September 4, 2017

"[A] large portion of new poetry titles during [the book review editor's] tenure could be (and often were) tossed into a pile labeled 'Ashbery impersonations.'"

"And Mr. Ashbery remains far and away the most imitated American poet. That widespread imitation has served mostly to underscore the distinctive qualities of the original — and those qualities are singular indeed. An Ashbery poem cycles through changes in diction, register and tone with bewildering yet expertly managed speed, happily mixing references and obscuring antecedents in the service of capturing what Mr. Ashbery called 'the experience of experience.' The effect can be puzzling, entrancing or, more frequently, a combination of the two — as if one were simultaneously being addressed by an oracle, a PTA newsletter and a restless sleep talker."

From the NYT obituary for John Ashbery, who has died at the age of 90. Extracts of his poetry at the link, if you need to apply those abstractions to something concrete. And more poetry at this link (also the NYT). The first example:
“The Chateau Hardware” (1970)

It was always November there. The farms
Were a kind of precinct; a certain control
Had been exercised. The little birds
Used to collect along the fence.
It was the great “as though,” the how the day went,
The excursions of the police
As I pursued my bodily functions, wanting
Neither fire nor water,
Vibrating to the distant pinch
And turning out the way I am, turning out to greet you.
Please explain.

70 comments:

Laslo Spatula said...

That poem gives me mute nostril agony.

I am Laslo.

Fernandinande said...

Forget it, Jake. It's a poem, so it doesn't mean anything.

rhhardin said...

He's speaking as an Indian who's just vowed to remain sober.

tdocer said...

In other words, the NYT doesn't know what the hell Ashbery means, either, with his obscured antecedents, mixed references, and changes of speed (speed? not tempo?), but if his style is so often imitated, it must be important, so Yahtzee!

Michael K said...

Robert Frost would have done it better.

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, "I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther -- and we shall see."
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through. The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.
A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather --
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.
And then there was a pile of wood for which
I forgot him and let his little fear
Carry him off the way I might have gone,
Without so much as wishing him good-night.
He went behind it to make his last stand.
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled -- and measured, four by four by eight.
And not another like it could I see.
No runner tracks in this year's snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year's cutting,
Or even last year's or the year's before.
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

Laslo Spatula said...

Convert it to all lower-case letters and it is an e.e. cummings impersonation, larded with extra words.

who are you,little i

(five or six years old)
peering from some high

window;at the gold

of november sunset

(and feeling:that if day
has to become night

this is a beautiful way)

I am Laslo.

William said...

I'd rather be an Ashbery impersonator than an Elvis imitator.

AllenS said...

"Vibrating to the distant pinch" = I'm about ready to pinch a loaf = I feel an inner need to shit

Tits.

MikeR said...

Yeah - the goal is that the length of the lines, seen sideways, looks like the NYC skyline.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dot_plot_(statistics)

Laslo Spatula said...

If I have to read poetry I prefer to read Betamax3000 poetry.

I am Laslo.

Birkel said...

I think the poem should properly
be understood to mean (colon)
(quote) Our tastes are abstract
And above the hoi polloi
Who are beneath, somewhere

Our virtues exist (comma) yet
must be signaled so others in
our class can Know we
exist together (unquote)

Laslo would write it better.
*spit*

who-knew said...

Thanks for the Robert Frost! Lovely poem. The Ashberry? Anything that takes as much explanation as that poem clearly does misses the main point of language ...communication. And my guess is that once you've waded all the way through it you'll find he really didn't have anything to say.

Ken B said...

Word of the day: Poetaster.

dustbunny said...

His poems often read like the stuff created by those magnetic poetry sets so popular awhile back.

Laslo Spatula said...

Lavender
Fall Color
A brief history of the chocolate pot
This for the kitchen
and This for the yard

I am Laslo.

Fernandinande said...

More little birds
Used to collect along the landscape,
to make of soda fountains and the day went,
except Sunday,
when a small quail was the way I am,
turning the strength of this average violin
that will not get better.

We had macaroni for lunch even here, smeared
With a dream of soda fountain control.

Paco Wové said...

I had an English prof. who once remarked it was much easier to be a bad poet than, say, a bad novelist. Not that there aren't plenty of both – just that producing bad poetry was easier.

andy karas said...

Obscurantism masquerading as profundity

David said...

Explain? He's taking a high falutin' pee.

Ann Althouse said...

I think the great thing about a poem like that is that the thinking-to-reading ratio is huge. It's not as though you have to keep reading page upon page. That would be pointless and the poem itself tells you that very quickly (like right about when "how" follows "the").

It's easy to read (in the sense of running your eyes across the lines), but the thinking you can do based on that reading is endless. When the eyes are tired but the brain is up for a run, this sort of thing is perfect.

SDaly said...

