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“Ashes”: The Endurance of John Ashbery May 5, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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[This piece is raw around the edges. It lacks tautness and forward movement. Revisions are necessary. I post it, as I am trying to keep to a schedule. The entry will expand and morph over the next few days. Not that anyone but I will mind.]

John Ashbery

"Ashes" at 35, in 1962

John Ashbery had the worst nickname ever:

Down the dark stairs drifts the streaming cha-
cha-cha- Through the urine and smoke we charge
to the floor. Wrapped in Ashes’ arms I glide

— Frank O’Hara, “At the Old Place”

It’s rather ironic, given that Ashes has outlasted not just O’Hara but every original member of the gang of poets typically referred to as the New York School. Frank, Jimmy, Kenny, and Barb have all kicked the bucket: O’Hara, in 1966; James Schuyler, in 1991; Kenneth Koch (pronounced “COKE”), in 2002; and Barbara Guest in 2006.

But at the soon-to-be age of 82, Ashbery still endures in mind, legacy, and body. He has graced Boston with his presence at least twice this school year. I saw him last October give a reading at M.I.T., the occasion being the publication of his Collected Poems 1957-1986. And this past Saturday, Ashbery returned to his alma mater to accept the 2009 Harvard Arts Medal at the annual ARTS FIRST Festival.

In the small world of poetry, Ashbery is one of the true few celebrities. Since the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the mild-mannered Ashbery has gathered all the awards and honors possible for a poet, which makes it all the more difficult to fathom the fact that he was ever considered to be a fringe poet. How then did Ashbery become the gentle giant he is today?

Ashbery first attracted public notice when he edged out Frank O’Hara for the 1956 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. The prize was the publication of his manuscript, Some Trees. A senior thesis on W.H. Auden may have worked to Ashbery’s advantage, as Auden happened to be in charge of selecting the winners.

If Some Trees is a response to Auden, it shows in Ashbery’s expansive repertoire of forms, his informal diction and syntax, his neoclassical sensibility. The volume, full of twists on the classics, indicates a promising student: two sonnets, one of which is upside down (diligent); three sestinas (show-off), and an obscure form called a pantoum (overachiever). Then again, there’s not a single rhyming poem in Some Trees.

Yet while Some Trees may sound like a riff on his Ashbery’s thesis, it announces a clear break with the past. I don’t know whether Some Trees includes or excludes all the poems in the original manuscript, but I like to think that Auden (or maybe, T.S. Eliot) was the intended target of the prose poem “And You Know,” in which the teacher’s pet leaves the “fond schoolmaster” in the dust. The poem certainly shows a sassier side to the young Ashbery:

We fly to the nearest star, whether it be red like a furnace, or yellow,
And we carry your lessons in our hearts…
Out of the humid classroom, into the forever. Goodbye, Old Dog Tray.

“Old Dog Tray”! Snap!

As much as Ashbery’s submission impressed Auden, the latter did have some reservations about the Surrealist tendencies in Ashbery’s work. Surrealism only ends in fatigue, wrote Auden in his rejection letter to O’Hara, with the clear intention that the latter would pass on the message to his best friend.

Of course, prohibition only spurs further the creative spirit, and this interest in Surrealism is something Ashbery (not to mention O’Hara) would continue to explore in his next milestone, The Tennis Court Oath (1962). This is this volume that identified Ashbery with the avant-garde. It is the least comprehensible and the least representative of Ashbery’s career, which to me, makes it the most interesting. (Harold Bloom hated it; the Language Poets, on the other hand, ate it up.) But The Tennis Court Oath was some six years in the making, it’s development largely slowed down by McCarthyism, which Ashbery decided to wait out in Paris.

Like Robert Duncan before him, Ashbery escaped the draft for Korea by going on record as a ‘homosexual.’ He then left for Paris, that old hangout for the avant-garde, and the originary scene of Surrealism. The work of Raymond Roussel struck a chord, and with Harry Mathews and Kenneth Koch, Ashbery founded the short-lived little magazine Locus Solus (after Roussel’s novel). Between 1960 to 1965, Locus Solus became, like Big Table in Chicago and Yugen in New York, one of the most important “littler magazines” for enterprising young poets to publish avant-garde poetry. And by littler magazine, I mean smaller circulation than Poetry and Partisan Review. It’s in Locus Solus that Ashbery will test drive the ludic principles of Surrealism that inform much of The Oath.

Much of The Oath consists of Surrealist antics: automatic writing, movement by association, punnery, scrambled syntax, incorporation of found texts, randomizing operations, and all the other tricks that make poetry less user-friendly. This, for example, is what “America” looks like:

Rebuked to me I
—in the apartment
the pebble we in the bed.
The roof—
rain—  pills—
Found among the moss
Hers wouldn’t longer care—I don’t know why.

[to be continued…..]

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