EXCERPT from Amy King:
Time to provide a fellow poet, who shall remain anonymous, with a too simple answer to her many-months-ago-posed question to me regarding John Ashbery. The gist of the conversation was that she didn’t get why people like Ashbery and had not received a satisfactory answer to date. I dare say the following one will far from satiate, but in lieu of solid logic, here is my mercurial answer:
I like Ashbery because many things happen in his poems via numerous observations, and hence, understandings become possible & multiple, though no one single idea must be found out or insists its way into the lap of explication for “rightness’” sake. Things become, and you may hear less than a few or far too many things becoming (& unbecoming), but my few may be different or the same as your few unless you resist for standard sense’ sake and come away with none. The draw is in the multiplicity and convergence of how things happen around, inside of, outside of, because of, in spite of, and at the same time as each other, sometimes only gravitationally speaking … a poem is a place or occasion where things happen to happen in Ashbery’s world. The reader has much responsibility, and becomes a miner in spite of her desire for a nice spoon feeding. Diamonds are easier than digging through coal, typically speaking — but oh, the digging makes the muscles tighten and release with deeper sensations…
Even the most casual of readers have been swayed by this icon. Don’t bow down to the naysayers so readily; you might eagerly find yourself swinging a pickaxe or tying a flashlight to your head. Plus, his work always sounds familiar. One gets the bizarre (or surreal) wrapped in the familiar, which can make the underlying weirdnesses (i.e. conflicts & paradoxes) we ignore daily quite palatable and comfortable even. Ashbery gives us permission to explore associations our public narrative minds refuse for seamless autobiographical stories, as though all of the thoughts colliding within our skulls aren’t really part of life, proper. They are pigeonholed as secondary detritus instead of worthwhile treasures that might inspire or edify in not-so-obvious ways.
And in answer to that age-old accusation of “he’s just trying to be difficult,” the man himself said, “It seems to me that my poetry sometimes proceeds as though an argument were suddenly derailed and something that started out clearly suddenly becomes opaque. It’s a kind of mimesis of how experience comes to me: as one is listening to someone else—a lecturer, for instance—who’s making perfect sense but suddenly slides into something that eludes one. What I am probably trying to do is illustrate opacity and how it can suddenly descend over us, rather than trying to be willfully obscure.”
For the finale, Ashbery in action:
YOUR NAME HERE
But how can I be in this bar and also be a recluse?
The colony of ants was marching toward me, stretching
far into the distance, where they were as small as ants.
Their leader held up a twig as big as a poplar.
It was obviously supposed to be for me.
But he couldn’t say it, with a poplar in his mandibles.
Well, let’s all forget that scene and turn to one in Paris.
Ants were walking down the Champs-Elysees
in the snow, in twos and threes, conversing,
revealing a sociability one never supposed them as having.
The larger ones have almost reached the allegorical statues
of French cities on the Place de la Concorde.
“You see, I told you he was going to bolt.
Now he just sits in his attic
ordering copious plates from a nearby restaurant
as though God had meant him to be quiet…”
“You look like a portrait of Mme. de Stael by Overbeck,
that is to say a little serious and washed out.
Remember you can come to me any time
with what is bothering you, just don’t ask for money.
Day and night my home, my hearth are open to you,
you great big adorable one, you.”
The bar was unexpectedly comfortable.
I thought about staying. There was an alarm clock on it.
Patrons were invited to guess the time (the clock was always wrong).
More cheerful citizenry crowded in, singing the Marseillaise,
congratulating each other for the wrong reasons, like the color
of their socks, and taking swigs from a communal jug.
“I just love it when he gets this way,
which happens in the middle of August, when summer is on its way
out, and autumn is still just a glint in its eye,
a chronicle of hoar-frost foretold.”
“Yes and he was going to buy all the candy bars in the machine
but something happened, the walls caved in (who knew
the river had risen rapidly) and one by one people were swept away
calling endearing things to each other, using pet names.
“Achilles, meet Angus.” Then it all happened so quickly I
guess I never knew where we were going, where the pavement
was taking us. Or the sidewalk, which the English call pavement,
which is what sidewalks are made of, or so it seems.
Things got real quiet in the oubliette.
I was still reading Jean-Christophe. I’ll never finish the darn thing.
Now is the time for you to go out into the light
and congratulate whoever is left in our city. People who survived
the eclipse. But I was totally taken with you, always have been.
Light a candle in my wreath, I’ll be yours forever and will kiss you.