John Ashbery, the poet who won almost every literary award you could possibly imagine while also being the most fun to read, died today at home in Hudson, New York. According to The Guardian, his husband, David Kermani, says he passed of natural causes.
In a class at the University of Washington, I remember hearing a professor describe Ashbery's contribution to the history of poetry in a way that I thought was true and useful.
Before Modernism, the professor said, poets writing in English focused their attention on music and meter. During that considerable length of time the metrical foot was the primary building block of poetry. Then Ezra Pound came along, knocked the metrical foot off its throne, and installed the image as the main object of the poet's concern. Then Ashbery came along and replaced the image with the sentence. The sentence has been king ever since.
There were many Ashberys during his long and laureled career. Some of his poems read to me like Mad Libs, or felt so tossed-off, so liberated from the pressure of Saying the Important Thing that I thought he was just kinda phoning it in and messing with everybody. But I only felt that way when I was forgetting the great pleasure of poetry, which is to just read along and enjoy yourself until something really jumps out and pokes your heart in the eye.
Ashbery seemed to know that the project of finding Truth and Meaning in poems was fraught with peril, especially when all that stuff is offered up in a vessel as leaky as the English language. So rather than adopting the oracular pose of a mystic seer, or the Senatorial pose of a wisdom-giver, Ashbery adopted the pose of a really smart friend who enjoyed casually talking with you about the epistemological mysteries that have baffled humankind for centuries. He articulates this pose in one of my favorite poem of his, "A Wave:"
One idea is enough to organize a life and project it
Into unusual but viable forms, but many ideas merely
Lead one thither into a morass of their own good intentions.
Think how many the average person has during the course of a day, or night,
So that they become a luminous backdrop to ever-repeated
Gestures, having no life of their own, but only echoing
The suspicions of their possessor. It's fun to scratch around
And maybe come up with something. But for the tender blur
Of the setting to mean something, words must be ejected bodily,
A certain crispness be avoided in favor of a density
Of strutted opinion doomed to wilt in oblivion: not too linear
Nor yet too puffed and remote.
This brief passage showcases almost everything I love about Ashbery. Here we have high-minded philosophical ideas delivered with a side of fries, sentences that brim with the sound of sense but that still resist the intelligence almost successfully, and, as he put it, "a density / of strutted opinion doomed to wilt in oblivion. Not too linear / nor yet too puffed and remote."
If you've never read a single line of Ashbery, check out April Galleons and A Wave. I guess I like the aquatic Ashbery best. Brainiacs and philosophers should read Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror or Flow Chart.
And everyone should read this poem from his friend, Frank O'Hara:
Rest in petals, Ashes!
"What more is there to do, except stay? And that we cannot do." John Ashbery, 1927-2017.
— Joshua Clov3r (@bookofriot) September 3, 2017