I have a hard time with John Ashbery’s poems, but I keep trying anyway. I think the problem is that I like to read poems that are more recognizably set in this world; I like poems that are “about” everyday life but told in a way that focuses on luminous detail, or that somehow makes things sing—I’m thinking of poets like David Lehman and Mark Doty, who are stylistically different but who both, I think, do this. Ashbery’s poems are doing something else, and I’m not sure what. His tone is often conversational, and he’s got a great ear for speech patterns, for everyday language; he sometimes uses bits of other texts (from a line from Gammer Gurton’s Needle to a phrase from “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). But poems that start by feeling straightforward end up going elsewhere. Look at the first poem in this book, “Words to That Effect”: that great “slow then fast,/then slow again,” and the image at the end of the first stanza, and how at the end, in the third stanza, things veer weirder.

There are some striking passages in this book, things like this, from the title poem:

the landscaped sucked in its breath,

taking its time as always.

And there’s humor, like this, in “Recent History”:

They were early, as usual. Can’t you guys ever
be late, we wondered, though one wouldn’t
necessarily want that either. […]

My favorite poems in this book are probably “How I Met You” and the prose poem “Homeless Heart”. I smiled at the wordplay elsewhere in the book, “census” and “sensory” in one poem, and “cavity” and “caveats” and “tocsins” and “toxins” in the poem called “Far Harbor,” which ends with this:

[…] The broad petals of language
are stiff and may get very bad.
They make it very bad
in our language tutoring.

but I often felt like, in any given poem, I couldn’t quite find my way in. “Everything remains invigoratingly at sea,” writes Charles Bainbridge, in this review in the Guardian, but I’m not sure I found it invigorating.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe without commenting