I loved reading poetry in school, up until we started on post-WWII stuff. After than, about 99% is worthless, pretentions crap. The best post-war poem is the eponymous set-up for Nabokov's unique novel, Pale Fire.

Pettifogger said...

Poetry has to be a lot more explicit to do anything for me.

Ann Althouse said...

"Explain? He's taking a high falutin' pee."

I agree. And he turned around and showed the cops (and us) his penis, right?

SDaly said...

The "thinking" ratio can be huge without any effort by the artist to create true art. Look outside of your window and try to think hard about everything you see. "Making you think" is not the measure of art.

Fernandinande said...

5th order Eddington Monkey sez:

It was induced
to be served to make of us what we could.

Called, through increasingly suburban airs
And turning out the great devouring cloud
came and forget each other age of it,
imagining to drive, even.

The oval portrait of a place of origin hangs
Like smoke; a certain control
Had been exercised.

There was a season in time that the meat
Of an obscure family being evicted
Into the other beached
Glimpses of what seemed
like Atalantas run.

rhhardin said...

Unfinished Business (1025) Sienna seeking to put competitor and former colleague Vince off his game at business meeting

Sienna Miller: Those pants are so tight, you'd think I could see your balls or your dick. But I don't. Maybe I shouldn't have said that, but it's weird.

Vince Vaughn (aside): So, are we going back to our original brokerage sets?

Sienna Miller: In fact, is that a crease?

Vince Vaughn: No. I don't have a crease, thank you.

Sienna Miller: A slit?

Vince Vaughn: No. There's space.

Sienna Miller: There is no space.

Vince Vaughn: There's actually space.

Sienna Miller: It's alarming. There's clearly no space.

- This gets no NYT coverage.

Tommy Duncan said...

This jumble or words is a nice example of why I was a math major. There is beauty in an elegant proof of a theorem.

Sam L. said...

I don't recall ever hearing of him before, and I'm old enough; just don't read in his circle of publication.

rhhardin said...

2015 not 1025

Bill Peschel said...

Took me awhile, but I figured it out. Here's how it breaks down:

“The Chateau Hardware” (1970)

It was always November there. The farms
Were a kind of precinct; a certain control
Had been exercised. The little birds
Used to collect along the fence.

Setting the scene, a distant rural memory.

It was the great “as though,” the how the day went,
The excursions of the police

On this particular day, the police car was passing by

As I pursued my bodily functions, wanting
Neither fire nor water,

Sex. Every poem's about sex.

Vibrating to the distant pinch

Anal sex.

And turning out the way I am, turning out to greet you.

Explaining to his wife how he got the STD.

Laslo Spatula said...

Bill Peschel said...
"Took me awhile, but I figured it out. Here's how it breaks down..."

Perfect.

I am Laslo.

Etienne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Etienne said...

It's homo-sexual eroticism, completely indecipherable by hetero-sexuals, and trans-sexuals. It is quasi-poetry inspired by a lack of testosterone, where the fetal brain was denied the assigned hormone of the genitals.

Plus, being 1970, Ringo, John, and George finished manufacturing Paul, and unleashed him not unlike the previous Frankenstein of his day.

rhhardin said...

Once you can fake insincerity, you've got it made.

Bob Boyd said...

I'm thinking it's a country dog that likes to go into town and roam around. He pees on the fire hydrants and dodges the cops, but they'll eventually "pinch" him. He's confident his master will come to the station to get him when they do.

Ann Althouse said...

"Explaining to his wife..."

The obit refers to his husband.

Paco Wové said...

"the thinking-to-reading ratio is huge"

I'm thinking, what normal bodily functions require "fire"? and, that Frost poem is really good.

Big Mike said...

I don't understand it so I can't explain it. Besides, my preference in poetry is for bawdy limericks:

"There was a young man from Nantucket..."

Oso Negro said...

I will miss Walter Becker a lot more.

Birkel said...

"...his husband."

I think you meant "...Xis Partner."

It's all rather confusing.
And why is that obit Un-Woke?
Asleep?

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Please explain.

What happens when you take acid while not in a good frame of mind.

Lewis Wetzel said...

Ashbery reads like a bad imitation of Nemerov.
Howard Nemerov's "I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee":

I tell you that I see her still
At the dark entrance of the hall.
One gas lamp burning near her shoulder
Shone also from her other side
Where hung the long inaccurate glass
Whose pictures were as troubled water.
An immense shadow had its hand
Between us on the floor, and seemed
To hump the knuckles nervously,
A giant crab readying to walk,
Or a blanket moving in its sleep.

You will remember, with a smile
Instructed by movies to reminisce,
How strict her corsets must have been,
How the huge arrangements of her hair
Would certainly betray the least
Impassionate displacement there.
It was no rig for dallying,
And maybe only marriage could
Derange that queenly scaffolding—
As when a great ship, coming home,
Coasts in the harbor, dropping sail
And loosing all the tackle that had laced
Her in the long lanes ....
I know
We need not draw this figure out.
But all that whalebone came from whales.
And all the whales lived in the sea,
In calm beneath the troubled glass,
Until the needle drew their blood.

