the Tribe of John Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry


Susan M. Schultz

AMONG CONTEMPORARY POETS, John Ashbery is at once the most consistent and the most various. It is a mark of Ashbery's pervasive presence that so many of the poets he included in The Best American Poetry, i988, which reprinted the hundred poems of the year that Ashbery most liked, sound like him, orthat is-like one of him. There is a meditative Ashbery, a formalist Ashbery, a comic Ashbery, a late-Romantic Ashbery, a Language poet Ashbery, and so on-even, as Charles Altieri shows us here, a love poet. No poet since Whitman has tapped into so many distinctly American voices and, at the same time, so preserved his utterance against the jangle of influences. Of course, as in an intricate Venn diagram, these Ashberys overlap; form inspires comedy and meditation (as in "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape").

Curious then, especially in the light of Ashbery's many honors and awards, including the Pulitzer and MacArthur awards, that there has been so little critical attention to his work; John Shoptaw's On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry (Harvard University Press, I994) is the first full-length study since David Shapiro's quirky introduction, published in I979 (before April Galleons, Flow Chart, Hotel Lautriamont, and And the Stars Were Shining). Ashbery criticism has also failed to catch up with its subject, generating itself out of a value-ridden set of terms that does readers of contemporary poetry a disservice. Too many discussions of Ashbery's work are based on a simple dichotomy of good or bad, the writer's point of view determined by his or her part in the contemporary comedy of poetic manners. Ashbery suffers from his refusal to join the current generation of poet-critics, almost certainly the best since the New Critics of the I930S through the I95os. His only published criticism, aside from the as-yet-unpublished Norton Lectures, has been about modern and contemporary art or appears in the form of short jacket blurbs for his friends. For better or worse, he operates outside the self-consciously political field negotiated by poets from the right (New Formalists), the left (Language writers), or what now amounts to the old guard (practitioners of free verse). That he publishes in the organs of all factions' journals (from the conservative Poetry to the radical Sulfur) may only confuse matters. "Fence-sitting" is not every poet's "aesthetic ideal," as Ashbery claims it is in "Soonest Mended," from The Double Dream of Spring. He has become an awkward presence both for the proponents of the "real" and for those who ' believe that language is even more slippery and deceptive than Ashbery perceives it to be. As Linda Reinfeld reports, "He recently remarked that he is not a Language poet because he believes that language finally depends on references to meanings generated outside language."'

Harold Bloom, for many years Ashbery's chief promoter in the world of literary criticism, writes (typically), of "Ashbery's finest achievement to date ; conversely, the New Formalist advocate Mark Jarman calls readers like Bloom "dishonest," the poetry "a kind of musical noise, something like the easy listening jazz of the Windham Hill productions."' Even as perceptive and canny a critic as Charles Altieri, who sets Ashbery within the context of the 1970s in Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (1984). falls back on the label "the major poet of our minor age. , And Charles Molesworth, who goes some distance toward investigating the politics of Ashbery's reputation, believes that his reputation depends upon "a weariness with moral and political fervor in poetry now that the 1960s are past. What stands behind Ashbery's rather sudden success d'estime [sic] is the triumph of a poetic mode," Molesworth argues. "A mode demands less aesthetic energy than a truly individual style but usually offers more gratification than the average school or "movement." So, Molesworth begins the important work of situating Ashbery within cultural and professional parameters but finally spends more energy in bemoaning Ashbery's mode than in explaining it.

Both Bloom and Helen Vendier vaunt Ashbery not so much for himself but as the revisionist of a larger tradition; he is the latest link in a chain that includes Whitman and Stevens. (I do not intend to dismiss their crucial work to fit Ashbery into a genealogy of American poetry; instead, I wish to push that genealogy forward, to recontextualize Ashbery's work in a contemporary framework.) Bloom, especially, uses Ashbery's work toward his own ends, as the proof-texts for his own poetics of influence, first elaborated in his 1973 book The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry; his criticism since that book's publication is often overtly personal. For example: "Ashbery's persona, at least since his great book The Double Dream of Spring, is what I rememher describing once as a failed Orphic, perhaps even deliberately failed.' The critic's standard of judgment, then, is the critic's standard of judgment; Ashbery is great because Bloom claims that he is. Doubtless Bloom's criticism benefited Ashbery in the short term, giving him a name to put up against "Stevens" or "Crane" or "Whitman" or "Dickinson," but in the long term, this self-enclosed method denies Ashbery a "visionary company" among his peers and followers. He is pulled out of contemporary literary history, rather than being submerged in it.

