A is for “ASHBERY”—which, in large red capital letters, is by far the most prominent word on the cover of his latest book Planisphere. This confirms what we’ve known for some time: that in the expanding and heterogeneous village that is Contemporary American Poetry, “Ashbery” has become a household name, a kind of trademark style, instantly recognizable. In the same way one can say “Those sunglasses are so Fendi,” one can say, “That prose poem is very Ashberian.”
A is also for “alphabetical order,” which is how Planisphere is arranged. This suggests that one can read it in any order, that it is a guidebook made for browsing, for easy access. But a guidebook to what?
B is for “belatedness,” which is alluded to at the end of the poem “No Rest for the Weary”: “there was some sense in it / but only late. Later was too late.” One feels a certain pathos to these lines as we imagine Ashbery, who is now in his 80s, registering the twilight of his illustrious life and career. One might go so far as to say this constitutes one of the book’s many micro-motifs; the following is from the comically titled “World’s Largest Glass of Water”: “Now it was even later after that. / Trees in bloom ten years ago / added to the commotion.” And this is from the very next poem called “Wulf,” whose curious title is perhaps an allusion to the poem “Wulf and Eadwacer” (which, according to Wikipedia, “is an Old English poem of famously difficult interpretation”): “That’s why I was so late. / It takes a long time to choose / when you’re not ready.”
“B” is also for my brain which, upon thinking of these examples, hatched the following thought: “B” is for Bloom (Harold) who has been a long-time champion of Ashbery’s work and whose famous theory of poetic influence relies heavily on a concept of belatedness—that post-Enlightenment poets inevitably find themselves in an intractable predicament in which they perceive that everything worth writing has already been written.
But “B” is also for my brain again, which remembers skeptically considering a review of Girls on the Run (1999) which suggested that the figure of the Principal was Harold Bloom.
No, “B” is not for “Bloom” and “B” is not for “belatedness.” “B” is for “beauty” which I find in the best of Ashbery’s poems, the ones that unfurl with a melodic discursiveness and a freshness of diction, that include surprising turns of thought and phrase. True, Ashbery has been less interested in lyric beauty in his later books, but nevertheless Planisphere is worth reading for “adventures of new music” (the phrase comes from the first of two poems entitled “Episode”), for moments like these:
Each new investigation rebuilds the urgency,
like a sand rampart. And further reflection undermines it,
causing its eventual collapse. We could see all that
from a distance, as on a curving abacus, in urgency mode
from day one, but by then dispatches hardly mattered.
It was camaraderie, or something like it, that did,
poring over us like we were papyri, hoping to find one
correct attitude sketched on the gaslit air, night’s friendly takeover.
(from “Boundary Issues”)
C is for “counting,” which (who knows?) might shed some light on Ashbery’s poetics. Thumbing through the 99 poems and 143 pages of poetry in Planisphere, I conducted an unofficial and idiosyncratic census to provide a quick snapshot of how often Ashbery uses certain words:
dream(s) / dreaming: 15
D is for “diction,” which is something I always appreciate when reading Ashbery. If a slow loris had an infinite amount of time to text message a think tank of armadillos, I’m not sure it would come close to reproducing such strangely wonderful coinages as these: “antonyms’ spectral metronome,” “semi-elaborate everything,” “appanages of the any,” “tomorrow’s dense / armillary,” “variorum wish lists,” “a bellicose fraction this side of miscellany.”
E is for the “everyday.” In speaking of his compositional practice, Ashbery has stated, “So usually my poems, when I write, I’m just in a sort of…everyday frame of mind. Which is all I know, really, I suppose.” But Ashbery’s poetry is so remarkable for the way it deftly toggles between the everyday and the imaginative, the real and the surreal. Take, for instance, the beginning of “The Logistics,” which, with its unassuming title, already gestures toward a rhetoric of the mundane:
Then tomorrow? Then tomorrow.
We’ll travel; the day
will be a scorcher. Some say.
Travel beyond the rocks
to a taped place
some will recognize,
others not so much,
some not at all—
what place is this?