I see her standing in the hall,
Where the mirror’s lashed to blood and foam,
And the black flukes of agony
Beat at the air till the light blows out.

Etienne said...

A man having a husband is a state sponsored contract to gain federal tax relief. Especially useful for citizens who depend on royalties from homo-erotic one-color pamphlets for their income.

Big Mike said...

I wonder what would have happened if Ashbery had submitted a poem under a different name. Would it be published? Or go onto the "Ashbery imitation" pile? I'm reminded that Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin immitation contest, and finished second.

William said...

Ashberry is a poetic name for someone who celebrates the flowers of the wasteland. The crocus among the croaked.......People still have an appetite for poetry, but the printed word is no longer the preferred delivery system. If you want money, fame, and groupies set your lyrics to music. Dylan hit the Byronic mother lode on Desolation Row.........As Oso Negro observed, people are far more likely to have the words of Walter Becker rattling around their head than anything written by Ashberry......Dept of Obscure References: Deacon Blues was the nickname of a college basketball team that was briefly famous for losing thirty or forty straight games. Deacon blues has nothing to do with blue balls brought on by religious repression.,,,,Limp Bizkit has a far more obscene and obscure name for a band than Steely Dan, but Steely Dan must be given credit for initiating the trend,

Jupiter said...

Whatevs.

Sebastian said...

"He went on, instead, to write poems that mostly didn't rhyme, and didn't make sense, either. His aim, as he later put it, was "to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about." It worked. Early on, a frustrated detractor called him "the Doris Day of Modernism." Even today a critic like Helen Vendler confesses that she's often "mistaken" about what Ashbery is up to. You can see why: It simply may not be possible to render a sophisticated explication de texte of a poem that concludes "It was domestic thunder,/ The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched/ His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.""

Modern poets and critics like their emperors naked.

You give me John Ashbury, I raise you a Jori Graham.

Sebastian said...

"I think the great thing about a poem like that is that the thinking-to-reading ratio is huge." Yes, that's great if you like thinking more than poetry.

The great thing about amateur poetry critiques is that the thinking-to-reading ratio is even huger. Just think about all the unanswered questions! What makes any particular thinking-triggering text especially worthy of our attention? How can an uninteresting poem trigger interesting thinking? What makes the thinking a text triggers great? Do great texts trigger greater thoughts? Who can tell if Ashbery critics, or for that matter Ashbery himself, were "thinking"? How does the thinking of modern poets and poetry critics compare to the thinking of thinkers like Hume or Von Neumann? What does it say about modern poetry that the great thing about it is its thinking-to-reading ratio?

JAORE said...

The key, it appears, is to be so confusing, to communicate so poorly that the critics don't dare criticize. For to do so might result in them falling from the pedestal of those who get it.

I'm sure, at some point, someone asked, "But what does this mean?"

I'm equally sure the response was non-responsive.

wildswan said...

Took me awhile, but I figured it out. Here's how it breaks down:

“The Chateau Hardware” (1970)

It was always November there. The farms
Were a kind of precinct; a certain control
Had been exercised. The little birds
Used to collect along the fence.

I remember a French chateau which was always as cold as November because of all the stone. The chateau farms came close to the walls and were surrounded by a fence. Little birds sat on the fence.

It was the great “as though,” the how the day went,
The excursions of the police
As I pursued my bodily functions, wanting
Neither fire nor water,
Vibrating to the distant pinch
And turning out the way I am, turning out to greet you.

And how was the time in the chateau? It was as though I was in New York listening to police sirens while I ate and slept and was warm (wanting neither fire nor water) and yet I felt a shiver (vibrating) listening to a distant arrest (distant pinch) and to the way the police raced out in their cars (turning out). The way they raced out is how I feel when I come out to greet you but with the under-meaning of turning myself out of myself (and they were turning out in the fast exciting way that I am turning out, turning out of myself to greet you.) As several commenters said, sex, so to speak.

rcocean said...

When's the last time the average college educated person cared about Poetry? TS Eliot? Ezra Pound? Dylan Thomas?

All the best poets write songs now.

rcocean said...

Elite Literature and poetry just seem to be a small group of people talking to each other.

mccullough said...

I love Ashbery. A lot of his poems are more experimental but his best stuff is awesome. Head scratching in a good way. Glad he lived to be so old.

EDH said...

You'd think San Francisco would love rather than hate Ashbury.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

William said...

Deacon Blues was the nickname of a college basketball team that was briefly famous for losing thirty or forty straight games.

