For a number of years John Ashbery has been tackling the long poem. In 1966 he put together a vast collage named "Europe"; in 1972 he composed three long prose monologues ironically titled Three Poems; in 1975 he published "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," a sustained invocation of the painting by Parmigianino; and in 1977 he wrote "Fantasia on 'The Nut Brown Maid,'" an extended dialogue bwtween two speakers named "He" and "She." Now in As We Know Ashbery has come up with his most original solution to this technical problem and one best suited to the idiosyncracies of his genius. The new book opens with "Litany," a 68-page poem printed in two seperate columns; as the author's note puts it, "The two columns of 'Litany' are meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues." One reads a bit of one, then of the other, and every so often one stops to compare adjacent passages.
If I say this form is best suited to his genius, I do so because I believe it is the ideal transcription of Ashbery's sense of things; a mental space humming with signal and noise, focus and blur. Anthropologists have suggested that the human cortex may be so large not because of an evolutionary pressure toward intelligence but rather because of the need, in an animal so sociable, for a "computer" that might select meaning out of constant and random chatter. Whatever social scientists may decide, certainly consciousness is before everything else a continuous activity of decoding, one neither intense nor mild but perpetual and more or less absorbing. Most literature, however, has chosen not to imitate this aspect of our nature but rather to fashion a world far more consistently meaningful than the one we live in. Ashbery, in spite of his reputation as an arcane and experimental writer, may be the first realist our poetry has produced.
"Litany" is in three sections. The first seems to be loosely concerned with time and that powerful but unthinkable marker of time, death. Time and death are obviously linked and central facts ("So death is really an appetite for time"), though they are facts so scandalous that we keep turning them into safe abstractions ("It emerges as a firm/Enigma, burnished, filled in"). The way we defend ourselves against the idea of mortality is to drown out with neural static those few moments when we hear the appalling message loud and clear. This first section of the poem approximates the method, our defense. Thus in one column we read te bald assertion, "the carrion still/Steams her," but in the adjacent column the same thought is hushed up in elegant diction and a mixed metaphor ("But what difference did any of it make/Woven on death's loom as indeed/All of it was though divided into/Chapters each with its ornamental/Capital at the beginning, and its polished/Sequel?")
The second section examines time in its transcribed and generational guise: history. Throughout the section appears again and again the bitter refrain, "The old, old/Wonderful story," an entity (history) that under the poet's close inspection turns out to be not wonderful nor an entity nor a story, though undeniably old. Like most artists, Ashbery is not at home in the world; he cannot wield its abstactions with aplomb (in this sense the artist is the opposite of Monsieur de Norpois, Proust's sleek, double-talkng diplomat). "History," therefore, makes the poet uncomortable. What does it mean?
Well, it may mean the accumulation of detritus, and we encounter, several long lists of junk ("a pile of ventilators next/To a lot of cuckoo-clock parts,/Plus used government documents and stacks/Of cans of brine shrimp, and an/Extremely elegant saleslady, in/Printed chiffon, seeming to be from a different/World entirely"). Juxtaposed against the junk of history is a phenomenological inquest into the meaning of the work ("This is a moment/Of fast growing, of compounding myths/As fast as they can be thrown off,/Trampled under, forgotten. The moment/Not made of itself or any other/Substance we know of, reflecting/Only itself. Then there are two moments,/How can I explain?")
Bits of junk ("the bin of odd-size and discontinued/Artifacts") are played off against the anxious counting of minutes ("one eye on the digital watch"). Images from history ("hemophiliac princes," "wartime Britain") are juxtaposed against private reckonings ("And meanwhile, growing older like leaves that lean back/Against the trees, is an accomplishment/Without comfort"). In crucial passages all these themes come together: "How/Do we live from the beginning of the tale/To its inevitable, momentary end, where all/Its pocket's treasures are summarily emptied/On the mirroring tabletop?"
As the meditation deepens, the text itself becomes a stand-in for history, and Ashbery's lines shimmer with ambiguity -- does he mean the poem or life? the painting or the actual view? The wittest and most jarring discovery of this section is that the imagination finds itself in whatever it looks at, especially (and here's the odd part) if that reflecting surface is a landscape or a still-life rather than a portrait of people: "Better/the coffee pot and sewing basket of a still-life -- /It's more human, if you want, I mean something/A human is more likely to be interested in/The pictures of human beings . . . ."
The final section of the poem is bewildered, even a bit mad but ultimately exultant response to the problems of time, death and history proposed by the earlier sections. As David Shapiro has pointed out in his new critical study, John Ashbery (Columbia, $12.95), all the long poems tend to end on a joyful note, though one harmonized with doubt and anguish. In this conclusion the poet rejects the equation of life and text in order to acknowledge the rich messiness of experience. Like the familiar example of the bee which is aerodynamically impossible but doesn't know so and flies anyway, the poet -- thugh faced with death, crushed under history and immersed in the fog of daily life -- evinces a will to joy and, thereby, becomes joyful.
The shorter poems that make up the rest of the book recast the different terms these grand, philosophical questions, but the real news this volume brings us is the heroic achievement of "Litany," a work that gives us, after all, a victory, though not one that has been easily secured.