Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ashbery: demotic grace

It is surprisingly difficult to find a very good brief summary and introduction to the writing of John Ashbery. Harold Bloom once described a single poem ("The Instruction Manual"--not typical, though) as "a rueful adieu to experience." Perfectly right, I think. But of the whole? Not much in the way of coherent overview, elegant primer. Well, Ann Lauterbach recently introduced Ashbery at a weekend-long celebration of the poet at 80 - at Bard. Here is part of what she said in her brief welcome:

At nearly every page along the way, we have been invited to re-imagine what a poem is, to listen in a new way. This newness shifted the ground on which a poem might be resting. Indeed, the separation of figure from ground in an Ashbery poem is all but dissolved; things seem to happen in a fluid solution, as if always on the way to or from a destination that is itself simultaneously approaching and receding. Observations, revelations, ideas, encounters, and objects course through in such a way as to suggest there is nothing to know outside of the poem. This replete, mutating experience is carried along on the most elastic yet taut syntax; and, because nothing stays in focus for long, the notion of a poem as high-resolution picture, or story, or memo to live by, gives way to the poem as a condition, a habitat, a surround.

Between the high detail of the foreground and the abstract distance of the horizon, the reader is invited in. One can take one’s stuff; it is quite roomy. It is the space, say, of a city square, an open market, a corner bodega, a hotel lobby. Here we greet each other, exchange information and opinion, but because we are on our way elsewhere, a certain civility prevails; we do not intrude, or impose. The diction is one of mild, good-natured inquiry and response; a demotic grace and graciousness prevails, invariably punctuated by mishearings, odd juxtapositions, the marvelous, sometimes sad and often funny enjambments and eruptions of actual life.

The full intro is here on Charles Bernstein's blog.