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Tuesday, September 05, 2017

On Ashbery and a certain tone of poetry bullshittery

I like Paul Muldoon,  mostly. But this paragraph in the obit for John Ashbery in the New Yorker pulled me up short – or rather, while it scrutinized me, I squinted at it:

“He managed this by developing a poetry that was absolutely equal to our later-twentieth-century/early-twenty-first-century predicament. It’s a simple argument: a world that is complex requires a poetry that is complex; a world that is somewhat incoherent may actually demand a poetry that is itself incoherent; a world in which no conclusions apply may even revel in its inconclusiveness. To read a John Ashbery poem is to be scrutinized by it. It is less a recording than a recording device, a CCTV screen taking us in.
Start with the last line, and ask yourself when you considered all poetry a recording – like, never? And the addition of CCTV screen, which I suppose is supposed to be techno-hip, sort of poses the question – is it a recording device or a CCTV screen – or perhaps a hidden microphone, or maybe – I can be techno-hip too! – it’s a polarization gating spectroscopy device, which is used to probe the intestine. In any case, it is really a poem. And how a poem scrutinizes the reader is perhaps one of those incoherent things about our modern predicament that demands a poetry criticism that is itself incoherent.
If I were to look for a poetry that tried to be equal to “our” predicament, I’d look at Adrienne Rich more than John Ashberry. John Ashbery does fit comfortably in Muldoon’s “our” – Rich was outside the ‘our’, measuring the system that created it, counting the victims.
This, you might think, is a pretty ungrateful way of saying Salut, John Ashbery – but I think Muldoon’s bizarre obituary says a lot about the predicament of a twenty first century infantilism: the pervasive use of an advertising trick of making its product so exciting that the product’s details become secondary. Muldoon’s entire paragraph tells you nothing at all about the specific qualities of Ashbery’s poems. Its hateful, a disservice, an occasion for blowhardery.
I am not, I admit, a great finish-er of the poems of John Ashbery. My grip as a reader is lost as the poem itself becomes whimsical like, oh, a CCTV screen dying in static. But I am able to finish and even like some of Ashbery’s earlier poems. So there’s this, from “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”:

“… 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.”

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