The poet John Ashbery is considered impenetrable by many. Yet if the first poem a reader encounters is The Instruction Manual, that’s hard to understand. The poem begins
As I sit looking out of a window of the buildingWho among us has not had a wish like this?
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses
of a new metal.
And, as my way is, I begin to dream, resting my elbows on the deskIn The Instruction Manual, Ashbery offers us a means of escape when trapped in a boring task:
and leaning out of the window a little,
Of dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers!
There is the rich quarter, with its houses of pink and white, and itsNot a moment in this poem is inaccessible; the whole of it speaks to us all.
crumbling, leafy terraces.
There is the poorer quarter, its homes a deep blue.
There is the market, where men are selling hats and swatting flies
And there is the public library, painted several shades of pale green and
I’d known Ashbery’s name for many years, but hadn’t paid any attention to his work. Recently, Mark Kerstetter, at The Bricoleur, changed all that. His passionate engagement and eloquence in writing about Ashbery had me racing to a bookstore (where, sad to say, the pickings were slim). Ultimately, I ordered a copy of the Selected Poems, where I fell upon The Instruction Manual and was, I thought, off to a promising start.
I quickly got stuck. To unstick myself, I resorted, as I often do, to reading about Ashbery’s poems, rather than reading the poems themselves. I accumulated an extensive list of articles, but I wasn't getting any closer to the poems. I knew I had to buckle down, but I kept evading it.
Instead, I kept returning to Ashbery's preface to his translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations, where he wrote, on the subject of modernity:
In the twentieth century, the coexisting, conflicting views of objects that the Cubist painters cultivated, the equalizing deployment of all notes of the scale in serial music, and the unhierarchical progressions of bodies in motion in the ballets of Merce Cunningham are three examples among many of this fertile destabilization.I kept fretting about Ashbery’s inclusion of serial music in his choice of examples. You see, I’m inclined to agree with Richard Taruskin that promoting the twelve-tone method “into a primary musical value . . . led modern music into [a] cul-de-sac.” I thought of Ashbery’s artistic colleague, the composer Ned Rorem, who wrote gorgeously lyrical art songs and “seeth[ed] with resentment against an academic establishment, then dominated by twelve-tone composers, that despised him.” Ashbery certainly didn’t take the same path as Rorem, and I worried that he'd entered what, for me, was a poetic cul-de-sac.
What saved me was a review in the New York Times about two exhibits related to Gertrude Stein. In the review, Holland Cotter wrote that Stein’s The Making of Americans “has a reputation for being unreadable, which it isn’t, though its difficulties have to be experienced to be believed, and its greatness has to be believed in for reading to continue.” This reminded me of something Kerstetter had written about Ashbery: “If these lines appear completely random and worthless to you I suggest you put a lid on it and let it simmer awhile, your reading’s not done yet.”
But did I believe in Ashbery’s greatness enough “for reading to continue”? I wasn’t sure, but I believed in Kerstetter’s passion, and I wanted very much to see at least a glimmer of what he saw. And, aside from his command that I “put a lid on it and let it simmer awhile,” Kerstetter wrote something else that particularly got to me:
For Ashbery, the pleasure of the music is his guide. For some this is all too abstract; they insist that all their words be attached to meanings that make perfect sense to them. But can’t language be beautiful the way music is beautiful?This I absolutely understood. The music of poetry has often reached me well before its meaning. How else did I love Wallace Stevens all these years, sometimes without the slightest idea what he was on about?
She was the single artificer of the worldI’d never needed to know what Stevens meant by this. The language sang to me, and that was enough. Or this, from T. S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton:
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
Words move, music movesI don’t need to know what any of it means to love the language. I can, truly, be content to listen.
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
As Kerstetter commanded me to do, I let it simmer awhile, then went back to reading Ashbery’s poems. I found music—not everywhere, but often. I was surprised to find I often preferred Ashbery’s longer poems, like The Skaters, which allowed me to ride waves of language on odd, discursive voyages:
It is the beginning of March, a few
Russet and yellow wallflowers are blooming in the border
Protected by moss-grown, fragmentary masonry.
One morning you appear at breakfastI didn’t know where Ashbery was headed, but I was ready to follow him, to where
Dressed, as for a journey, in your worst suit of clothes.
And over a pot of coffee, or, more accurately, rusted water
Announce your intention of leaving me alone in this cistern-like house.
In your own best interests I shall decide not to believe you.
Trout are circling under water—
Masters of eloquenceIn the end, Ashbery, in And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name, gives us all the guidance we need to know how to read him. To my mind, he articulates the poet’s dilemma as well as anyone ever has.
Glisten on the pages of your book
Like mountains veiled by water or the sky.
. . . She approached me
About buying her desk. Suddenly the street was
Bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments.
Humdrum testaments were scattered around. His head
Locked into mine. We were a seesaw. Something
Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone.
Credits not identified in the text: Richard Taruskin, The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, The Poietic Fallacy, p. 311, and The Musical Mystique, p. 334. Holland Cotter, Modern Is Modern Is . . ., New York Times, June 2, 2011. Mark Kerstetter, The Bee’s Knees, Hybrid Locations, February 8, 2010, and The Bricoleur, This is Not a Review of John Ashbery’s Planisphere, December 15, 2009. Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West. The collage at the head of the post is by the author of the post.