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General Commentary on John Ashbery

David Perkins (1987):
On Ashbery’s Predecessors: Stevens, Eliot and Pound

Ashbery’s subject matter is similar to that of his favorite poet, Wallace Stevens. Both poets write of the mind forming hypotheses about reality in general, about the ultimate truth or nature of things. Stevens, as I said earlier, took for granted that we cannot know reality in itself. Whether we conceive of it as a colorless, featureless continuum, like gray haze on a winter afternoon, or as a "jostling festival" of concrete, particular identities, like a morning in June full of birdsong, we are in either case forming an imagination of reality. …

[Ashbery] dwells on the impossibility of credibly imagining any reality. Putting it another way, we might say that for both Stevens and Ashbery the imagination creates, destroys and immediately creates another vision of reality, but that in Ashbery the process is enormously speeded up. His envisionings of reality are not merely provisional; they transform themselves and disappear in the very process of being proposed, leaving, as he puts it, "Nothing but a bitter impression of absence." …

… In interviews Ashbery denies that he parodies, and if by the term we mean the echoing of a voice for the sake of ridiculing it, we may concede that his phrasing is seldom merely parodic. Like Eliot in The Waste Land and Pound in the Cantos he adopts or alludes to a style in order to invoke the tone of feeling associated with it, and in comparison with Eliot and Pound, he is less likely to bring to bear literary styles of the past, though he draws on these also. But more frequently he exhibits the modern colloquial voices of different types of people and the styles of contemporary journalism, advertising, bureaucracy, business memos, scientific reports, newspapers, psychology textbooks, and the like. Since these styles are relatively graceless and inactive, we sense a certain irony as we encounter them in one of Ashbery’s poems. The irony intensifies when the text shifts quickly from one style to another, exhibiting each in contrast while committing itself to none.

A similar irony is present in Ashbery’s deliberate use of stock ideas and phrases. This pervasive technique conveys, among other things, his fear that in all our thought and speech we are helplessly trapped in the ready-made. Our minds cannot get beyond the systems of convention that fill them, and these codes divorce us from reality. Hence every utterance must be spoken with recognition and apology that the words and concepts are to some degree cliches, and this is what we find in Ashbery’s texts. But the degree of irony varies enormously. …

…Through all his volumes Ashbery elaborates the same fundamental insights. That his subject, moreover, is not doings in the world but in the mind means that his poetry, like that of Stevens, largely forgoes the interest that attaches to human character and fate. He grips us by the profundity of his premises and by the brio of his expression, but when his skill as a stylist fails, he is boring. But when Ashbery writes well, no living poet in English can rival him in fresh, apt, surprising phrases. His attitudes and emotions are indescribably gallant as he mingles humor with pathos, resignation and elegy with hope, and maintains his relaxed, equable, fluent, wonderfully imaginative speech despite premises that might have led to despair..

from David Perkins, "Meditations of the Solitary Mind: John Ashbery and A R. Ammons" (Chapter 26) in A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1987), 619-620, 623-624, 632.

John Ashbery (1977):
On the Value of Criticism; on Good Working Conditions for Poetry

Gangel: How do you feel about formal criticism of your work?

Ashbery: Criticism, in general, has less and less to do with my work. I’m sometimes kind of jealous of my work. It keeps getting all the attention and I’m not. After all, I wrote it.

I really don’t know what to think when I read criticism, either favorable or unfavorable. In most cases, even when its sympathetic and understanding, it’s a sort of parallel adventure to the poetry. It never gives me the feeling that I’ll know how to do it the next time I sit down to write, which is my principal concern.

I’m not putting down critics, but they don’t help the poetry to get its work done. I don’t have much use for criticism, in general, even though it’s turned out I’ve written a lot, mostly art criticism.

Very few people have ever written a serious mixed critique of my poetry. It’s either dismissed as nonsense or held up as a work of genius. Few critics have ever accepted it on its own terms and pointed out how I’ve succeeded at certain moments and failed at other moments at what I was setting out to do.

I will quote one of my favorite lines from Nijinsky’s journal: "Criticism is death." He doesn’t elaborate on that statement at all.

Gangel: You mentioned before you get inspiration from conversations overheard in the streets. Where else?

Ashbery: I’m very much of a magpie as far as reading goes. I read anything which comes to my hand. National Enquirer, Dear Abby, a magazine at the dentist, a Victorian novel. I don’t have a program in anything, as a matter of fact.

Someone remarked about an obscene passage in a poem. I replied that this shocked him not because it was there, but because there were not more of them.

There is an American feeling that if you do one thing, you’ve got to do that and nothing else. It goes against my grain.

Poetry includes anything and everything.

Gangel: Do you find it easy to relate to people?

Ashbery: Yes I do. I am a very gregarious person. This often surprises people, because my poetry does have a reputation for being aloof and antihuman. But I’m quite the reverse. I enjoy talking with just about anybody. My students, for instance. We get along very well socially. I don’t believe in closing myself off from anybody or anything.

My best writing gets done when I’m being distracted by people who are calling me or errands that I have to do. Those things seem to help the creative process, in my case.

From Sue Gangel, "An Interview with John Ashbery" (originally printed in the San Francisco Review of Books [November 1977], rep. in Joe David Bellamy, Ed. American Poetry Observed: Poets On Their Work (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1984), 14.

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