John Ashbery 1927-2017

Here he is reading for Grey Suit. To find him reading Soonest Mended and other poems, please scroll to 47:31 on Issue 3

Here is my obituary note in the Fortnightly Review.

Here is a link to an interview with J.A.

And here is my essay on the By-ways of John Ashbery

written in 1994

There is also an essay I wrote at the same date on his poetry, that was published in the PN Review, back then, and I will post the link here when I find it. Meanwhile here is the text of that essay:



Part 1: His influence and stature


It is John Ashbery, more than anyone else, who has been responsible for creating that measure of recognition conceded nowadays to abstract poetry.  Abstraction is a questionable term for a form which insists on the reality of its medium; making us aware of the surface we are looking at, or of the actuality of the words in a text, whatever the content signified by it.  In Ashbery’s case, a laconic acceptance of the ordinary may resemble content; but his detached, amusing, sometimes melancholy tone provides the excuse for a poetry which tunes us in to a consideration of syntax and sentence-construction – the feeling of how things hang together, or could or should or might hang together -just as an intriguing piece of music leads us from its beginning to its end.  The gist of a previous passage may slip away as we read further, but again and again we stumble as if by accident on phrases of deep import: they come upon us like sudden raindrops out of a blue sky.


I have heard him referred to as a poet difficult to understand.  However, I have found it easy to appreciate the poems I have got to know. It is hardly a question of comprehension, but simply that the flow of his inspiration is charted by his language – to shape a phrase out of the title of his long poem “Flow-chart”.  Like a landscape, his poetry is to be returned to and dwelt in.  Familiarity in this case breeds respect.


However, there are differences between an American way of going about writing and a way dear to the British, whether we are considering narrative or abstract work.  F.T. Prince has expressed it to me as the difference between poetry and poems.  American modernists often skip our literature and espouse that of Europe.  Unlike us, they appreciate philosophy and hypothetical aesthetics.  A way of writing, based on a novel perception of where literature should be “at” may matter more to them than any specific felicities engendered by that style.  Whitman began this trend with “Leaves of Grass”, and it persists in the work of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson.  British poets and critics, representing a nation of shop-keepers, wish to examine the goods more closely.  They do not buy poetry “in bulk”.  What matters to them is the particularity of the poem itself, rather than the style in which it is written.


Ashbery’s style is so pervasive that it often swamps our appreciation of individual poems.  Nevertheless there are plenty of gems to be found in his oeuvre: “The Instruction Manual”, “Thoughts of a Young Girl”, “Rivers and Mountains”, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape”, “Soonest Mended”, “Street Musicians” and “At North Farm” should satisfy the most fastidious British taste.  Still, it is style which dominates the issue when the poet’s influence is considered.  Today’s abstractionists perceive Ashbery as their maitre: from their semiological stand-point his way is the correct, indeed the only, way to approach poetry.  It denies individualism, since it makes no choice, picks up on anything, from Baudelaire to Daffy Duck, like a radio antenna at the mercy of the air-waves – as Burroughs once described his own brand of anti-narrative writing.  Sense is shattered, like the world from which it emerges.  There is no picture, only the tesserae garnered from diverse mosaics. These are what Ashbery pieces together so that each seems to fit its neighbour, although no new picture appears; his language casting a spell of coherence despite the absence of a tangible narrative thread.


The trouble with this belief in his “correctness” is that it leads his acolytes into a single role, which is that of imitation.  All of them sound hopelessly like him.  And because they are not prepared to admit this palpable limitation, it is unlikely that their work will stand the test of time.  A philosophical perception, like some mathematical formula, may prove true forever; but in poetry it only sounds true when first stated – repetition falsifies it by turning its expression into cliche.  Among American writers who might admit Ashbery’s influence, perhaps only Clark Coolidge and Douglas Crase emerge from it with a distinct style of their own; though Coolidge’s style, more fiercely disjointed than Ashbery’s since he is the Jackson Pollock of poetic abstraction, has its own host of imitators; Bruce Andrews being the first to climb aboard, followed in time by the entire brood of language poets.


A weakness dogs abstraction in poetry which has not affected its manifestion in painting.  Paint is a stuff, a substance, and its plastic actuality admits of a wide variety of perceivable sensations.  Language, however, is a signifying system; and as such it is abstract by nature: a series of marks which amount to signs.  It remains this, whether the signs are conceived as transparent, “framing” some extrinsic reality, as in narrative usage, or presented as phenomena in their own right.  While perceptions of space, shape and density may be borrowed from visual art, as in concrete poetry, there is very little to differentiate one poem from the next, so far as perceptible, physical changes are concerned.  Most poems happen on the page, and are made up of words.  Because language is an abstraction in itself, abstract poetry operates on too narrow a band to admit of much differentiation between its practitioners.


