The Instruction Manual
How to read John Ashbery.
John Ashbery wrote his first poem when he was 8. It rhymed and made sense ("The tall haystacks are great sugar mounds/ These are the fairies' camping grounds") and the young writer—who had that touch of laziness that sometimes goes along with precocity—came to a realization: "I couldn't go on from this pinnacle." 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."
No wonder Ashbery is widely thought of as dauntingly "difficult"—or, in some camps, as something of a literary hoaxster. It would be a shame, though, if this prevented curious readers from picking up his books. Being difficult, after all, is not the same thing as being incomprehensible. And the truth is that Ashbery's poetry is still very much invested in the reader's pleasure—more so than many supposedly "approachable" poets. Where Shall I Wander, his latest book, is an often delightful and arresting mishmash of battily comic poems about facing death—the poet is now 77—and coded reflections on his early years as part of what became known as "the New York School." Like much of Ashbery's poetry, it is challenging in a strangely inviting way.
It is hard to talk concretely about Ashbery's poetry, because his subject is, so often, aesthetic consciousness—what he calls "the experience of experience." On the one hand, the poems have the dashed-off look and feel of pop culture-inflected postmodernism, inspired by the radical innovations of Dada and French Surrealism. On the other hand, at their heart is a kind of high Romantic yearning for wholeness: In a sense the poems are simply about being unable to give up that longing. At the center of an Ashbery poem isn't usually a subject (à la Philip Larkin) but a feeling (à la Jackson Pollock). That feeling is conjured up by the interplay between aesthetic conviction and amiably bland bewilderment; amid all the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life is the enduring hope that, as one speaker puts it, "at last I shall see my complete face." The best thing to do, then, is not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It's only then, for most readers, that the meaning begins to leak through.
Ashbery may be poetry's first skeptical revolutionary. He is the first poet to achieve something utterly new by completely doubting the possibility—and the value—of capturing what the lyric poem has traditionally tried to capture: a crystallization of a moment in time, an epiphanic realization—what Wordsworth called "spots of time." Ashbery has updated the lyric poem by rejecting this project, finding it fundamentally inauthentic (though he'd never put it in such somber terms). As he writes in "Clepsydra," "Each moment/ of utterance is the true one; likewise none is true." The poet must somehow capture this paradox, to make a poem that is not a verbal artifact but a kind of living system. What's important is not art, per se, but "The way music passes, emblematic/ Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it/ And say it is good or bad/ . ... one cannot guard, treasure/ That stalled moment. It too is flowing, fleeting."
Ashbery's second radical move was to change the way the poet saw himself in relation to contemporary society. Though particular poems don't have specific subjects, he may write more about America—and with a more persuasive ambivalence—than any of his peers. "You spoke from the margin," he says in Where Shall I Wander, a common enough artistic sentiment; but where Ashbery differs from Baudelaire or Eliot is that, like Whitman and Emerson, he (often) sees himself as fundamentally more like his fellow-man than unlike. In this, he marries two previously unmarried literary traditions—continental avant-gardism and Romanticism. Perhaps it's this hybrid impulse—his reluctance to identify too strongly with any single tradition—that motivates his bringing together all different kinds of dictions and styles in a single poem, from slapstick to the didactic, from the earnest to the skeptical, while privileging none.
This can make for strange reading. Ashbery becomes a kind of radio transistor through which many different voices, genres, and curious archaeological remains of language filter, so that the poems are like the sound you would hear if you spun through the FM/AM dial without stopping to tune into any one program for long. Sometimes (as you can imagine) this is infuriating. But in the best of Ashbery, the excess verbiage helps make the moments of lyric focus all the more propulsive and startling, like coming across a lost tune as you spin the dial—the sort of thing that briefly brings promise of "a movement out of the dream into its codification." Endings, in particular, are a forte of Ashbery's. Take the beautiful passage that concludes his famous long poem "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror":
We have seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant. One feels too confined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the ease of its
Parameter. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.
Still, for the many readers daunted by all the static, perhaps some tips are in order—if not for easy listening, then at least for better attuned ears. First, bear in mind that Ashbery's subjects are big ones—time, memory, nostalgia—so don't get frustrated by what may seem vague. Second, trust yourself. If you're bored, skip the poem, or skim. But make sure to stay receptive to the farcical comedy in the poems, which often arrives out of nowhere—like a deadpan subway announcer in a good mood.
Third, Ashbery's most famous rhetorical ambiguities—the odd, nonsensical language, the ever-shifting array of pronouns, the abrupt shifts in diction—are not totally without a center. He considers his poems to be, like Jasper Johns' paintings, a kind of "organized chaos." Imagine the poems as a series of different self-revising, self-interrupting voices—the different voices we use to talk to ourselves in our own minds (incantatory, exhortatory, scolding, disgusted, delighted, genial, nonsensical) that belong to the different characters we carry around in our own heads. Notice, too, that Ashbery frequently substitutes an unexpected word for a familiar one—"the bee's hymn," say, rather than "the bee's hum." Ashbery, who cut his teeth on the surrealists and the Dadaist poets—Tristan Tzara, Guillaume Apollinaire—as well as Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens, is trying to renovate a language that to him seems exhausted and cliché-riddled.
And don't be confused by all the pronouns encountered in a single poem—the procession of shifting "you," "we," and "I" that is a hallmark Ashbery tactic. Traditionally, the different pronouns in a lyric poem are important because they fill in the latent narrative, helping you figure out whether the person being addressed is a lover, a daughter, the self, etc. But in Ashbery the pronouns are generic rather than specific. The "we" is an expression of the poet's flickering sense of solidarity with his fellow citizens, a stand-in for what he takes to be marginalized participants in American capitalism: those who love its products (the movies, T-shirts) but are suspicious of its processes; it represents the cautious identification of the individual with his society. The "you" is often a kind of companion self, a figure the speaker, in moments of feeling exiled, can address himself to. A typical Ashbery move is to retreat from this pluralistic "you" or "we" of identifying with others to an intensely singular "you"—the you of the self suddenly and ruefully alienated from his surroundings, the one we address in private.
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.
Photograph of John Ashbery © Christopher Felver/Corbis.