Vendier, too, creates genealogies for Ashbery, noting in a 1981 New Yorker review of As We Know that, "in short, he comes from Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Stevens, Eliot; his poems are about love, or time, or age. , 8 She then asserts, however, that "it is no service to Ashbery, on the whole, to group him with Stevens and Eliot; when he echoes them most compliantly, he is least himself." Like Ashbery, or like a good lawyer, Vendler here makes a statement and then pulls it partway back; the suggestion of a genealogy remains, even as it is complicated by the notion that Ashbery is best when he is himself, whoever that is. Vendler's review bears the promising title "Understanding Ashbery" and undertakes the task of teaching a mode of reading that is not, like Bloom's, dependent on a knowledge of Ashbery's precursors. The virtue of Vendler's method (or lack of one) is that it is accessible to readers who are not also critics or academics. More than any other critic, Vendler has introduced and fought for Ashbery as a public poet, one who should be widely read as a barometer of contemporary language and "the moral life." But the problem with her strategy is that it is every bit as idiosyncratic as she conceives Ashbery to be. As she writes in her review of Flow Chart: "In my own case, by entering into some bizarrely tuned pitch inside myself, I can find myself on Ashbery's wavelength, where everything at the symbolic level makes sense." In other words, reading Ashbery is tantamount to being Ashbery (or being Vendler, who echoes Keats's definition of negative capability): "The irritating (and seductive) thing about this tuning in is that it can't be willed; I can't make it happen when I am tired or impatient. But when the frequencies meet, the effect on me is Ashbery's alone, and it is a form of trance." 9 Having made her effort, she comes to acknowledge that "it is discouraging to be Ashbery, because the very culture of which he is the linguistic recorder cannot read him, so densely woven is the web of his text."'O Vendler's reviews are marvelous descriptions of Ashbery's poems and the process of reading them, but like Bloom's essays, they do not situate him in our time.

One might expect poet-critics to do better, as they tend to be more engaged with their own time than with anyone else's. For the most part, they do acknowledge-happily or not-Ashbery's importance. Much of their work is, however, more value-ridden than informative or analytical. Consider Mary Kinzie, who writes in The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the Poet's Calling (I993): "Ashbery is the passive bard of a period in which the insipid has turned into the heavily toxic."" Mark Jarman, among other New Formalist critics, laments Ashbery's influence wherever he sees it; in a recent review-essay in the Hudson Review, "The Curse of Discursiveness," he bases his harsh invective against Ann Lauterbach, Robert Creeley, and James Tate on their resemblances to Ashbery, in particular the Ashbery of Flow Chart (i 99 i). Where these poets go right, according to Jarman, they ignore Ashbery's mode entirely. The invective is so strong, one surmises, because Ashbery's presence is so large-Jarman even calls him "Emperor Ashbery" at one point, alluding to his nakedness, but also to his power. Jarman, like Irvin Ehrenpreis in 1975, allows that "there is room in our literature for John Ashbery"; he just wants to avoid that room and fears contamination of the rooms that he and his colleagues inhabit. That Ashbery is adept at using forms such as the sestina makes him even more dangerous to New Formalist critics; this may be the reason why John Gery here finds Ashbery's influence evident even in the fact that so many contemporary poets attempt to ignore him altogether.

David Lehman's important collection of essays on Ashbery's poetry, Beyond Amazement (iig8o), which includes work by poets and critics such as Douglas Crase, Marjorie Perloff, John Koethe, Lehman, and others, set out to refute the countercritics and argued against the notion of Ashbery's inaccessibility (and unteachability) by presenting cogent practical criticism of the poems. The ten contributors to the volume performed able close-readings that served as courtroom (or classroom) defenses of their client; Lehman calls the opposition the plaintiffs, which says a good deal about the polemical purpose of the collection." Lehman, who often traffics in such metaphors, sets out as the leader of the first expedition into unknown-but guessed at-territory: "If, however, the longitude and latitude of Ashbery's poetry are now thought to be known, the territory itself remains a dark continent."" Ashbery, Lehman contends, is misunderstood and even hated, but he finds some solace in the fact that at least Ashbery has hostile readers: "No other poet of our time has managed so-consistently to polarize his public, to arouse opposite reactions-as though there could be no middle road, as though it were impossible to respond to an Ashbery poem with a complacent nod or shake of the head."" Lehman et al. rest their case on the positive side of the divide.

