Who was a bigger drinker, Ashbery or Poe?
Is Ashbery deep?
No. Dense, maybe, not deep.
By dense, do you mean difficult?
No. ‘Difficult’ implies a problem to be solved. Language allows you to load up a twenty pound vehicle with two tons of stuff. Language allows one to be problem-free. It’s magical, really. Ashbery takes a traditional poem and loads it up with excess prose. It’s playing with the magic of language, without having anything to say, or being too smart, or worldly, or sly, to have anything to say. It’s analogous to a businessman who plays with money and has no morals. That’s why Ashbery is dense, but not difficult. The wealthy businessman has no problems, no difficulties—he isn’t looking to solve a problem, just push money around. Perhaps he gambles with his investments, but that’s not ‘problem-solving,’ per se. That’s just playing with money. Maybe he could lose his shirt. But what he does is not solving a problem. But the world is full of gambling businessmen, and the world needs capital. Does poetry needs an Ashbery? Readers don’t need an Ashbery, but if poetry, as a metaphorical device, didn’t have an Ashbery, it would invent one.
You’ve said early Auden sometimes sounds exactly like Ashbery.
Yes, there’s a few poems Auden wrote as a young man which sound like ‘the Ashbery poem,’ the poem we read over and over with Ashbery’s name under it in the New Yorker, next to those wealthy ads, year after year. It’s the poem that fakes curiosity and interest and then disappears into the smooth lake, a glass surface left in its wake, and if you as the reader complain, if you get the least bit ruffled, you lose, and the poem wins. We see what a working-class cad you really are. The poem, by its mere being, has found you out. Similarly, if you ask what an abstract painting means, you are found out as a clod. It works the same way. Yea, so early Auden is like Ashbery, but then Auden had ideas, and was far more forthcoming with all sorts of opinions than Ashbery, and pretty quickly then, in the 30s, Auden’s poems, and of course his ballads, had lots of content. If Auden had remained with nothing to say, he would have become the first Ashbery. But Auden ended up choosing the first Ashbery.
Auden anointed Ashbery with his Yale Younger ‘bring me that fellow’s manuscript who didn’t enter the contest, will you?’ choice.
Yea, and O’Hara was runner-up. Auden knew Ashbery and O’Hara were cartoons of himself; both poets were larks, clever, but they weren’t serious poets, he knew that. But Auden had started out just like them, and Auden had famously said a poet who likes to play with words will be better than someone who merely has ‘things to say,’ and this trope: ‘poetry is how you say it, not what you say,’ is the most important linguistic, artistic, philosophical, political, rhetorical trope of the modern era. If matter is nothing but negative and positive charges, if communication is nothing but code, if political leaders triumph with style alone, if the secret agent is the true hero of his country and the double agent the true hero of the world, if William James and Wittgenstein were right, if the Language Poets are right, if secret handshakes mean much more than open ones on the count of secrecy alone, if foetry, not poetry is the rule, than certainly how something is said is more important than what is said.
But doesn’t this mean that aesthetics is more important than power?
Power is a given. Power cannot be beautiful, for the two are distinct. Beautiful art inspires, it empowers the audience, makes society more beautiful by making its art more beautiful, and there’s always room for more beauty, that problem of putting more beauty in the world, and making citizens more beautiful persons will never go away; the poem of power works quite differently; it takes away the free will of true response and makes the reader non-critical and acquiescent, which is not the same thing as being inspired by beauty, even in a passive way, because the critical response is always inspired when beauty is involved, since we judge beauty and power judges us. Before the abstract painting, or the Ashbery poem, one must rejoice in its lack of beauty and perspective and harmony or be ‘found out’ as a cad. Modern art works like the secret police. It finds you out as a worshiper of beauty or not, and knows you, thusly. This is power, because the art does not know anything itself, but it finds out what you know, how you feel, how you think, and thus who you are, in a purely binary way: are you one of us, or not? In terms of power, in terms of political intelligence, in terms of political organizing, modern art is very, very important in how the world is run, in how the world is classified. Modern art is code. Aesthetics has nothing to do with it.
But isn’t ‘how you say it” aesthetics, by its definition? Poets who write with meter and rhyme, for instance, surely are more concerned with how they say it than with what they say. But the formalist poet is the very opposite of Ashbery.
The formalist poet who only cares about sounds—of which early Auden was an excellent example—is like the Abstract painter who only cares about color. Aesthetics boiled down is abstraction. The key to poetry isn’t code or abstraction or only ‘how it is said,’ or only ‘what is said,’ but a harmonious combination of all elements. Power breaks down those elements. Art and all the virtues are reduced to code where people can say, ‘we have to keep the riff-raff out,’ which is a residue of virtue, since keeping out what is bad is the residue of good, but now it’s coded and we all know what it really means, and the code can be thinned out until only the important people know what it means.
You see poetry as something that ought to match a good society. But what if poetry isn’t supposed to do that? What if poetry’s function is to go its own way and if it’s good for society, fine, and if not, well, it’s more important for art to be free to pursue its own path than having to fit into, or contribute to, a virtuous society?
I guess it does sound like I’m making a heavy-handed assertion, one that goes back to Socrates and follows a moral tradition, because it certainly appears that I’m saying that we can only read Ashbery through the lens of a harmonious, or potentially harmonious, society. But isn’t that what we’re all saying? Except that some defer the issue to a greater extent than others? Those who say ‘art must be free’ do not say this because they think it’s a bad idea; they think it’s a good idea—and ‘good idea’ means here what’s ‘good’ for society. Even the person who says there should be no society is making an assertion based on the worth of a society. So all opinions on the value of anything, really, are backed up by the implicit understanding we’re talking about ‘the good’ in the Socratic, ‘Plato’s Republic,’ sense. Those who would make a fetish of art would deny this bit of common sense: society or ‘the good’ have nothing to do with it, and will never have anything to do with it, they say. The New Critics will claim it only matters if the poem ‘works’ as a poem, and the Ashbery school will essentially say it only matters if it ‘doesn’t work’ as a poem, which is the logical next step, but the phrase “as a poem” can’t possibly have any meaning separate from society, since “as a poem” is a term that implies distinction between ‘poem’ and other things, and, in addition, the “as a” part of the phrase implies the person who intellectualizes that distinction, and once you posit an intellectual person, society quickly follows.
Do you think poetry can be a window into scientific experiments, so in that way it is free of what you are talking about?
I can’t think of any poetry that can be classified that way. Is there an obscure poem somewhere, beloved of scientists, and no one else? I can’t think of such a poem, unless perhaps the essay “Eureka,” which Poe called “a poem.” But this was not the bogus science of a Charles Olson. Poe can be forgiven for his misnomer, only because his science was real; it concerned the stars, the planets, the nebulae, gravity, light, and the miraculous physics of the heavens.