This, first off, is a work of posthumous reconstruction of five coherent but unfinished pieces at various levels of progression that Ashbery’s assistant of some years Emily Skillings managed to put together. So we are lacking the author’s intended ideas for book length presentation of these works.
I think however we do get quite a strong sense of the poet’s voice here, albeit that any narrative elements might be in a stage of incompletion. Ashbery of course is renowned as a key member of the core New York school along with Frank O’Hara, whose career was cut short, James Schuyler, with whom Ashbery wrote A Nest of Ninnies, and Kenneth Koch. He completed a large number of French translations, and was many years involved in art criticism.
The design of the book has a certain logic to it, wherein probably the most substantive pieces start and conclude it, so that we begin with the long six part poem ‘The History of Photography’, which, Ashbery being Ashbery, isn’t entirely about photography.
It is worth citing briefly Skilling’s epigraph, which includes the expression by Ashbery that ‘we can dream safely in our environment because art has set soft, invisible limits to it.’ (pxv, p169). This doubtless helped Ashbery’s will to experimentation and unorthodoxy, but I think this kind of ‘invisible safety’ is a mite questionable.
When Ashbery is in full flow he seems to come up with long fluent lines, unlike the briskly lean variety of O’Hara. He could not be described as a formalist; and there are occasional noticings of disjunction as well as surrealist touches.
‘Photography’ in its 6 parts takes a little while to warm up, but by the third section I’d say we’re arriving at something approaching Ashbery’s typical voice. Here we find
‘What I buy
I pass around; all are unbidden to this feast
of the every-day, so I can hear its
partial music just as a bird sings
out of reach, within the edge of a forest.’ (p16)
This sounds almost Whitmanesque. But Ashbery’s poetry is of a more terse, frisky variety, no doubt also more cerebral, rather less Falstaffian.
Emily Skillings’ very insightful introduction offers a very useful commentary on these pieces. So that if Ashbery takes something from Whitman, there are also smatterings of perhaps Auden too. The departure from Whitman may be owing to what Skillings identifies as his interest and leaning toward not so much hesitation as tentativeness, a certain thinking on one’s feet. This she cites from some of Ashbery’s art criticism. So we have Ashbery saying,-
‘The artists of the world can be divided into two groups: those who organize and premeditate, and those who accept the tentative, the whatever-happens-along. And though neither method is inherently superior…I probably prefer more works of art that fall in the latter category.’ (cited pxlii)
This is possibly part too of what makes Ashbery’s work so American and New York school.
For all his flowing lines nonetheless I sense Ashbery as a writer much in control of his material. There are for instance line endings that are curt and contained rather than flowing on, a fairly sure footed quality with that sense that he knows what he is about. Nonetheless the first person singular is much absent, and there is never anything resembling Lowell or confessionalism. Ashbery has indeed sometimes been proposed as a precursor of the rather objectified Language school. And that is much part of his extraordinary originality, in the sense that this strange mix of styles we get from him is peculiarly much his own.
But there are limits to this. Ashbery does, agreed, seem to be language driven, and in that sense the experiential roots of his poetry are rather muted. At the same time he’s always been very conscious of pictorial models.
Another writer Ashbery resembles to an extent is Wallace Stevens, and in his more relaxed modes there do seem points of comparison there. Because Ashbery can convince himself of ‘invisible safety’ he is content to lay down his guard here and there, which no doubt is how we get books of poetry with such titles as Houseboat Days or The Tennis Court Oath. Ashbery’s undeniable seriousness is not at all heavy handed and he plainly enjoys following the play of the language.
This playfulness or even ‘softness’ of an amount of Ashbery’s writing may either engage or not; were he a South American he leans much closer to a Neruda than a Vallejo, though with a much more restrained quality of intimacy. Skillings appropriately dedicates this volume to Ashbery’s long term partner David Kermani. As Ashbery concludes ‘The Art of Finger Dexterity’, ‘Thereafter/ foils drooped./ That’s what I thought he said,/ trespassing.// It won’t be entirely winter.’ (p80) which reminds me among other things of the title of that Stevens’ collection Transport to Summer. Not quite a case of ‘poetry doesn’t change anything’ as with Auden, but there perhaps is not a developed sense of political or social consciousness here, though perhaps we do not expect that of poetry. If unlike Lowell, certainly unlike a Ginsberg besides. But that said this poetry is highly original and does plough its own furrow quite to effect.
Clark Allison 7th July 2021