Lehman, recognizing that Ashbery's work largely defies our means of analyzing it, sent his contributors a series of questions intended to elicit a new kind of criticism, one that would do justice to Ashbery, rather than hang him by his poetic thumbs. Lehman's questions included the following, the strength of which lies in their simplicity: "Is there a method by which to extract the sense and flavor of an Ashbery poem?" "Does Ashbery's poetry yield meanings, or does it militate against the very possibility of articulating them?" "What mileage does he get out of his habit of rapidly shifting gears in a poem?" "With a poet as reluctant to repeat himself as Ashbery, what unifying principles, tactics, figures, or concerns are there in his poetic output?"'s The essays Lehman collected prove these questions to be valuable, and yet I'm struck by the way in which these "new" questions echo old ones posed by New Criticism, stressing as they do the "extraction" of meaning, the "unifying principles" that might exist behind Ashbery's seeming randomness, the coherent set of "concerns" that he might have, and so on. Aside from one question about the New York school of poets- "Of what use is the label 'the New York School of poetry' for understanding the very different writers ... frequently grouped under that heading?" -Ashbery remains a solitary figure. This question, in its very wording, suggests that the proper response of the critic is to find Ashbery poetically unattached, and that the label is an empty and useless one for poets so "very different" from one another.

We must, according to Lehman's subtext, take or leave Ashbery on his own terms; the collection is meant to defend him against detractors but not to put him in the New York school or any other context. While most of the essays are not New Critical in their method, they treat the poet himself as a well-wrought urn, reading him, like the good New Critical poem, only on "his own" terms. Even Keith Cohen, in his article "Ashbery's Dismantling of Bourgeois Discourse," ultimately resorts to a value- and personality-based criticism. In writing about Ashbery's Three Poems, which dismantles notions of the "poetic" by being in prose, Cohen asserts, "What is amazing in 'The System' . . . is that, taken phrase by phrase, no other contemporary poem would seem so humdrum, so vapid. Each sentence seems another fatuous building block of a tiresome, transparent metaphysical argument."" Not only is this contention arguable in the extreme (I, for one, find the poems anything but humdrum or vapid, even taken sentence by sentence), Cohen has no ground on which to base his discussion of "bourgeois discourse" or poetic value. His criticism, therefore, becomes as idiosyncratic as Ashbery's poetry is thought to be, based on subjective criteria that are not self-conscious enough to frame the argument in the context of Ashbery's time, and ours. This strategy focuses Lehman's book nicely but also leaves the ground open for further investigations into Ashbery's relationship to his own time, and to the poets who follow him.

Harold Bloom's 1985 Chelsea House collection of essays on Ashbery doesn't so much build on Lehman's foundation as it adds more bricks to it; Bloom's stated purpose is to "address Ashbery's difficulty" and "to achieve a new balance and justice in the evaluation of Ashbery."'8 Bloom's agenda is, as ever, to ensure Ashbery entrance into the Romantic, Bloomian canon. The contributors to the book are friendly to Bloom's thesis; they include Douglas Crase, Charles Berger, Helen Vendler, John Hollander, and Bloom himself (who contributes two essays along with his "Editor's Note" and "Introduction"). According to Bloom, "Ashbery has been misunderstood because of his association with the 'New York School' of Kenneth, Koch, Frank O'Hara and other comedians of the spirit" -in other words, with his peers.'9 His real place is with his precursor, Stevens: "Like his master, Stevens, Ashbery is essentially a ruminative poet, turning a few subjects over and over, knowing always that what counts is the mythology of self, blotched out beyond unblotching."" In other words, Ashbery is alone in his time, and his work mythologizes that loneliness; there is "a clear descent from the major American tradition that began in Emerson," that other solitary singer." The strength of Bloom's approach is that he provides us with a narrative of influence-but that narrative works backward rather than forward onto the post-Ashbery landscape where we now are, to a certain extent. As Andrew Ross writes here, "Bloom, more than anyone, has successfully written Ashbery into that kind of heroic story which explains all of the contradictions and discontinuities of a writer's work in terms of idiosyncrasy." But the idiosyncrasies in Ashbery's work-namely, The Tennis Court Oath, which Bloom calls peculiar," become embarrassing lapses from the tradition, rather than provocative additions to it. In this new volume, that peculiar work becomes key to a different understanding of Ashbery, an understanding that depends upon the use of his influence by members of the Language school of poets, in particular, Charles Bernstein. For them, ironically, everything not in The Tennis Court Oath is considered dubious-they like the discontinuity of discontinuity, whereas Bloom favors the continuity of discontinuity.

