Keep Trying, I Guess


This is a poem about John Ashbery’s poetry.  Why?

Out of despair, some different mode must arrive, depart.

The despair is my own, yet I imagine others’ too,

For we do not have adequate ways for talking about

Ashbery; or, I have not found an adequate way

To discuss, read, think about, write about the poetry. 

For how is one supposed to approach cornucopia

With (what I perceive to be) overly holey napkins?  The essay is not the only way

To try and think about the poetry.  Let’s “give this a go.”


The first lines I ever read by Ashbery read,

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the sun yellows the green of the maple tree….

So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.

I read the lines at Shamandrum, now defunct bookstore

In Ann Arbor, and believe (I say “believe,” because this

Was ten years ago, and so my act of memory is an act

Of hint-based reconceiving) I liked the poem because

It reminded me of early Auden, I mean it allowed me

To enter and interpret it without being an overdetermined

Thing, although the voice at the same time was

Overdetermined, meaning, upon further readings,

Instantly recognizable as Ashbery, who I imagined

as a reticent, funny, mysterious, caring, private person,

the same way I’d imagined Elizabeth Bishop.

I’d loved early Auden.  His poems could be filled

With dramatically variant interpretations, and I was amazed

That language could do such a thing – how it could gesture

In two directions at once, or more; polysemy was

A magical thing; and I remember thinking Ashbery

Was doing that, too – his poems (as I began to read more)

Were opening possibilities of thinking and imagining and feeling,

Not just generally, as in a blurb upon the back of the book,

But intimately, immediately instantaneously, for me;

And they were less concerned with making sense

And more concerned with exploring the boundaries of sense

So that I could also taste thought at that boundary,

Where even there we could find things to take home with us,

Enigmatic bewitching items that we could not even say

Why it was they bewitched us, before we had them under our arms

Like suffocated stuffed animals, and were trundling them home with us

To sleep in the same bed as us and be seen the next morning

In all their tarnished bravura.  Ashbery was gesturing at new ways

Of making meaning, (but what does that even mean?),

Ways which were not divorced from the reading process

But were incumbent upon it.  It was like some all-powerful

Demon of language actually had the generosity to share this power

With us; a demon that had the courage to transcribe

The iridescent shimmering of thoughts caught

In the monasteries of his own cultivated privacies,

And I suppose that was the second thing I loved about Ashbery,

Meaning his privacy, his reticence, his fearlessness when it came

To sharing a part of himself that struck me as almost frighteningly

Private, the private musings of what Allen Grossman called an

“epistemological genius.” 

But what we find as we continue on our way here

Is the impossible possibility of finding an okay place to start.  And in the spirit

Of Ashbery, I have decided not to start in a place that necessarily makes sense

In order for me to send home an immaculate argument, but rather simply stand up,

Walk to the section of the library with the Asbhery books, and take down one

That strikes my fancy, (for I’m writing on the fourth floor of the University of Toledo’s

Carlson Library).  Then from there we’ll find the book and a “random poem,”

If only to prove how arbitrary any starting point is for thinking about the poetry.

Thus, from A Wave, the first stanza from “Darlene’s Hospital”:


The hospital: it wasn’t her idea

That the colors should slide muddy from the brush

And spew their random evocations everywhere,

Provided that things should pick up next season.

It was a way of living, to her way of thinking.

She took a job, it wasn’t odd.

But then, backing through the way many minds had been made up,

It came again, the color, always a color

Climbing the apple of the sky, often

A secret lavender place you weren’t supposed to look into.

And then a sneeze would come along

Or soon we’d be too far out from shore, on a milky afternoon

Somewhere in late August with the paint flaking off,

The lines of traffic flowing like mucus.

And they won’t understand its importance, it’s too bad,

Not even when it’s too late.


Ashbery loves certain names – he likes to chew on them, show them to us,

So that we too can imagine the people behind the names, as he does in

“Mixed Feelings.”  Now: imagine trying to evoke for a reader

Something that had never been evoked before.  Imagine your task is

Not only to do this, but to do it in an artful and funny way.  We are therefore

Asking you to say something that has never been said before, and in such a way

As to make it – not memorable – but somehow vivid, vividly unprecedented.

Furthermore, this saying should be self-reflexive, so that it comments not only

On what it’s saying, but on itself – and, since what it’s saying is in the form of a poem,

The whole thing must also be an ars poetica.  Voila!  “Darlene’s Hosptial,”

And every other Ashbery poem

Does this, sometimes successfully (so that we laugh, or are simply in awe

Of the language’s florabundance, or are even somehow moved to tears),

And sometimes unsuccessfully (so that we are so puzzled and bewildered

That we leave feeling hoodwinked and troubled.)  (And yet to say

That an Ashbery poem is “successful” or “unsuccessful” is difficult,

If only because, since the poetry is so radically different as to expand

Or alter our criteria for evaluating it, it also, at least in this historical moment,

Makes it very difficult to rule out any Ashbery poem as somehow less

Of an adventure, less of an exploration of imagination and feeling.       

Meaning, everything Picasso did should be of interest to someone

Obsessed with Picasso; I suppose the same is true for Ashbery.)

But look at the poem again.  Isn’t the poem simply and complexly

Describing its own self as it unfolds?  Doesn’t an Ashbery poem

“spew evocations”?  Isn’t his intent to show us

“A secret lavender place you weren’t supposed to look into”?

Indeed, so much of this poem, like any poem by Ashbery,

Is essentially further definitions of an aesthetic

That does not seem to have many conventional limits.

If we are to “make sense” of an Ashbery poem, perhaps

We need to bear this in mind – that each poem can be read,

Not as pure nonsense or pure imaginative reason,

But as further attempts from an entire person and personality

To understand the aesthetic that he has woven up to that point

Through further iterations of this aesthetic.

This is essentially calling attention, then, to questions about

How to live – for we are all engaged in the same project –

How to live – and, in every instant of our lives

We are forced to redefine our own aesthetic, our own brand of self-definition,

Our own self-image, our “way of living” and “way of thinking.”


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