One of the new fall books is John Ashbery's Wakefulness. There is also a new and very readable book about Ashbery and some of the poets associated with him, like Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch, poets who went from Harvard to Manhattan after World War II and began to write during the bright years of abstract expressionist painting. The book is called The Last Avant-garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, and the author, David Lehman, writes to be understood. It's a lively book about art and poetry at a formative moment in the development of postwar American culture. And it might help those who find Ashbery, often regarded as the most original poet of this half-century, difficult, hard to understand. He can be maddening. The typical sound of his poems is that of a man mumbling to himself, so he disconcerts our idea of music. His expressions -- like "we may never realize about our lives" -- sometimes have the vagueness of the way we actually speak to ourselves, and the poems seem not so much to develop an idea as to veer all over the place the way our untended thought processes do. This is his style, and it takes some getting used to. The stance is of someone who never quite gets used to anything in the way that part of all of us never does. He seems strange, and it's only after a while that you sense his aim, to be profoundly ordinary, which is opposite from the aim of most poets. That is his strangeness. Well, not all of his strangeness. Like Wallace Stevens, whom he resembles in certain ways, a poet of the mind's unhinged dailiness, a philosophical comedian, he is also a contriver of metaphors you can't quite get your head around. In this poem, for example, what does he mean by "the friend who came at midnight and wanted to replace us with a song"? Ashbery has many imitators among the young. Every time I print one of their poems, I get a number of outraged letters from my always interesting readers that say in effect, "You think that's poetry? No wonder no one reads it." My response, I guess, is always something like this: You do not have to like it. That's why at any one moment there are different kinds of art. But if you are going to read a writer or look at a painter, what you owe them is looking long enough to see what they're doing. And, especially if at first you don't like what they're doing, the moment when you actually get it -- which always comes as an intuition, a slipping into the other's skin, rather than as a clear thought -- you've learned something. Try this one. I think it's a rather amazing poem. It begins where Ashbery often begins. Mumbling to himself, thinking against the grain. A valedictory speaker seems to be droning on. The restless auditor is starting to have fantasies of the pointlessness of life, of how it ends in some surreal and stupid way. The vague form this thought takes is of "a man with a dog" who "comes to shoot us." The listener, though, discovers he has his own set of formulas: "everything has its own reward," for example, which he records with a not entirely, or not only, self-mocking irony. Then we come to the friend. But I don't want to explain the poem to death. That's what the "valedictorian" in all of us wants to do:

THE FRIEND AT MIDNIGHT Keeping in mind that all things break, the valedictorian urged his future plans on us: Don't give up. It's too soon, Things break. Yes, they fail or they are anchored up ahead, but no one can see that far. As he was speaking, the sun set. The grove grew silent. There are more of us taking ourselves seriously now than ever, one thought. We may never realize about our lives till it's too late, and a man with a dog comes to shoot us. I like to think though that everything has its own reward, that liars such as we are made to last forever, and each morning has a special chime of its own. Thus we are pitted against the friend who came at midnight and wanted to replace us with a song. We resisted furiously: There was too much food on his table, the night was too black, while all around us shrinking bands of outsiders entered into negotiations with the darkness. It seems to omit us, his reasoning, or in the well of time we may be overdrawn, and cosmetics come to put a good face on us, asking, why this magic wind, so many angles against the river's prism and the burnt blue sky? To which one answers, nothing is adrift for long. Perhaps we will be overtaken even in our happiness, and waves of passion drown us. Now, wasn't that easy? A moment's breath and everyone has gone outside to ponder the matter further. Outside, children toboggan endlessly. ("The Friend at Midnight" from Wakefulness by John Ashbery. Copyright 1998 by John Ashbery. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.)