HELLO TO ASHBERY, THEN

John Ashbery. His fame began with Japan.

Twentieth Century Modernism rebelled against the quaint 19th century anthology—poems on Friendship, Nature, Love, etc.

This rebellion was largely a failure.

A poem on love, for instance, at least forces the poet to be somewhat coherent and philosophical. Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Shelley, Pushkin, Goethe, Whitman, had philosophy.

The Modernists had no philosophy; they were simply against the quaint, fireside anthology (the public) and sank into incoherence.

Williams and Pound’s Imagism was a blatant ripoff of haiku.

“Make It New” was just something they said.

“No ideas but in things” is, unfortunately, something they did.

Show me a “thing” in poetry—the Moderns anti-philosophical position was explicit—and tiresome.

Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton were a far cry from haiku.

Haiku is a philosophical approach, and Criticsm takes philosophical poetry as its starting point, and makes its poetry philosophy. The philosophical turned into poetry—wisdom sweetened, as it were.

Keats has both: wisdom, as well as sweetness, which appeals to the public.

Modernism has no philosophy, and the Program Era, which the Modernists created, makes ‘new writing’ the holy grail.

But ‘new writing’ has no philosophy except ‘don’t sound like Keats.’

What the shallow, theoretical, sensation-cultivating Modernsists did not get: poetry is not an abstraction.

Poetry of the Keats-Shadow is more real than ‘poetry’ of the ‘new writing’ of no philosophy.

The love poem in the old anthology has more.

Modernism went bankrupt in its ‘new writing.’

The Keats professor was replaced by the Creative Writing professor.

The former is disinterested. The latter is not.

It is no accident then, that creative writing professor John Ashbery, (1927–2017) master of the anti-anthology poem, with its educated-sounding, sly, incoherence, is the most critically celebrated poet of the Creative Writing Era.

There isn’t one anthology piece of Ashbery’s poetry you can point out, and that’s the point. You can dip into Ashbery anywhere; Ashbery has no beginning and no end. He is without philosophy, and this is the philosophy. (This makes him critic-proof, which is also sort of the point.) It is pure impressionism. One person gets to do this, and one person, alone. He will be put into anthologies; critics will find him to be philosophical, after all. This is the very definition of the Literary Lion—he didn’t write to fit, but you, his disciples, will make him fit. He didn’t write for a house, but you will give him a house. Just watch: He will be included in all the categories of every quaint anthology (for they do still exist) that comes down the pike: Ashbery on Love, Ashbery on Friendship, Ashbery on Nature. Guaranteed.

I’m not here to impugn Ashbery, or predict his demise. He has escaped oblivion, by reflecting his times.

Entering Harvard in the early 1950s, the gay Ashbery got known by the known. Submitting his manuscript to the Yale Younger Prize contest, the screening committee, who didn’t know who he was, rejected his poems. But W.H. Auden’s lover, Chester Kallman, interceded on Ashbery’s behalf, and judge Auden kick started Ashbery’s career.

More importantly, Ashbery kept on doing, for his whole career, what he knew he had to do—write “So much depends on a red wheel barrow” over and over again—until most of us understand.

The New Criticsm is the critical philosophy which made Ashbery. The New Criticsm says poetry cannot be paraphrased; a poem cannot be about Love or Friendship or Nature.

Shakespeare never wrote about himself—which is why there is controversy on who “Shakespeare” is.

The rather private Auden, in an essay on Shakespeare, envied Shakespeare’s anonymity.

Ashbery never wrote a confessional poem.

We don’t know a thing about Ashbery from his poetry, and this fact gives Ashbery a certain “classical” weight.

Ashbery, for his entire 70-year long career, stuck to New Critical logic—a good poem cannot be paraphrased, so you can’t (even if you wanted to) say explicit things about who you actually are in a poem. So why bother?

Modernism didn’t just happen—it was specifically formulated by a handful of men in the early 20th century.

It was the East defeating the West.

Literally.

World War One was important, but it did not usher in Modernism. Another war did. Japan shocked the world when it defeated Russia in the 1905 War, and haiku (impressionist by principle) became a rage in the West that very year; Pound and Willimas climbed on the trend; the insanity of the Great War finished off the validity of the West in intellectuals’ minds forever, and the seeds of chaotic Modernism were sown.

It took the New Critic John Crowe Ransom to make it all sound rational in the 1930s. In “Poets Without Laurels” (Ransom knew modern poets were intentionally writing to not win laurels) Ransom described Modernism as a division-of-labor practice across the disciplines: Modern aesthetics, Ransom said, ditched the old-fashioned, popular, unity of beauty and morals—and focused its revolution on beauty alone. His example was Stevens’ “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,”—a poem of pure impressionism.

In Ransom’s words, no more lemonade—consisting of lemon (morals) in a rather obvious and appealing mixture with sugar (beauty).

The new analogy in poetry for Ransom: salt; again, a mixture (sodium and chlorine), but one in which the ingredients are lost, or hidden, in the mix.

No more morals, no more beauty, no more obvious (didactic) hybrids.

No more poems about love.

Just—poems.

Ashbery is the natural outcome.

Ashbery is the fulfillment of Modernsim, the persistent manifestation of: Impressionist and Abstract Painting of France (late 19th century), Haiku (1905), Pound’s Imagism (1913), Williams’ Wheel Barrow (1922), Eliot’s Wasteland (1922), Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) Ransom’s essay (1937), Auden anointing Ashbery with the Yale Younger (1956)—a prize awarded earlier to Iowa Creative Writing maven Paul Engle—by a New Critic clique judge.

Ashbery is gone, but he will be coming in a quaint anthology soon, to a bookstore near you.

Look at the table of contents; you’ll find him, and in more than one of those sections titled, Friendship, Nature, Love.

Lemonade, anyone?

 

 

1 Comment

  1. September 27, 2017 at 9:24 pm

    Ghosts

    Michaelangelo asked Da Vinci: who killed painting?
    I think it was Van Gogh or Monet, he said,
    or maybe Rothko and Pollack.
    No, he replied, it was that damned Picasso!

    Mozart asked Beethoven: who killed music?
    I think it was Benny Goodman or Sinatra, he said,
    or maybe Hank Williams and Bob Dylan.
    No, he replied, it was those damned Beatles!

    Petrarch asked Shakespeare: who killed poetry?
    I think it was William Blake or Edgar Allan Poe, he said,
    or maybe Carl Sandburg and E. E. Cummings.
    No, he replied, it was that damned Ashbery!

    Pharaoh asked Caesar: who killed knowledge?
    I think it was Galileo or Newton, he said,
    or maybe Darwin and Pasteur.
    No, he replied, it was that damned Einstein!


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