Reading John Ashbery

Ashbery is the most accomplished North American poet currently writing. His work is consistenty lauded in the media and has a large and adoring readership. He has developed a unique voice and continues to produce startling work. Most of his later poetry would seem to fit within J H Prynne's description of post-modernist poetry: "playfulness, where meaning is allowed to skim across a surface in a deliberately arbitary way". Ashbery has always had an ambivalent attitude to meaning and ths seems to have hardened over the years. Some readers have also complained that the later work seems "stuck" in a particular rut which Ashbery shows no desire to move away from.

Arduity's interest in Ashbery stems from his earlier and more experimental work, especially "The Tennis Court Oath", "Rivers and Mountains" and "Three Poems". For the reader, these three volumes contain a treasure trove of innovative and challenging work. Ashbery isn't difficult in the conventional sense but his use of juxtaposition and his ability to develop a thought for extended periods does make it essential to pay real attention to these early poems. "Europe" from "The Tennis Court Oath" is Ashbery at his most innovative (publication was met with howls of disapproval in the US), in 111 sections the poem takes us through a bewildering collage of vignettes and images that some have read as reflecting the fractured state of post-war Europe.

"Clepsydra" and "The Skaters" (both from "Rivers and Mountains") are less experimental but still challen ging to those accustomed to more conventional poetry. The first can be read as a dense philosophical meditation where complex thoughts and ideas are carried over extended passages. A definitive meaning may be missing from "Clepsydra" but no-one can doubt the seriousness with which the points are made- the poem requires concentration unusual in American poetry and the reader will find that close attention more than pays off.

"The Skaters" is a much longer poem in four sections. The poem is much more lyrical and can be read as a kind of quiet improvisation on a number of themes. There is also playfulness and a remarkable statement on Ashbery's poetics where he distances himself from notions of meaning and explanation. The poet's ironic, detached voice in this poem anticipates his later work leaving the reader to consider the images in themselves rather than the thoughts that may have brought them to the page.

"Three Poems" are in fact three prose poems and have a similar density of thought and seriousness to "Clepsydra". The poet's voice is somehow colder and the messages that he brings are loaded with melancholy.

comments powered by Disqus