In John Ashbery’s method of composition, the reading of the poem entails a shifting through contexts, shifting through the various tones, images and idioms that make up the poem, seeing how, in their abstract coherence, they work together to produce something new.
Indeed, when we read a lot of Ashbery’s work, it starts to become clear that juxtaposition is a dominant aesthetic principle animating his work (the juxtaposition of contexts); and a dominant psychological principle is association (the associations produced from these juxtapositions).
In Ashbery’s poems, “exteriors and interiors interpenetrate.” (Wescher) So while in a collage we might see a closed door (exterior) juxtaposed with a room (interior) – in the case of Ashbery’s poetry, we might hear of
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate (519)
The page of dusk turns like a creaking revolving stage in Warren, Ohio. (495)
Here, the boundaries of inside and outside – page and dusk and stage; an empty mind and foliage – are broken down, mingled, made strange and new. Objects hobnob on the same line with subjective states (“lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate”), subjective states seem to be represented by objects (an affect of corniness, beauty and nostalgia represented by the revolving stage and dusk); and the whole interior world of a person (inner) seems to be transmuted or transmogrified through a metaphorical process to create a product (outer) that has no conventional inside or outside, that is a clashing of surfaces, planes, commentary, voices, ideas, thoughts, images: a verbal collage.
We might then think of Ashbery’s method as “representing…dimensions by means of relations between planes.” (Wescher 37) How do I mean? Ashbery’s poems are preternaturally rife with fluid clashings – planes upon planes, inter-leavings of perception, memory, commentary – that seem to simultaneously extend and short-circuit each other. Put another way, in Ashbery’s method of composition, like in a collage, “a few linear outlines here and there may make a particular shape more precise or brushstrokes may obliterate the patterns of a paper and add a new one. The materials lose all realistic significance in an unreal sphere of space and light.” (Wescher 42) What is happening is the jostling and elbowing of various contexts, associational matrices, against each other, forming a unified, un-unified agon of voices, values, things, beliefs.
An excerpt from Ashbery’s “Litany,” a poem that is representative of much of his work, owing to its unfolding juxtapositions:
It was all French horns
And oboes and purple vetch:
That was what it was all about, but
What it came to be came later
And other – a scene, a
Simple situation, something as
Basic as two people sitting in the sun
With no thought of the morrow, or of today,
As the whispers mingled in a choir outlining them
And we took a lesson away from this,
A lesson like a piece of cloth.
It’s going to be different in the future
But now the now is what matters,
Knowing itself old, and open to vengeance,
And, in short, up to nobody’s expectations
For it, as dank and empty
As an old Chevy parked under the trees
Amid leaves and dogshit, everybody’s
Idea of what was coming true for them
Which is now burning in lava-like letters
In the sky, a piece of good news
If you agree that good news is what
Is happening at this very instant. (582)
Notice the changes in the passage, the juxtapositions that occur as the poem unfolds in time. These juxtapositions are what makes Ashbery’s work so constantly fascinating, while at the same time lend themselves to an interpretation of the poem as a verbal collage. The passage begins like an early work of juxtaposition by Picasso or Braque, with a list of instruments: French horn, oboes, and then…a legume (purple vetch). Already, Ashbery has begun to compose his abstract though particular work; he is including in it two instruments and a funny-sounding flowering plant. These juxtapositions, as we have been describing, carry certain associations – of sound, color, nature, beauty, though an atypical beauty, not of roses, say, but of legumes. “That was what it was all about” writes our poet, at which point, like an assemblage or inspiredly wacky movie editor, he completely changes the scene, juxtaposing the first constellation of images and associations with another “scene,” of two people sitting in the sun. But then, ironically, the simplicity of the scene is confounded, the tablecloth is pulled out from underneath our dishes (and baffled eyes), and the poem begins to be more complex again. In succession, we are presented with things, experiences, and objects as variegated as “whispers mingled from a choir,” “a lesson like a piece of cloth,” “an old Chevy parked under the leaves,” “lava-like letters / In the sky”. The “now” is indeed “open to vengeance,” meaning it is perpetually trampled under our feet for a new now, and the lesson we are supposed to draw from these juxtapositions seems to be as plain as a “piece of cloth,” but as spectacular as “lava-like letters / in the sky.”
Indeed, after seeing an example of Ashbery’s work, it shouldn’t seem that strange to come across a passage in Herta Wescher’s monumental Collage that, in describing the method of a collagist, who is constantly including new things into his or her works, involuntarily appears to be describing Ashbery as well. Here she writes, in the context of collage during the heyday of Cubism, that
In time Picasso came to enrich his repertory of real components with the most motley objects, introducing into his collages visiting cards, labels from bottles, matchbox covers, cigarette or pipe-tobacco packages, bits of cloth, and printed matter, without abandoning his characteristic abstract transposition of whatever materials came to hand. He was the first to exploit the special expressive power that inheres in ordinary worn-out materials after they have passed through countless hands, and he utilized them in such a way that a medium can no longer be considered as “worthy” or “unworthy” of an artist but only serviceable to any artist who can translate his emotion into it. (25)
Compare this passage with this passage from Ashbery’s “The Skaters”:
But how much survives? How much of any one of us survives?
The articles we’d collect – stamps of the colonies
With greasy cancellation marks, mauve, magenta and chocolate,
Or funny-looking dogs we’d see in the street, or bright remarks.
One collects bullets. And Indianapolis, Indiana man collects slingshots of all epochs, and so on. (147 – 148)
In both passages, we come across in Picasso and Ashbery a delirious and delicious new awareness that anything and everything can be included, collected into the work of art, “without abandoning [the] characteristic abstract transposition of whatever materials came to hand.” There is consequently a very rich and intense freedom one feels in reading “The Skaters,” and this is perhaps because, as Ashbery has written at the beginning of his prose poem in Three Poems called “The New Spirit,” “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.” (247) In other words, the question isn’t so much what to include – the question is rather, how much to include – as though this shift from qualitative to quantitative (like a precursor to conceptual poetry) were occasioned by the sheer barrage of everyday objects that surround us, that are often neglected in the writing of poems. One might feel intense freedom while reading Ashbery, because one senses that this is how Ashbery feels while writing – that there is so much, too much, that can be included in the verbal collage, and that therefore the act and art of composing poetry is an action uncannily rife with possibility. As we continue to read “The Skaters,” we taste possibility, coming across hilarious and strangely moving passages, passages that work just as much as wackily Whitmanesque inventories, such as,
For the most dissonant night charms us, even after death. This after all, may be happiness: tuba notes awash on the great flood, ruptures of xylophone, violins, limpets, grace-notes, the musical instrument called the serpent, viola da gambas, Aeolian harps, clavicles, pinball machines, electric drills, que sais-je encore!
The performance has rapidly reached your ear; silent and tear-stained, in the post-mortem shock, you stand listening, awash
With memories of hair in particular, part of the welling that is you,
The gurgling of harp, cymbal, glockenspiel, triangle, temple block, English horn and metronome! And still no presentiment, no feeling of pain before or after.
The passage sustains, does not give. And you have come far indeed. (148)
Reading the passage, we have a sense of the poet layering and layering, building a verbal collage, in which the sounds of the instruments are juxtaposed against the “you” who stands listening, “part of the welling that is you.” And then, as if jutting out from the bottom of the poem-picture like a tantalizing note or clue, the poem ends, “And you have come far indeed.”
Ashbery, John. Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987. New York: Library of America, 2008. Print.
Wescher, Herta. Collage. New York: Abrams, 1971. Print.