Ashbery’s poems continue to set themselves apart from their imitations, however; and they arouse the reader, while language poetry very soon becomes a wordy blur.  It is because they perform a balancing act between meaning and its absence.  They “seem to mean” – and this gives many of them an urgency generally lacking in their field.  In the most traditional sense of the term, Ashbery has a voice.  His is not merely an optical poetics.


It took me many years to find a way of writing which was not heavily influenced by him, on the one hand, and systemic music on the other.  I remained intrigued by abstraction, though, or at least by the notion of some material truth to be gleaned from language itself.  Then I visited Australia and began to engage in description; for this often produced surreal results, in a land where north is hot, and where trees lose their bark instead of their leaves – at least it seemed to do so from my deciduous perspective.  Breton noticed a similar effect when he visited the Caribbean.


I still wanted to write with the same intentionless quality I admire in Ashbery; for ultimately the difference between traditional writing and that influenced by abstraction may reside in its relation to significance.  However innovative it may be in form, the traditional poem sets out with a purpose.  It is an emphasis on this aspect which makes conservatives out of both Leavis and Eagleton.  The former insists that writing should serve some function extrinsic to itself; the latter that no value judgement can be made, that writing can only be held up for examination by a methodology that assesses its social awareness.  Both adopt what amounts to a moral view, whether that be Christian or Marxist.


Once one swallows either of these lines, one lands in a dish set between Queen Victoria and the Red Queen of cultural studies; but what is interesting about modernism, from Mondrian to Morandi, is not so much the abstraction as the resolute absence of symbolism, significance, or any purpose extrinsic to the essentially plastic concern: this is what unites Roussel and Stein.


In order to evacuate significance or purpose, I evolved a usage of narrative description which was ironically abstract – in that the description was offered for no end.  I merely described what I saw until there was nothing left to describe.  This is what makes my Australian poems as opaque as any by my American mentor.  Meticulous description, as Roussel proved in A View, can be read as if it were devoid of anything “meant”, simply for the way its sentences achieve their agreement with the form in which they are cast; this in itself being a reason for employing some regular scheme.


It was in Australia that I first came across the poetry of Les Murray.  Murray is an emphatic, if laid-back, Catholic who writes with a specific narrative purpose.  His poems are significant by intention, but his work sprawls into Rabelaisian excesses, and suddenly it appears to tip over into a glorious abstraction, a delight in language for its own sake.  In his work I find a similarity to Ashbery which is not detrimental, for Murray arrives at sheer syntax from the opposite direction.  He has so much to say that occasionally he writes a sentence of the purest poetic nonsense, like this one from Equanimity: “That it lights us from the incommensurable, that we sometimes glimpse, from being trapped in the point,(bird minds and ours are so pointedly visual), a field all foreground, and equally all background, like a painting of equality..”  Conversely, Ashbery’s Pythic phrases condense their import out of a steam of incomprehensible verse.


These are both poets of stature, and Frank Prince is a third.  His admirers include Ashbery, who admits that Prince, along with John Wheelwright, exerted an influence on his work.  While firmly rooted in meaning, there is an emphasis on form in Prince’s poetry, a delight in rich vocabulary, especially in the early poems, and a desire to experiment which appeals to post-war poets searching for a greater emphasis on language.  He is the only poet of our time to have successfully brought about an innovation in form.  His six-line stanzas often employ a syllabic count to structure equivalent line lengths, thus breaking with the notion of “feet which has become the orthodoxy of our prosody.  Often the stanzas only demand two pairs of rhymes, so that the other lines may remain blank.  The issue of his formal innovations is too complex to detail here (and deserves a separate essay).  However, their overall effect has been to introduce some “slack” into the taut rope of versification, allowing elbow-room and providing literature with a vehicle which mediates between traditional poetics and vers libre.


This reconciliation brought about between the verse of previous centuries and the poetic revolutions of the more immediate past is more significant than we yet realise.  For modernism’s freedom has resulted in far too great an emphasis on subject-matter.  Eliot’s dictum that for the man who wants to do an honest job there is no “free verse” has not been seriously attended to.  Where Victorian writing “bottomed out” into vacuous schemes of versification, the twentieth century now excretes elephantine and immobile mounds of (largely significant) content.


Ashbery’s innovative abstract poetry evades this feculence by presenting us with diaphanous veils of language and by endorsing construction for its own sake.  Murray delights in a traditional descriptive vein which is so sanguine and torrential that it carries everything with it: rhythm, meaning and colour tumbled together like debris washed down the gullies in a tropical storm.  Prince offers us a verse once more aligned to music, where a formal duality is constantly refining and enhancing the meaning while lending his poems an object quality which the more open verse of Ashbery and Murray may sometimes lack.  He mediates between innovation and tradition.  As the most original and energetic exponents of these values – innovation, tradition and mediation – Ashbery, Murray and Prince may well be seen by history as the three key poets of the English language during the latter part of the twentieth century.


Anthony Howell, Cardiff, 1994.



About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
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1 Response to John Ashbery 1927-2017

  1. Pingback: The Fortnightly Review › John Ashbery Was a Quiz Kid.

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