY), 1983.
A Wave (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1984.
Selected Poems, Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
April Galleons, Penguin (New York, NY), 1987.
The Ice Storm, Hanuman Books, 1987.
Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987 (art criticism), edited by David Bergman, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
Three Poems (different text than 1972 volume with same title), Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Haibun, illustrations by Judith Shea, Collectif Génération (Colombes, France), 1990.
Flow Chart (poem), Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
Hotel Lautreamont, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
Three Books (poems), Penguin (New York, NY), 1993.
And the Stars Were Shining, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.
Can You Hear, Bird, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
Pistils (essays), photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, Random House (New York, NY), 1996.
Wakefulness, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1998.
Girls on the Run, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
Other Traditions: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2000.
Your Name Here: Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
As Umbrellas Follow Rain, Qua Books (Lennox, MA), 2001.
Chinese Whispers: Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.
Where Shall I Wander?, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
Selected Prose, edited by Eugene Richie, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2005.
A Worldly Country, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 2007.
Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 2007.
John Ashbery: Collected Poems, 1956-1987, Library of America, No. 187 (New York, NY), 2008.
Works have been anthologized in New American Poetry, 1945-1960, Grove (New York, NY), 1960; A Controversy of Poets, edited by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly, Doubleday/Anchor (New York, NY), 1964; L’Avant-Garde aujourd’hui, [Brussels, Belgium], 1965; Anthology of New York Poets, Random House (New York, NY), 1969; The Voice That Is Great within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, Bantam (New York, NY), 1970; Contemporary American Poetry, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1971; Fifty Modern American and British Poets, 1920-1970, edited by Louis Untermeyer, McKay (New York, NY), 1973; and Shake the Kaleidoscope: A New Anthology of Modern Poetry, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1973.
Contributor of poetry to periodicals, including New York Review of Books, Partisan Review, Harper’s, and New Yorker; contributor of art criticism to periodicals, including Art International and Aujourd’hui; contributor of literary criticism to New York Review of Books, Saturday Review, Poetry, Bizarre (Paris, France), and other periodicals.
The Heroes (one-act; also see below; produced Off-Broadway, 1952; produced in London, England, 1982), in Artists’ Theater, edited by Herbert Machiz, Grove (New York, NY), 1969.
The Compromise (three-act; also see below; produced in Cambridge, MA, at the Poet’s Theater, 1956), in The Hasty Papers, Alfred Leslie, 1960.
The Philosopher (one-act; also see below), in Art and Literature, number 2, 1964.
Three Plays (contains The Heroes, The Compromise, and The Philosopher), Z Press (Calais, VT), 1978.
(With others) The American Literary Anthology, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968.
(With Thomas B. Hess) Light, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.
(With Thomas B. Hess) Painters Painting, Newsweek (New York, NY), 1971.
(With Thomas B. Hess) Art of the Grand Eccentrics, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1971.
(With Thomas B. Hess) Avant-Garde Art, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1971.
Penguin Modern Poets 24: Ken Ward Elmslie, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Penguin (New York, NY), 1974.
Richard F. Sknow, The Funny Place, O’Hara (Chicago, IL), 1975.
Bruce Marcus, Muck Arbour, O’Hara (Chicago, IL), 1975.
(Translator from the French) Max Jacob, The Dice Cup: Selected Prose Poems, SUN (New York, NY), 1979.
(With David Lehman) The Best American Poetry, 1988, Scribner (New York, NY), 1989.
Coeditor, One Fourteen, 1952-53.
(Translator) Jean-Jacques Mayoux, Melville, Grove (New York, NY), 1960.
(Translator, as Jonas Berry, with Lawrence G. Blochman) Murder in Montmartre, Dell (New York, NY), 1960.
(Translator, as Jonas Berry, with Lawrence G. Blochman) Genevieve Manceron, The Deadlier Sex, Dell (New York, NY), 1961.
(Translator) Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantomas, Morrow (New York, NY), 1986.
(Translator) Pierre Martory, Every Question but One, Groundwater Press/ InterFlo Editions, 1990.
(Translator, with others) Pierre Reverdy, Selected Poems, Wake Forest University Press (Winston-Salem, NC), 1991.
(Translator) Pierre Martory, The Landscape Is behind the Door, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY), 1994.
John Ashbery in Conversation with Mark Ford, Dufour Editions (Chester Springs, PA), 2003.
(Translator) Pierre Martory, The Landscapist, Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 2008.
Collaborator with Joe Brainard on C Comic Books; collaborator with Elliott Carter on musical setting Syringa, produced in New York, NY, 1979. Poetry recordings include Treasury of 100 Modern American Poets Reading Their Poems, Volume 17, Spoken Arts; Poetry of John Ashbery, Jeffrey Norton, and John Ashbery ( “Voice of the Poet” series), Random Audio, 2001. Translator, from the French, of the works of Raymond Roussel, Andre Breton, Pierre Reverdy, Arthur Cravan, Max Jacob, Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud, Noel Vexin, and others.
The Poet’s View — John Ashbery
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