The aftermath of Bloom's collection was an important, if not frequently alluded to, turn in Ashbery criticism, namely, S. P. Mohanty and Jonathan Monroe's I987 review in diacritics of it and Ashbery's book A Wave. Rather than regard Ashbery as a solitary quest-hero, in the Bloom and Vendler mode, they claim that "the business of explaining Ashbery becomes a significant kind of cultural self-definition."" Even more than that, and this is to raise the stakes considerably, "What is at stake in the criticism of Ashbery ... is the meaning and status of what it is to be 'American,' a charged index, if ever there was any."" Moharity and Monroe seek nothing less than a recasting of Ashbery as a poet more interested in the social than in the private realm: "The central concern of Ashbery's poetic career can only be defined as the self-world relationship, with an investment in exploring the features of a social voice and identity as they can be genuinely available today."" Or: "It may thus be suggested that all life is for Ashbery social life, the stuff of history. ,21 In stating their case this way, Mohanty and Monroe reaffirm another divide, that between "social" and "private" realms; perhaps for effect, they neglect the way in which the social is the private in Ashbery, the private profoundly social (hence the many competing voices in Three Poems). As they must, Mohanty and Monroe acknowledge and then argue against Bloom. While theirs is an important effort to call Bloom's assumptions about Ashbery into question and to open Ashbery to other modes of criticism, Mohanty and Monroe still find their "proof-texts" entirely in Ashbery's work and not in the world that informs that work. They focus, for example, on Ashbery's use of clich6s, which are social constructions (the macros of the masses), but they do not discuss the function of particular clich6s in American culture. Nor do they explain what these clich6s do for Ashbery in his exploration of the social world. They are quite right and renovative in their claim that "to limit the question of memory in poetry to one of agonistic conflicts passed on within poetry from one generation to the next needlessly risks a further deepening of poetry's continuing isolation from other modes of discourse and from the public at large."" But their countercriticism is insufficient to make the case work; the review-essay format obviates from the start the possibility of development, though it opens the field for others.

The Tribe of Jobn: Asbbery and Contemporary Poetry will take the criticism I've discussed thus far as a prolegomenon; the focus of these essays, however, is on Ashbery's work as context more than on his work as text. Not only does this collection open up the field of "Ashbery criticism" to other poets who have been influenced by him, but it also aims to break the safe of methods that have been employed in that criticism. Thus, for example, Stephen Paul Miller and Andrew Ross place Ashbery in his (and our) historical and cultural periods. Fred Moramarco traces Ashbery's own history and proposes his own "flow chart" of the poet's career. Each writer illuminates the poetry in a practical way, but the contributors also, at times quite contentiously, take on the goals and methods of the nascent Ashbery industry. Those critics who discuss influence do so with deft indirectness; they refuse to accept the models (especially the Bloomian one) by which we usually measure it. Their evasions (or swerves, to use Bloom's term) are telling and grow stronger as the volume goes on, culminating with Charles Bernstein's aside, found some distance into his long poem:

                                For the purpose
Of your request I'm including this
Sentence about the influence of John
John Gery tropes Bloom, revising the "anxiety of influence" into "the anxiety of affluence." "Ashbery," Gery claims, "deconstructfs] the very tradition Bloom describes, thereby opening up the field of language for those poets who follow."

John Koethe, who bemoans Ashbery's lack of a good influence, writes below of Douglas Crase, whose work he thinks important: "What Crase does in a way is receive Ashbery into the body of American poetry that is the common property of all poets, rather than let his work remain the private preserve of those who feel a temperamental affinity with it, or have some special relation to it." Koethe's essay appeared in a special issue of Verse (Spring 1991), out of which this collection grew and ramified; many of the writers here (including Jonathan Morse and John Gery) have chosen to answer his article in these pages, rendering a portion of the book into a sometimes contentious dialogue between contributors. My hope is that such contention will serve to focus future discussions of Ashbery's influence, or lack thereof, even as it creates a book that is more dialogue than univocal statement.

Several contributors question the importance of influence in their thinking about Ashbery and contemporary poetry. James McCorkle writes of the relationship between Ashbery and Ann Lauterbach: "Rather than casting this relationship between Ashbery and Lauterbach within the dynamics of Harold Bloom's formulations of influence, Ashbery and Lauterbach share in a concern for the condition of the lyric moment.... Thus, Ashbery is part of our horizon of understanding, and any poetry now being written will implicitly respond to the poetics his poetry represents." This is to agree with Lauterbach herself, who remarked in an interview, "My affinities to Ashbery are certainly there, although I think of myself as more psychological in tone and perhaps more intent and intense; I do not have his laconic, Insouciant, inclusive temperament. As I think Ashbery is our great poet, it would be odd not to have learned from him, but as with all great presences, the question is: what part to learn?"" Perhaps the strongest attack on influence is John Ernest's; his essay is curious and provocative in the way it treats two poets-Ashbery and William Bronk-who begin from the same place but diverge radically on their way to very different destinations. Ernest undertakes an anatomy of influence theories, only to declare "that narratives of influence colonize individual poets and poems, assuming critical authority over them in the name of conceptual manifest destiny." Our reading, according to Ernest, is necessarily historical, and influence is allegory not history; "by emphasizing the privacy of their separate enterprises," Ernest argues paradoxically, "they reemphasize the social nature of the poetic experience."

