How to read John Ashbery.

Examining culture and the arts.
March 9 2005 3:47 PM

The Instruction Manual

How to read John Ashbery.

(Continued from Page 1)

Admittedly, there is something peculiar about giving up your right, as a reader, to understand the sentences in front of you. It's one thing to do it while looking at a Cy Twombly painting—somehow, it's easier to relinquish visual logic than verbal logic, perhaps because vision is already a logic, organizing the waves of information the eye receives into an understandable picture. Words, on the other hand, are our effort to create a logic for ourselves, to articulate what Wallace Stevens once concisely called "the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind." But Ashbery's free-wheeling strategy makes the reader fiercely attentive to the present—to the textures of the world, not the containers the poet has built for them. It enlivens the words on the page, encouraging the reader, as Helen Vendler once said, to note, "at least subconsciously, the whole orchestral potential of the English language." Many poets aim to do this, but these poets are also obsessed with the pleasures of making a sonnet, or discovering an unpredictable rhyme. Ashbery seems bored by these things.

Instead, he sets out to capture the range of language that bombards us—from the boardrooms, movie theaters, and streets ("Attention, shoppers," one poem begins; "Say, doc," another starts)—and at his best succeeds better than any other writer at conveying how the barrage affects a mind haunted by its own processes and by the unstable patterns that shape-shift around us. To tune in, start off with a middle-period book like Houseboat Days or The Double Dream of Spring, or an assortment of individual poems: "Syringa," "Soonest Mended," "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," "Wet Casements," "Tapestry," "The Instruction Manual," "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name," "A Blessing In Disguise." From the new book, try the funny "Novelty Love Trot" (best read as a kind of demented personal ad); "Wolf Ridge" and "Heavy Home" (both are in some sense about the dissolution of the New York School of poets) and the luminous "You Spoke as a Child," "The New Higher," and "Affordable Variety." These are the poems that instruct us how to listen to Ashbery's peculiar music.



Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your children is perfectly legal. 

Ken Burns on Why Teddy Roosevelt Would Never Get Elected in 2014

Cops Briefly Detain Django Unchained Actress Because They Thought She Was a Prostitute

Minimalist Cocktail Posters Make Mixing Drinks a Cinch

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest of jewels.


Rainbow Parties and Sex Bracelets

Where teenage sex rumors come from—and why they’re bad for parents and kids.


You Had to Be There

What we can learn from things that used to be funny.

Legendary Critic Greil Marcus Measures and Maps Rock History Through 10 Unlikely Songs

Catfish Creator Nev Schulman’s Book Is Just Like Him: Self-Deluded and Completely Infectious

Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
Sept. 14 2014 11:44 PM A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now … The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?