Thoughts About Ashbery

Ashbery re-describes reality through the ever-changing vivacity of his ideas.  His poems are chronicles of what happens when one of the most fertile imaginations of our time creates on the page landscapes of ideas.  In order to understand Ashbery, we need to pay attention to the originality of his ideas, the way in which one idea magically and manically (maniacally?) replaces the next, in this every-shifting quicksand dance of cognition, perception, thought, imagination, memory.  What he is doing is creating rooms, gardens, cities, fields of imaginative thought.  When we enter these rooms, we need to stay alert, even as the enormity of the poet’s imaginative garden/city does everything within its power to distract us (almost?) into new forms of attention.  (“A poem resists the intelligence / Almost successfully,” wrote Stevens.)  Reading Ashbery is therefore a dangerous ecstasy, for it propels us into a terrifyingly shifting world of “snapped off” perceptions, and the poem itself is constantly equilibrating itself, even as its chaos turns (in his best works) into something uncanny, lyrical, somehow ordered and somehow new.  It is this freshness, this newness of Ashbery’s imagination, which functions as a means of moving us as close as possible to revelation, as Ashbery has said somewhere in regards to a hoped-for aim of his poems.  This aim – the adventure of imagination that places us, trembling and astonished, on the cusp of revelation – is the greatest gift his poetry affords.  That it does so somewhat consistently in his earlier works (I’m still not as enthusiastic about his works following “A Wave,” although I need to read more) is arguably nothing short of a poetic miracle.         

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