A poet with a gift for the odd and unique
A Worldly CountryBy John Ashbery
Ecco. 76 pp. $23.95
Reviewed by Bryan Appleyard
'Who charted / this anxious mappemonde," asks John Ashbery, "barren of side roads / and identity crises?"
The mappemonde - world map - seems to be in our heads, charted. Yet is it also unknowable? It depicts the "worldly country" of this collection's title. In common speech worldly means something like "materialistic," but, highlighted thus, suggests a place that is a world. It can also be misread - or, in my case, repeatedly mistyped - as "wordy." We are in a world of words that stubbornly remains undiscovered so that, when our mouths are finally stopped, we will be sure that "there was much left to say." But about what? Everything?
The trick with Ashbery is to relax. You are not going to get what you expect, nor, in all likelihood, what you want. But what you will get will be beautiful, strange and, above all, unique. Ashbery is stricken by the sheer discreteness of things.
"You shall never have seen it just this way / And that is to be your one reward," he wrote in
"The Ecclesiast" and, in "Houseboat Days," "but it is the nature of things to be seen only once."
This may make things seem, as he puts it here, "terribly complicated," but, he adds, "simple enough when gazed at directly."
The infinite one-offness certainly makes the writing of poetry difficult. We are accustomed to generalizations in verse. Indeed, I suspect the reason Ashbery is often classified as "difficult" is not the strangeness of his approach, but his refusal of the grand, generalizing statement. Here he provides, as he has done many times before, a deliberately clumsy pastiche of such statements in the title poem. He also provides plenty of what appear to be clear statements, but which, on closer examination, either negate themselves or seem to be made by some voice other than his own.
There is, of course, one necessary statement - that there are no viable statements. It is from this apparent desert, this barren mappemonde, that poetry, the beautiful, must be constructed. It cannot be the language of statement or, indeed, of crisis. To dramatize a crisis - another aspect of "familiar" poetry - is to make a kind of statement. And so Ashbery writes simply of his moment-to-moment engagement with life, whatever that may be, avoiding at all costs a "foolish consistency" - an Emerson phrase that crops up, startlingly, in the poem "Promenade." For Emerson such consistency was "the hobgoblin of little minds" and, uncertain and unclear as Ashbery may be, there is nothing little about his mind.
He is, I have long held, a genius. If you find something constricting about a posture that has been dismissed as "anti-thought," then remember what Cezanne said about Monet - "only an eye but what an eye!" Ashbery is only a poetic drifter, but what a drifter!
This collection will, for regular readers, appear much of the time very familiar. Ashbery even seems to be quoting himself. "Opposition to a Memorial" sounds, to my ear, like "The Ecclesiast," and "The Handshake, the Cough, the Kiss" - the longest poem here - evokes "A Last World" and "The Skaters," all three written decades ago. But the effects seem intensified. With old age - he is 80 this year - Ashbery's fondness for autumnal regret has become more pronounced. Time, as ever, passes too quickly - "Spring came and went so fast this year" - and the sense of the ungraspable seems more urgent - "What if we are all ignorant of all that has happened to us...?" Most poignant of all, there is the constant, nagging suspicion that there is, in fact, something to say.
So many were wrong
about practically everything, it scarcely seems
to matter, yet something does,
otherwise everything would be death.
At such a moment, the deceptively relaxed, conversational rhythm and syntax suddenly tighten in the mind. As in late Wallace Stevens, the words are poised at the edge of a statement that, necessarily, remains denied. There is redemption, but only in the mildly regretful return to the ungeneralizable flow.
Ashbery, perhaps, writes - or, at least, publishes - too much. There have been weaker collections, and the long poem "Flow Chart" notably does not measure up to lengthy masterpieces like "Three Poems" or, of course, "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror." But, here, he is repeatedly at his best, wondering at and wandering through the mappemonde of his rare and peculiar consciousness. "Was it for this," he asks in "America the Lovely," "we journeyed so far / by prairie schooner from reassuring Pennsylvania?"
It was and it was worth it.
Bryan Appleyard writes for the Sunday Times (London). His latest book is "How to Live Forever or Die Trying: On the New Immortality" (Simon & Schuster).