Monday, 4 September 2017

'Be the tree your sleep awaits'

Sad news that John Ashbery has died, at the consolingly grand old age of 90. A giant figure, he was and remained hugely divisive, some regarding his work as one of the great achievements of American poetry, others dismissing it as a corpus of largely incomprehensible ramblings.
 My own relationship with Ashbery's poetry began in my youth as a total, fascinated immersion  - no other contemporary verse seeped to deeply into my being as his - and the fascination lasted at least until the wonderful Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror. After that, I gradually began to take less and less interest, as Ashbery became more and more prolific, not to say prolix. I remain susceptible to the sheer music of his poetry, but if I ever read him now, it is to those early, relatively spare poems that I return. Poems like this early Sonnet -

Each servant stamps the reader with a look.
After many years he has been brought nothing.
The servant’s frown is the reader’s patience.
The servant goes to bed.
The patience rambles on
Musing on the library’s lofty holes.

It pushes to the top stain of the wall
Its tree-top’s head of excitement:
Baskets, birds, beetles, spools.
The light walls collapse next day.
Traffic is the reader’s pictured face.
Dear, be the tree your sleep awaits;
Worms be your words, you not safe from ours.
       His pain is the servant’s alive.


  1. A high sophistication, indeed, that finds this a sonnet in any sense apart from the number of lines. Perhaps it’s also a taxicab as the words are black. “The patience rambles on” indeed in “incomprehensible ramblings”. Of course, if one launches on such a diatribe on a poet like Ashbery one knows that what might seem to be telling everyone that the Emperor is wearing no clothes may end up with revealing one’s own lack of sensibility or intellect but that’s a risk I’ll take. Poetry, like all art is a public and social act for a public audience made up of one’s fellow creatures appealing to primal elements of our nature. Many great poets have prioritised writing in the language of the common man so that it will be understood by him and, today, we generally insist on using modern diction for this reason. Poets like this make poetry a “minor art” (“Well, poetry is a hopelessly minor art and I’m really glad it is.” says Ashbery to Bryan Appleyard in 1984) enjoyed by a few rarified and super-refined aficionados instead of something enjoyed by many because it appeals to something in our nature. Forgotten is the fact that it is unique in being based on words which, for all their tactile and sensual qualities, actually convey meaning as one of their prime purposes and serve their function in meaningful syntactical constructions. And yet in statements like “My poetry is disjunct, but then so is
    life.” And “Well, I think I think, but I don’t think that thinking is really what it is thought to be.” Ashbery conspires in making poetry inaccessible to the common man and in insuring, if not merely that it will remain a minor art, that it will destroy itself as a public art form eventually.
    Geoffrey Hill, too says that “We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other.” And one is aware of the, not least, political, dangers of over-simplification of reality and failure to use language precisely, but there have been plenty of great poets from Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden, Wordsworth, Keats, Milton, Byron etc who did not insist on such difficulty as that which, effectively excludes 98% of common men and women from enjoying it. If poetry has come to this then poetry needs to rediscover itself and its primal appeal at the level of music and its ability to combine the pleasures of the senses with those of the intellect. Having departed into the fragmented sense of Eliot (used to convey the fragmentation of culture), Poetry seem to be down a cul-de –sac where we don’t believe in its real virtues (its prosody, rhyme, rhythm and music) to sell itself to ordinary people on its own merits, which include the conveyance of comprehensible meaning. Perhaps we consider that it is irredeemable as culture itself is so irredeemable? It is in danger of becoming simply a means for the elect to celebrate their own refinement and separation from the vulgar crowd. Poor poetry! What it has come to, although we still have Wilbur, much Auden and Larkin to enjoy. Currently taking enormous pleasure in Pope’s ‘Dunciad’. I can imagine him roundly lampooning this kind of meaningless non-sense.

    Sorry to sit on the fence so much and to voice such thoughts on Ashbery’s demise!

  2. Well, poetry is indeed a house of many mansions - or a polyphony, you might say, creating all manner of strange harmonies and dissonances. The only true cul de sac, it seems to me, is that created by 'poets' who chop up platitudinous prose into lines and call it 'poetry'. And they seem to be in the ascendant, perhaps because they make no demands on the reader (or indeed the writer)...

  3. In earlier times poetry was relied upon to recommend itself by its own virtues - those of prosody, music and the way in which meaning is played against them etc to create a rich and satisfying experience. We'd turn to poetry as we'd turn to music for pleasure inherent in its nature. Now it seems to be a vehicle for novelty, virtue seen to reside only in that novelty alone and no faith held in its own virtues to speak for themselves. Indeed, much modern poetry almost seems to apologise for its prosody as if it's embarrassed by such underlying form or can only use it ironically. I have to think that modernism played a part in this as it subverted the virtue of what poetry is/was. A faith in meaning was undermined and words, the very stuff of poetry, are all to do with meaning. I sympathise with such as Clive James who insist on producing poetry in prosodic form thus stating a faith in its virtue. The "common man" continues to enjoy such virtues in popular music etc.