Monday, January 07, 2008

Evaluating John Ashbery

In the course of reviewing a John Ashbery collection, I began asking myself what the difference might be between a good John Ashbery poem and a bad one? Many critics seem reluctant to evaluate individual poems. Some even appear to take the view that the poems should not be read in a critical way, but should simply be ‘experienced’.

I’ve finished writing my review. I’ll read it over one last time just to touch up any rough spots. But I’m still pondering the question of evaluation. The Ashbery poems I like best tend:

1. to make some kind of sense, even if that sense is clouded in fuzziness, ambiguity and numerous tangents (I expect those qualities in every Ashbery poem)
2. to have a number of great lines, a sense of humour, surprising images, and intriguing ideas – not necessarily all of those, but some need to be present.
3. to make me feel that there is a reason for them being written other than simply to confuse or provoke.

Here are three Ashbery poems.

The New Higher

Meaningful Love

Local Legend

The first isn’t up to much, I’d say. I reckon it’s got to be a joke. Those ridiculous –are/er internal rhymes on innocuous words are surely parodying what he sees in much contemporary poetry. There’s an intriguing relationship hinted at, a few references to death. Having said that, there aren’t enough good lines in it to make me want take time with it.

The second poem is better. It has three fantastic phrases:

In the medium-size city of my awareness
voles are building colossi.


bought a ticket to the funhouse,
found myself back here at six o'clock,
pondering "possible side effects.”


Leaves around the door are penciled losses.

The poem moves around images of ennui, of fear, reticence, and mortality, some images stronger than others. The bit about loving servants or bosses in the final stanza doesn’t ring authentic to me. It seems more like an attempt to be clever and unusual than anything else, but without much point.

The third poem is lighter, funnier, with Ashbery’s trademark switches in register much in evidence. It all makes for good humour. The off-hand aside:

…Which reminds me, have you chosen your second?

made me laugh, the ridiculous conversation in the orchard with which the poem closes, and the quaint “See you again, old thing,” (who says that these days?) preserve the absurdity. There is, however, a sense of threats not taken seriously lurking in the poem – these elements: the lack of a past, the reassurances that don’t sound very reassuring, are mysterious and disconcerting. It’s OK, not among my favourite Ashbery poems, but not bad.

Or is an attempt to evaluate Ashbery’s individual poems doomed to failure?


C. Carter said...

"John Ashbery’s nonsense is a lot more amusing than most poets’ sense." - William Logan

I think the problem is that there are a number of enjoyable Ashbery poems that are just so odd, it's difficult to present them as examples because the reviewer has to then spend time defending that poem's eccentricities.

Ashbery is a poet that I enjoy reading in collection as opposed to in single poems anthologized or what have you. I might venture that by and large many poetry critics and readers will agree that they like Ashbery, but they might disagree which of his poems accomplish something, and which are frustrating or too aloof to achieve. So they're left to comment on the whole.

Rob said...

That's an interesting point of view, CC. Thanks.