That said, I will agree with some people who say Ashbery's poetry can be "difficult", if I may use that word, while adding simultaneously that, for me, there is still much to enjoy in poems that are difficult and not easy to grasp at first or even a second reading. That is what draws me back to Wallace Stevens back again and again and the same thing happens with Ashbery lately, though I have read far more of Steven's work than Ashbery. Like Stephen Burt, Harvard professor of English, whose book of essays about reading poetry - Close Calls With Nonsense - I enjoyed reading recently, wrote about Ashbery, he is the "last figure whom half the English-language poets alive thought a great model, and the other half thought incomprehensible". I am still not a fan of the kind of abstract poetry that the so-called language poets (Rae Armentrout and more specifically Lyn Hejinian) write but the poems of Ashbery, like those of Wallace Stevens, or even some of the more deeper and more involved poems of T. S. Eliot, while difficult, have something about them that draws me to them again and again, trying to unweave the words and get at something fundamental about being human that the poet has captured in his poems. The promise of the unknown beguiles and even if I walk away without understanding it, I leave having experienced something which was not part of me before I read the poem.
Also, do read this article in The Slate: The Instruction Manual - How to read John Ashbery. Like Meghan O'Rourke writes in it: "Being difficult, after all, is not the same thing as being incomprehensible. And the truth is that Ashbery's poetry is still very much invested in the reader's pleasure.........The best thing to do, then, is not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It's only then, for most readers, that the meaning begins to leak through." Or as the critic Harold Bloom has written elsewhere: "In the struggle of the reader both with and against a strong poem, more than an interpretation of a poem becomes the prize. What instruction is more valuable than that which shows us how to distinguish real or illusory dangers to the self's survival, and how to ward off the real menaces?". In the words of the poet himself:
"Since I don't understand myself, only segmentsof myself that misunderstand each other, there's noreason for you to want to, no way you couldeven if we both wanted it."- John Ashbery (A Poem of Unrest)
by John Ashbery
The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snowThat came when we wanted it to snow?
Beautiful images? Trying to avoidIdeas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leavingThe mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe itAs we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:What was left was like a field.
Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.Now open them on a thin vertical path.
It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?
And the second poem.... absolutely love the first paragraph. (I have interestingly chosen and juxtaposed two poems here that almost read like sequels. The flowers "given" to us - these poems - must keep on flowering, for "love to continue".
by John Ashbery
Alone with our madness and favorite flowerWe see that there really is nothing left to write about.Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old thingsIn the same way, repeating the same things over and overFor love to continue and be gradually different.
Beehives and ants have to be re-examined eternallyAnd the color of the day put inHundreds of times and varied from summer to winterFor it to get slowed down to the pace of an authenticSaraband and huddle there, alive and resting.
Only then can the chronic inattentionOf our lives drape itself around us, conciliatoryAnd with one eye on those long tan plush shadowsThat speak so deeply into our unprepared knowledgeOf ourselves, the talking engines of our day.
- John Ashbery: ‘Forties Flick’
- John Ashbery, Pierre Martory, and Jackson Pollock
- John Ashbery and Fairfield Porter
- Poet of the Year: John Ashbery
- John Ashbery: 'My Philosophy of Life'
- and Poetry, Painting, and Economy: Rothko, Warhol, and Ashbery
Ed. - Update in 2013 from the NPM celebration in April 2013, which started on day 1 with Ashbery. That post can be read here.