Read the John Ashbery piece in The New Yorker and didn't find it to be quite the poetic character assassination that Jack did. It's true that the profiler, Larissa MacFarquhar, shows no consciousness of what a trickster Ashbery is, or how integral being a trickster is to his art. Anecdotes of personal conservatism or unease in the world (seeking psychoanalysis to "cure" his homosexuality, being an Episcopalian, etc.) only make Ashbery more interesting to methe trouble is that readers of the article who haven't read the poetry will take these things at face value and miss the adventure of his thought. But why worry about them? Ashbery's poetry can certainly take care of itself at this point, and "NPR-like exposure" won't hurt him and just might help. To be fair to MacFarquhar, I think she tries quite hard to explain why Ashbery's poetry is seen as difficult when it often isn't particularly, and she might even have succeeded in further opening some ears that have admitted Ashbery is a great poet without particularly liking him (never a good foundation for the actual reading of poems). She has a couple of good paragraphs on Ashbery's poetry as "Musique d'Ameublement" or "Furniture Music" (a piece of Erik Satie's) or (though she doesn't use the phrase), "ambient poetics." Not exactly Tan Lin, but poetry that tries
to cultivate a different sort of attention: not focussed, straight-ahead scrutiny but something more like a glance out of the corner of your eye that catches something bright and twitching that you then can't identify when you turn to look. [The same spirit as Dickinson's "tell it slant," maybe, but more like "see it slant."] This sort of indirect, half-conscious attention is actually harder to summon up on purpose than the usual kind, in the way that free-associating out loud is harder than speaking in an ordinary logical manner. [This makes a giant assumption about how the average mind works, but never mind.] A person reading or hearing his language automatically tries to make sense of it: sense, not sound, is our default setting. Resisting the impulse to make sense, allowing sentences to accumulate into an abstract collage of meaning rather than a story or an argument, requires effort. But taht collagea poem that cannot be paraphrased or explained or "unpacked"is waht Ashbery is after.I think this is useful: it's one of the best suggestions I've heard offered on how to understand what Ashbery and other poets who are interested in experiential language rather than telling stories or making puzzles are up to. The paragraph that follows is a bit more problematic:
This is one of the reasons it's a pity that he has a reputation for being a difficult poet: a reader who likes difficult poetry will tend to concentrate fiercely and bring to bear all his most sophisticated analytical equipment in order to wrestle an explicable meaning out of a poem; and while he may well be able to come up with one, it is unlikely to be the sort of meaning that Ashbery was after. Readers who do not like difficult poetry, on the other hand, or who expect poetry to make a certain kind of sense, often become infuriated by what appears to be Ashbery's perverse love of obfuscation for its own sake, or his exasperating refusal simply to say what he means. They suspect him of trickery or humbug. Perhaps for this reason he was ignored early on by many critics (with the notable exception of Harold Bloom).What an impoverished dichotomy! Its blind spot omits the vast majority of interesting and vital poetry being written today, which follows neither New Critical models for the ironic displacement of meaning (the quasi-New Critical approach she describes for those who like "difficult poetry") nor the plainspoken anecdotal mode which approaches genuine popularity at the cost of ninety percent of its linguistic resources. Bloom, the critical exception to MacFarquahr's rule, adopted Ashbery because he was able to superimpose his Romantic quest narrative on poems like "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (a poem MacFarquahr records Ashbery's ambivalence toward: "he finds its essayistic structure alien to the rest of his work"). Bloom is something like your worst-case poetry reader in this scenario: deaf to the pleasures of shimmering ambient layers of discourse and thought, oftentimes deaf to the simple music of language (his favorite poets, whatever their other merits, are rarely euphonious: Ammons, Ashbery, Jorie Graham), he turns every poem he reads into a narrative of the poet's Oedipal evasions and will to power. Still, I believe MacFarquahr's piece has the potential to create new readers for Ashbery (a group that includes those who have previously read him out of duty or in homage to his canonicity); she has awakened possibilities for pleasure, which is to accomplish a great deal. And there are little hints, little fissures in the piece, which open doorways into broader thinking about contemporary experiential poetry (I'm going to try this term on for a while and see how it fits) and its roots in the likes of Pound or Stein:
Although his poetry is a kind of titration or leaching of the world as it seeps into his mind, it is almost never confessional or personal: since the world seeps into everybody's mind, he believes that his poems depict the privateness of everybody. (He is always describing his own traits as just like everybody else'sa tic of which he is unaware. "Maybe that's wishful thinking," he says, when asked about it.)Art begins from just such a wish.