In such a short time, we subtly go from the surety of flat, everyday dialogue (“Then tomorrow? Then tomorrow.”) to some unrecognizable and ontologically uncertain place (“what place is this?”)—this is what Ashbery’s poetry does to us. The “taped place” here, which becomes a crucial pivot in this brief, nine-line stanza, nicely takes on a double meaning: it at once refers to the “taped-together” constructions that are Ashbery’s linguistic collages while also highlighting the “recording” activity of his poetic enterprise, his attempt to transcribe what he has memorably called “the experience of experience.”
F is for Flow Chart (1991), a book-length poem, which is, in my opinion, Ashbery’s last major work; this sprawling postmodern autobiography contains one of my favorite self-referential phrases (and Ashbery’s work is full of them—for the better or worse of his critics): “How all that fluff got wedged in with the diamonds in the star chamber / makes for compelling reading…”
One can reasonably argue that Ashbery is now more interested in the elaboration of “fluff” than the crafting of poetic “diamonds,” that since his writing is so fragmented, so filled with shifts, non-sequiturs, and swerves, that his talents are better served by longer forms (like his indispensible “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the extended prose meditation “The New Spirit,” even the mock epic Girls on the Run) in which we experience the pleasurable alternations between the sublime and the banal; this does, I agree, make for “compelling reading.”
Planisphere is striking then for its focus on bits of enigmatic tesserae shorn of context (indeed one of the poems is entitled “Tessera”), for short isolated poems that are often befuddling in their insistence on the anti-poetic, on the fluff. So, no: this is not my favorite kind of Ashbery book, but I do tip my hat to his attempt at “seeking music where there’s something dumb being said.”
G is for “google,” which might help in reading Planisphere. Or, at the very least, it might provide an amusing distraction.
H is for “humor,” and in the poem “For Fuck’s Sake,” Ashbery fittingly says, “Promise jokes,” which he certainly does. While some of the more bizarre poems in Planisphere (like “The Foreseeable Future”) come off as inside jokes, evidence of Ashbery’s irresistible sense of humor (which ranges from the subtly off-kilter to the campy to the zany) is everywhere; for example, “Variation in the Key of C” takes full advantage of parentheses and quotation marks for a comedic tonal shift: “I don’t know, I favor a little more crispness / in the attack (as in ‘attack’).” His humor can, of course, be more direct; “Wulf” begins with the question: “Is that a groin?”
I is for “interpretation,” which is a notoriously tricky issue when dealing with Ashbery’s work. On the one hand, one often finds himself or herself at a loss as far as what Ashbery is actually talking about—I mean, what can we do with a sentence like “Next, schoolboys’ pants, / olive gesture, are so”?
On the other hand, it can be, at times, so easy (perhaps too easy) to allegorize his writing, to find meta-poetic explanations, to find allusions to the literary. For example, the passage from “Boundary Issues” that I cited earlier offers a rich critical bounty: surely we can get a lot of mileage from analyzing surprising figures like the almost Dalí-esque image of the “curving abacus” and the simile “like we were papyri” brings together material textuality and the body in an interesting way. And the key term “camaraderie” is almost begging for a discussion on Whitman.
But these days, I’m of the opinion that the value of an Ashbery poem lies not within any specific content per se but in the way it activates and primes the hermeneutic mind.
Psychology researchers at the University of British Columbia have found that test subjects who read an adapted version of Kafka’s “The Country Doctor” could identify more hidden patterns in letter strings compared to subjects who read a version of the short story that was altered to make more conventional sense. According to researcher Travis Proulx, “when you’re exposed to a meaning threat––something that fundamentally does not make sense––your brain is going to respond by looking for some other kind of structure within your environment” and it thus is “motivated to learn new patterns.” What does this have to do with Ashbery?
I’m tempted to argue—but I won’t and, if so, only by way of paraleipsis—that reading Ashbery and grappling with his “meaning threats” can help recalibrate our minds so we can better navigate the clamor and confusion of our contemporary reality.
J is for the jitterbug, for the Jack of Diamonds, for je ne sais quoi. “J” is for January. And “J,” of course, is for John.
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.