These essays do more than argue influence and methodology, however; they do the valuable, if old-fashioned, task of helping us to read poems, beginning with essays by Jonathan Morse and Charles Altieri on Ashbery's use of clich6s and on his little-noticed love poetry. Their means of doing so, however, are not old-fashioned; most of the criticism in this book could have been written only after deconstruction, which swept the profession in the late 1970s and early ig8os; the advent of intertextual criticism (which becomes a kind of influence study of texts on other texts); and of Language poetry, which attained its maturity in the ig8os and which-paradoxically-takes deconstruction as intention, seeking to unravel and deconstruct the syntax that confines us in a worldview characterized by consumerism and right-wing politics. Nowhere in these essays do we find a heroic Ashbery questing after the dark tower of canonicity; whatever heroism there is, is textual. As Andrew Ross writes, in an essay that puts Ashbery firmly in a cultural and art-historical context: "They [techniques of collage and montage] do not constitute a medium through which authors can transfigure their traditional role of alienated commentator ... authors lose the power to elevate themselves as source and origin of all the transformative impulses that inhabit the text." Ashbery's voice, in other words, triumphs not because it is a "voice" in the traditional sense of the term but because it is writing that is generated from other writing, "an incident of disturbance," as Donald Revell describes it here.

Even more radically, Ross and Shoptaw argue that Ashbery-the Tennis Court Ashbery, that is- "presents ... an alternative to the politics of content which would limit that kind of poetic commentary to a mere ethics of opinion." Ashbery shows us, in other words, how mediated and material language is. Ross, for one, turns on its head the argument for Ashbery's idiosyncrasy; he argues that Ashbery's importance may be based less on his idiosyncrasies than on his conventionality. In Ross's work, as elsewhere, Ashbery enters his own age not so much as a prophet but as an apostle, or what Donald Revell once described to me in a letter as an "apostle of indeterminacy." As John Gery puts it, "It is essential to regard the 'acquiescence in indeterminacy' in Ashbery's work not only as characteristic of his poetic method but as inherent in his vision of experience, a vision that allows for a multiplicity of readings." Gery's readers and writers include Clark Coolidge, John Yau, Jorie Graham, and Marjorie Welish. Finally, as Jonathan Morse writes, he is "the lyricist of what in us is most typical of all."

Ashbery, more than any contemporary poet, has self-consciously examined the categories by which we define writing, whether poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction, lyric or epic. James McCorkle, for one, suggests that we can still talk about the lyric, rather than arguing, like Charles Bernstein in A Poetics (1992), that there is no difference between poetry and prose. Yet his lyric is inclusive rather than exclusive, contains multitudes rather than moments of time; McCorkle writes: "Poetic language, for both Derrida and Ashbery, would arguably be able to saturate space.... To drench or saturate inscribes excess or the possibility of overflowing and invokes a libidinal energy no longer centered upon the self. This saturation and porousness begin a reconsideration of the lyric." That McCorkle's definition might apply more to prose than to lyric poetry is only appropriate in a discussion of a poet whose Three Poems were in prose and whose Flow Chart contains lines that dwarf Whitman's. Poetry, this anthology claims, can itself be criticism; the Foreword, by George Bradley, and the Afterword, by Charles Bernstein, are both essay-poems. The poetcritic, like Ashbery's wandering "Is" and "you's," can be the same person, and at the same time.

We are also thrown back on the notion of influence. As I reread the opening of this Introduction, I wonder if it isn't truer to claim that "influence," as a critical term, ought to be deflected from Ashbery's person or even his poetry onto the part' ular field of contemporary language that informs his work more 'c completely than it does any other poet of his generation. Ashbery's real importance may lie in the fact that we cannot separate his work from the language we use each time we think about the world -about its shopping malls, its movies, its art, its dreams of transcending itself, and even about our criticism of Ashbery (much of Flow Chart is devoted to a critique of the critics). This discovery may make it harder, though not I trust impossible, to write literary history, but it may also force us to think of such history as part of a larger concern, where poetry and history cannot be separated, as they so often are. I hope that this book will provide some of the trailheads.

Introduction | Table of Contents | Afterword: Charles Bernstein

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