In preparation for the upcoming Moorman Symposium on the New York School and the South, some New York School poetry reading is in order. Let’s start with John Ashbery’s earlier poems, found in The Mooring of Starting Out — the First Five Books of Poetry. This post will focus on the first half of the collection.
Ashbery’s first book of poems, Some Trees, already has the aesthetic characteristics that have become closely associated with the New York School: a conversational, informal tone, a distinct lack of self-importance or grandiosity, a lack of seriousness. “The Instruction Manual” illustrates this very well. It reads very much like prose, like a story someone might tell you over lunch.
It’s a dream-excursion — triggered, the poem claims, by the undesirable duty of getting a manual done by a deadline — and it takes us to “Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers!” Indeed, colors matter a great deal to our narrator. The flower girls hand out “rose- and lemon-colored flowers,” they wear “rose-and-blue striped [dresses] (Oh! such shades of rose and blue)”, and over all there are many mentions of rose, blue, white, pink, green, and yellow throughout this 3 page piece. The details our narrator provides us with, like the colors he mentions, are typical of postcard and souvenir motifs, and this should not surprise us since, as he admits, he did not get a chance to see Guadalajara, he has only dreamed of going there.
Like in this postcard image above, the church tower he climbs with us is “faded pink” against a “fierce blue” sky. Once above the city, the colors seem to separate: “There is the rich quarter, with its houses of pink and white, […] There is the poorer quarter, its homes a deep blue […] And there is the public library, painted several shades of pale green and beige.” And while New York School poetry does not really lend itself to a new critical reading, I have to say this use of color is difficult not to comment on. 🙂
“The Instruction Manual” (in which an instruction manual is not written but rather avoided) is not typical of the collection in that it is more prose-y and definitely longer than the other pieces found in Some Trees. It is also more consistent, surprises us less than the other poems with unexpected phrases, grammar, or content. The simply titled “Poem” raises many more questions than it answers, for example, and seems much more representative of the collection. Written in the form of a sestina, it creates a curious scenario in which the speaker tries to avoid “the tradesmen who tried cutting [his] hair,” which, we learn, is also crystal.
Ashbery’s poetry, here, may not answer mankind’s oldest questions (what happens after we die? etc), but that is not its purpose, either. It is enjoyable for its wordplay, its music, its surprising turns and oddities. As for playfulness, take “Illustration” as an example. Here are the opening lines: “A novice was sitting on a cornice / High over the city. Angels / / Combined their prayers with those / Of the police, begging her to come off it. / / One lady promised to be her friend.” The pattern changes after this, but it is obvious Ashbery had fun here. Later stanzas abound with assonance and alliteration, but again, change happens almost as soon as the pattern becomes obvious.
As I see it, Ashbery is part of a generation of poets who found themselves needing new ways to write in the wake of WW2. How does one write after two world wars and the rhetoric of warfare and patriotism? An approach that is (despite the occasional poetic form) informal, irreverent, and humorous seems like a natural, even healthy response. “I am not wrong / In calling this comic version of myself / The true one. For as change is horror. / Virtue is really stubbornness / / And only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards.” (from: “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers”)
There is a certain lightness, a complete lack of bombast in Ashbery’s poetry. Take lines like these: “Then lighter than the air / We rose and packed the picnic basket.” (from: “The Mythological Poet”) or “Baskets, birds, beetles, spools.” (from: “Sonnet”) I particularly liked “The Thinnest Shadow” (which would also make a great, if unsettling, children’s picture book in the tradition of Ed Gorey btw). Take the final stanza: “All his friends have gone / From the street corner cold. / His heart is full of lies / And his eyes are full of mold.”
Possibly my favorite so far is “And You Know”. It has Ashbery’s lightness, but also examples of great beauty: “The girls, protected by gold wire from the gaze / Of the onrushing students, live in an atmosphere of vacuum / In the old schoolhouse covered with nasturtiums. / At night, comets, shooting starts, twirling planets, / Suns, bits of illuminated pumice, and spooks hang over the old place; / The atmosphere is breathless.” What a lovely, interesting, engaging opening image.
Moving on to Ashbery’s second collection, The Tennis Court Oath, there’s “Leaving the Atocha Station.” This poem is different from the prior poems in that it is disjointed, fragmented, a mosaic of almost random phrases: “And the fried bats they sell there / dropping from sticks, so that the menace of your prayer folds … / Other people … flash / the garden you are boning / and defunct covering … Blind dog expressed royalties … / comfort of your perfect tar grams nuclear world bank tulip” — the poem starts out intelligible but then quickly disintegrates, and it is meant to, because it recreates the experience of a busy train station, the countless conversations of announcements, people talking and moving about, the noise of the trains cutting in and out, severing subjects from verbs and objects, wiping out connections like steel wool. The pieces become even more disconnected than the bits of sentences you catch when channel hopping or turning the dial of a radio (especially AM radio).
Further reading: An article by Marjorie Perloff: Normalizing John Ashbery (Jacket Magazine) , and David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde — the Making of the New York School of Poets. Also: the Ashbery Resource Center.