On Ashbery and Surprise

“I’ve often been quoted: ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ But another distinction I made is: however sad, no grievance, grief without grievance. How could I, how could anyone have a good time with what cost me too much agony, how could they? What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it? The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. “

Robert Frost

I resisted John Ashbery. In part, for his popularity, and in part, like so many prophets, because I was suspicious of his followers. And so, I came to read Some Trees out of a sense of obligation to be a good citizen in the world of poetry. But the experience of encountering Ashbery’s work for myself, firsthand, and (as much as possible) on my own terms, setting aside outside influence–was significant. Ashbery’s work subverted my expectations even as it illustrated to me the significance of subverting expectation as a fundamental aspect of poetry.

Simply subverting expectation is not, however, enough. There is a sense of coherence in Ashbery’s work, at the same time that one has the exciting sense that any line might follow any other line. That is, simultaneously, there is surprise, and freedom, and a sense of intellectual wildness, tempered by a governing theme. What I learned from Ashbery is that there are specific tactics one can deploy to keep a poem moving–both for the reader and the writer.

One of my favorite poems in this collection is entitled “The Instruction Manual,” wherein the speaker claims to be bored, not wanting to write an instruction manual, and subsequently leads us through five pages of a daydream about Guadalajara, ending with, “And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my gaze / Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara.” Contrived, sure. But what fascinates me is how Ashbery manages to hold my attention through five pages of basically nothing.

He resists falling into repetitive patterns of syntax, freshening the language with conversational declamations such as: “Here come the boys! They are skipping and throwing little things on the sidewalk,” “But I have lost sight of the young fellow with the toothpick / Wait–there he is–on the other side of the bandstand,” and “Let us take this opportunity to tiptoe into one of the side streets. / Here you may see one of those white houses with green trim / That are so popular here. Look–I told you!” Although boredom is ostensibly what prompts this diversion, the speaker is determined not to bore the reader, or himself, in his daydream–but to continually invent new elements of this fantasy through varied and ever-changing diction, syntax, and idioms. Robert Frost’s comment about poetry applies well to this poem, as it does to many of Ashbery’s poems: “The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association.”

And why not? True, as much as this work is interesting and dynamic, it also seems to me somewhat lacking in substance. Still, Ashbery continually avoids the great trap of confessional poetry, which is a kind of straining earnestness. And so, I see little difference between poets like Robert Frost or William Stafford and John Ashbery, when I look to the core of their poetic drive–which is freedom and adventure in language. For too long, Ashbery has been used to drive a wedge between the New York school and others. In the end, Ashbery teaches all poets, regardless of geography, influence, or aesthetics, a valuable lesson: how to keep us on our toes. He seems, as Frost said, to have had a hell of a good time writing his poems. And that, in itself, is inspiring.