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.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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