IN THE PAST FEW YEARS John Ashbery has become one of our best-known poets, and has presumably been acquiring new readers at a rapid clip. I can't help wondering how some of them have fared. If they are unfamiliar with this century's experimental tradition in the arts, the Dada and Surrealist movements especially, they may be more than a little bewildered by Ashbery's poems. They well probably begin by taking them too seriously. Then, when they discover their playful, parodic and deliberately arbitrary elements, they maywrongly conclude that there is no serious intent behind them. Most of all, they will be frustrated if they bring a constant expectation to an art that is obsessed with shifting and changing possibilities.
You must enjoy unpredictability if you are to like John Ashbery. While most poets operate at a kind of "middle distance," with a consistent sense of language and a set relation to the reader, Ashbery is usually either closer or farther away than we expect, veering from an unusually candid and forthright manner at one moment to perfectly specious and impenetrable statements at the next. We must be ready for anything in reading Ashbery because this eclectic, dazzling, inventive creator of travesties and treaties is ready and eager to include anything, say anything, go anywhere, in the service of an esthetic dedicated to liberating poetry from predictable conventions and tired traditions.
Which brings us to Ashbery's latest collection, Shadow Train (first announced as Paradoxes and Oxymorons ), a sequence of 50 poems in the same form: a meditative lyric of four quatrains, 16 lines. The book is endearing and exasperating in the same ways that all of Ashbery's poetry is. It reflects his great strengths as a writer: endless inventiveness, superb mimicry, artistic transformations of the banal into the beautiful. And it demonstrates his weaknesses as well: a certain preciousness, an absence of self-criticism, an artistic program that allows the manufacture of poetry almost at will and without inspiration. The problem of excessive length that sometimes mars Ashbery's most ambitious efforts is here neatly solved: since each section of Shadow Train is a poem in its own right, as in a sonnet cycle, the reader who experiences tedium can pass on to the next poem without much loss or guilt. The loose structure, formally pleasing, also invites browsing and skimming.
Indeed, I have always found skimming and skating to be the best means of enjoying Ashbery, which is not the admission of deficiency it might be in another writer. Since Ashbery works with surfaces, like a painter, reading him too closely or thinking too much about his content is missing the point. One of the poems in this sequence is called "Corky's Car Keys." If you imagine a character named Corky and start worrying about his car keys, you go right past the play on sound that is the real point. Similar earnestness will give you similar difficulties with other titles too, e.g., the inspired "Untilted," and "Indelible, Inedible." A friend of mine recently said "old tomato" and I heard "ultimatum." Out of such chance collisions and freak likenesses Ashbery derives a poetry of brilliant surfaces, where the verbal gestures -- narrative, assertion, lament, conjuration -- are often poses for stylistic fun rather than purposive parts of some coherent whole.
How, given this fact, does Ashbery's poetry manage to sem so profound and meaningful? The answer lies in his canny manipulation of our incessant, helpless, pursuit of meaning. Even when we know that Corky is not a character and that his car keys are only a strange rhyme, we can't help imagining both. When the poet says, in "Another Chain Letter," "It was a conspiracy/ Of right-handed notions," he knows we can be counted on to supply the sense in which "notions" might be "right-handed" and capable of "conspiracy." Across the page, in "The Ivory Tower," we may labor awhile, with dutiful concentration, to make good sense of "Those thirsting ears,/ Climbers on what rickety hieghts have swept you/ All alone into their confession . . ." -- until we realize that the metaphor is hopelessly mixed and stop to acknowledge with a grin that the poet has once more tricked us into the generation of meaning, an earnest belief in ears that climb and sweep and confess.
This kind of thing can only work if meaning comes and goes, of course, and in the best poems of Shadow Train that is precisely the case. Take the third poem, "Paradoxes and Oxymorons": This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level. Look at it talking to you. You look out a window Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don't have it. You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other. The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot. What's a plain level? It is that and other things, Bringing a system of them into play. Play? Well, actually; yes, but I consider play to be A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern, As in the division of grace these long August days Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters. It has ben played once more. I think you exist only To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren't there Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem Has set me down softly beside you. The poem is you. Copyright 1980, 1981 by John Ashbery, used by permission of Viking Penguin The poem's self-absorption is its first joke. If poems can undertake any subject at all, they can presumably be about themselves, but the effect is dizzying to our normal sense of language and poetry. In the second stanza, the poem begins to interview itself. As two voices emerge we wonder whether one is our own and one the poet's, or both are the poet's, and so forth. But both are of course the poem's and quite possibly nothing else. The "artist" voice that seems capable of explaining its own purposes to the puzzled "interviewer" voice makes wonderful near-sense in its definition of serious play, but the definition will not bear close scrutiny; try paraphrasing it! Nor will the question of which voices, and how many, occupy the final stanza, in which the poem's initial difficulties -- its wanting to be yours, its missing you -- seem to be magically resolved: "The poem is you." That statement means just about everything and at the same time next to nothing.
To some, this playing at pseudo-poetry, antipoems, will come as a disappointment, and they will presumably seek consolation among more serious and "responsible" poets. Certainly there are emotional and musical limitations to what Ashbery is doing, but I wish to applaud his air of quiet enchantment and wide-eyed fun. I find pleasure in his felicitous metaphors ("The surprise box lunch of the rest of his life") and his evocations of mood ("O a lot/ Blooms, gets squashed on the tongue:/ Where are you going? Who do you think you are?/ Crushed leaves, berries, the stars/ Continually falling, straking the sky") that melt away before we quite grasp them. Constant speculation will keep us upright in Ashbery's world, and certainty will send us sprawling. Laughter and melancholy give the air its bracing tingle. If you take Shadow Train in the proper spirit, you can strap on your skates, put your hands behind you, let your scarf float out in the breeze, and give yourself up to some real enjoyment.