Amusingly enough, the NH High School Divison III lacrosse coach of the year was Deacon Blue. The team went undefeated.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

It's a New York Times crossword puzzle of a poem.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

rcocean,

Eliot for me. With a side of Wilfred Owen. And Yeats. And Anna Akhmatova. And Marina Tsvetaeva. And Szymborska. Not that I mind Frost. Or even Sitwell -- her nonsense is less nonsensical than it looks at first glance.

Ashbery? Meh. He's not the most opaque poet ever (that'd be Gertrude Stein, though late Mallarme runs her close), but IMO he's both verbose and useless, which isn't a good combo.

Bill Peschel said...

Came back for the discussion, so I'm glad to see wildswan's take. Can't quite figure out where New York comes from (unless you knew JA), or how the police is supposed to make me feel. The end emotion could work, but it all doesn't seem to hang together, but maybe because I've been digging Biggie lately; seriously, mash-ups bring the lyrics to the fore, like

Bitches in the back looking righteous
In a tight dress, I think I might just
Hit her with a little Biggie 101, how to tote a gun
And have fun with Jamaican rum

Portlandmermaid said...

@Lewis Wetzekl, I liked Howard Nemerov's poem.

wildswan said...

Bill Peschel

I just mean he is remembering an American big city with a lot of crime, hence a lot of police sirens. To me this is New York, Greenwich Village. And contrasting it with a French chateau.
He was just living in the city, eating, sleeping, drinking, routine fornication; then hearing police sirens start up and race away, imagining police speeding off to encounter desperate realities, criminals, guns. It isn't the "police" so much as the sirens and the situations. And in his cold, rural, foreign, upper-class chateau, suddenly there that New York excitement as he "turns out" to meet his lover. Maybe I'm wrong though.

He always starts out "in media res" as if you were overhearing a conversation in a restaurant and had to work it all out - backwards, then forwards. And sometimes the conversation is about a conversation overheard on an elevator. I liked him in way in my college days and a little later but it was a lot of work to chip out the emotion or situation and then the feeling or situation was always a bit bulimic though covered with amazing golden lace.

Mountain Maven said...

Why I don't read modern poetry.

D said...

I stopped first at the Labour Day Café.
But meandered my way down here instead.
Got a bunch of different takes on some modern poet.
He be, or so the Times are sayin, dead.
Apparently
The key to poetry
Is to make it interesting. In multiple ways.
Rhymes and meaning can be thrown away
If it makes the reader think for days.
The other thing is to make swift cuts - a skater on morning ice.
Death can be sad, and cafe posts can be less so.
The Eagles wrote about a Sad Café.
That and Hotel California, suggest they had a thing
For melancholy places.
Ah, to hell with Glen Frey,
Don Henley, North Korea, and that other guy
I'd rather listen to the Small Faces.

Poem title: Late Arrival to Early Post.

Grant said...

Ashbery is dead but Richard Wilbur is still alive. The modern has outlived the postmodern.

ELC said...

I have several dozens of poetry books, including anthologies and single-author collections. My favorite poets include Dickinson, Hopkins, Cummings, Millay, Yeats, and Frost. I even have a favorite Chinese poet, Su Tung-p'o, a.k.a. Su Shih, et. al.

I had never heard of this Ashbery fellow until he died. But the signal-to-noise ratio in poetry has plummeted over the past 100 years, so I fear not that I'm missing out on much.

Robert Cook said...

"His poems often read like the stuff created by those magnetic poetry sets so popular awhile back."

My favorite such poem, a couplet, is:

""Smelling death
My skin flakes away."


Someone where I work composed it on his filing cabinet.

Robert Cook said...

"I have several dozens of poetry books, including anthologies and single-author collections. My favorite poets include Dickinson, Hopkins, Cummings, Millay, Yeats, and Frost. I even have a favorite Chinese poet, Su Tung-p'o, a.k.a. Su Shih, et. al.

"I had never heard of this Ashbery fellow until he died. But the signal-to-noise ratio in poetry has plummeted over the past 100 years, so I fear not that I'm missing out on much."


Really??? I am not a reader of poetry at all, but I had heard of John Ashebery.

Robert Cook said...

"A man having a husband is a state sponsored contract to gain federal tax relief."

Same thing if the spouses are of opposite genders. It also provides legal protections unavailable to non-married partners, (also true when the spouses are of opposite genders).

Etienne said...

Hickory, Dickery, Dock,
Three mice ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
And the other two got away with minor cuts and bruises.


Poetry at its best.

ELC said...

@ Robert Cook: "Really??? I am not a reader of poetry at all, but I had heard of John Ashebery."

Yes, really. But I made sure I spelled his surname correctly. :)

JOB said...

I’m pretty sure Yvor Winters would have placed him among the hedonist poets (vs. the pedantic poets).

Nonetheless, he provided some great images to appropriate.

RIP

JOB