SELECTED POEMS. By John Ashbery. Elizabeth Sifton/Viking. 349 pp. $22.95.
IN HIS INTRODUCTION to E.A. Robinson's posthumously published King Jasper, Robert Frost (in 1935) made a list of some of the ways recent poetry had tried to be new, those ways largely ones of subtraction and elimination. Among the things Frost said poetry had tried to get along without were punctuation, capital letters, metric frame, dramatic tones of voice, content, phrase, epigram, coherence, logic, consistency, and -- he added -- it had also been tried without ability. Fifty years after Frost's remarks we have the interesting phenomenon of John Ashbery, as highly regarded a poet as any in this country (his prizes and fellowships are many), who has now brought out a large selection from his work of the past 30 years, stretching from Some Trees -- the Yale Younger Poet's volume for 1956 -- to A Wave, published just last year.
Ashbery's is an interesting case because while a bona fide avant- gardist (his affiliations with modern painting are well known and he is routinely compared with Pollock and de Kooning, to say nothing of Webern or John Cage) his poetry would appear to elude Frost's charge that "new ways to be new" proceed by subtraction from and elimination of the traditional qualities of verse in English. For Ashbery's work is expansive and leisurely in its rhythms, and hospitable, even promiscuous in its entertaining of many levels both of diction and of subject matter. So "Bird's-Eye View of the Tool and Die Co.," whose title immediately causes a readerly twitch of disbelief, begins by rewriting Proust, then serves up some less than astonishing facts:
For a long time I used to get up early.
20-30 vision, hemorrhoids intact, he checks into the
Enclosure of time familiarizing dreams
For better or worse . . . Then as the poem goes on to accommodate words like "meditated," "improvisation," "chorales," and "stricture," we discover that in fact there is really no "I" nor "he" whom we can take seriously or trust (the way we "trust" and "take seriously" the speaker in a poem by Keats or Tennyson or Yeats or Sylvia Plath) anymore than we can trust those hemorrhoids or take seriously the Tool and Die Co. of the poem's title. Someone is playing a game.
These selected poems (about 140 of them) play various games, individually and collectively, as they aspire to leaving nothing out, to saying more rather than less, to inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness in their procedures. Yet the 340-odd pages contain scarcely a single characterizable dramatic speaker, who is located here rather than there and whose individual accent and tone of voice may be distinguished from other accents and tones of other speakers in the volume. To be sure, Ashbery is sometimes a little jokey and earthy, at other times a little dreamy and elevated. Consider a few bits from the poems: "In the evening/ Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is" ("Two Scenes"); "Worms be your words, you are not safe from ours" ("Sonnet"); "The first year was like icing/ Then the cake started to show through" ("More Pleasant Adventures"); "What are your hobbies, girls? Aw nerts,/ One of them might say, this guy's too much for me" ("Mixed Feelings"); "No one really knows/ Or cares whether this is the whole of which parts/ Were vouchsafed -- once -- but to be ambling on's/ The tradition more than the safekeeping of it" ("Daffy Duck in Hollywood"). Mr. Ashbery himself is always ambling on, and though he assures us that "Everything has a schedule," canny readers soon learn that they will never find out what that schedule is. In one of his most teasing and returnable-to poems, "Worsening Situation," the anonymous speaker concludes his lament by confiding to us that
I've been looking at old-fashioned plaids, fingering
Starched white collars, wondering whether there's a
To get them really white again. My wife
Thinks I'm in Oslo -- Oslo, France, that is. This poem is fun to discuss with students in poetry classes who furrow their brows and vainly try to decode it, until somebody gets the point -- that it's all exactly as real and as potentially charming as Oslo, France. But is it any more than fun, gained by playing itself off against poems by Ashbery's predecessors that are, somehow, for real?
TO MY MIND the large question is, how real is John Ashbery -- how seriously are we to take him? Is he more than a clever, resourceful and indefatigable producer of one elegantly-surfaced poem after another? His admirers claim much more for him -- at least one of them, Harold Bloom, seeing him as the true descendant in the American Romanticist tradition of Emerson, Whitman and Wallace Stevens. Bloom has said of Ashbery that there is no poet in English, past or present, "who insists upon so subtly unemphatic a pervasive tone" -- as if it were a great virtue to be unemphatic. Yet it might be noted that poets in English have usually tried for emphatic tones of one or another sort, have thought that changes of tone carried out through a subtly varying voice were qualities for which to strive. The terrible risk that Ashbery takes is the risk of monotony, a risk compounded in a volume of this length whose peaks and valleys are hardly distinguishable from each other.
The problem of monotony becomes most acute in the book's longer poems -- "Clepsydra," "The Skaters" (excerpted here), "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," and "A Wave." As the voice in "Self-Portrait . . . " explains:
The surface is what's there
And nothing can exist except what's there.
There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves,
And the window doesn't matter much, or that
Sliver of window or mirror on the right . . . Still one can get quite lost and grow restless on the surface, even though assured there's nothing beyond or behind it. Such is my experience with Ashbery's work generally, but especially in the longer poems. As for the poems-in-prose, one blinks as the ineluctable sentences from "The System" (Three Poems) slide by: "Things had endured this way for some time, so that it began to seem as though some permanent way of life had installed itself, a stability immune to the fluctuations of other eras: the pendulum that throughout eternity has swung successively toward joy and grief had been stilled by a magic hand." And one thinks of Randall Jarrell's response when Robert Lowell showed him the prose composition, "91 Revere St." which was to be part of his book of poems, Life Studies: "But it's not poetry, Cal."
In saying these things one remembers the old cartoon about the puzzled woman confronted by the abstract painting and asking her son what it's about: "It's not about anything, Mother," is the son's chilly response. To complain about Ashbery's lack of reference -- or to allow that he refers to everything, and that's the trouble -- may be to give comfort to the enemies of poetry, at least to enemies of the New. The question must also be asked whether Ashbery could have produced so much in such a seemingly effortless manner if he worked in rhyme and traditional stanza, let alone if he attempted to make discursive sense. (Rhyme is rare in his poems, and when the occasional sestina appears -- as in the amusing "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" -- it is pleasing, though the sestina provides an ideal form in which to make nonsense.) But Ashbery will not abide such questions, surely not answer them. The only "answe" he provides may be taken from some lines in his "Grand Galop":
And now it is time to wait again.
Only waiting, the waiting: what fills up the time between?
It is another kind of wait, waiting for the wait to be
In the meantime there is another poem to write.