John Ashbery is widely regarded as America's greatest living poet: his collected earlier work is currently published in a Library of America edition, an honor that has been accorded to no other American poet of his generation. Ashbery's career spans generations and centuries: his first book was published when selected by W.H. Auden for a literary prize in 1956, but in 2007 he accepted the honor of being Poet Laureate of MTV. This might give some sense of the breadth of Ashbery's achievement: something in it could appeal to the intellectually-demanding cantankerous English formalism of Auden and also to the "here we are now, entertain us" mindset of the MTV generation. The critic Harold Bloom has noted that Ashbery seems to be upholding the previous poetic tradition, working within it while also struggling with the work of his predecessors: Bloom writes that in Ashbery's work the reader can "recognize a strength that battles against the death of poetry, yet also the exhaustions of being a latecomer" (Bloom 12). But it is clear that Ashbery commands respect -- perhaps the greatest sign of this came in 1975, when his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror received all three major poetry prizes (the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award). Ashbery has otherwise worked as a journalist and critic: he supported himself while living in Paris for a decade by writing art reviews for the International Herald-Tribune, and followed this by writing art criticism for other publications, including Newsweek. I propose to examine three poems by Ashbery, to tell us how they can better understand this difficult but rewarding writer.
I would like to begin with a short and perhaps minor poem by Ashbery, from his 1997 collection Can You Hear, Bird? I choose this poem particularly because I think it gives an excellent introduction to some of the pleasures and difficulties that a reader might encounter in a characteristic Ashbery poem. These difficulties can be significant for some readers, and it is worth noting that Ashbery may be America's most important and most praised living poet, but his work is hardly uncontroversial, and might even be termed polarizing. This is almost entirely due to Ashbery's style, or styles. Poet and critic Mary Kinzie, in an important essay on his work, refers to "John Ashbery's styles of avoidance -- the stylistic contours of his resistance to the devices of literary meaning allied with realism, plot, and verisimilitude" (Kinzie 246). What Kinzie's comment here suggests is a poet who understands in advance what readers might expect from reading a poem -- not just formal devices like rhyme or meter, but the standard "devices of literary meaning" -- and who constructs the poem to tease those expectations. I think we can understand Kinzie's observation best with reference to Ashbery's 1997 poem "Cantilever":
I knew we should have stopped back there?
but the pudding people were so -- well -- ?
full of themselves.
The Sphinx didn't want us to come this far?
even though we answered her questions?
and threw in a bonus answer: "As honey is to the jaguar."
And we so well along too
Coming up is the world's longest single cantilever span.
I am numb with thrips. (Can You Hear, Bird? 25)
The first thing that needs to be said about "Cantilever" is that if it does not make you smile or laugh, then your own approach to poetry is at fault: a reader of poetry needs to be open to the experience offered by the poem itself, and "Cantilever" is offering an experience that is partly comic. At the same time, it is hard to react to a poem as though it were merely a joke, when it includes difficulties -- most obvious are the difficulties in vocabulary. (A "cantilever" is a type of bridge, or engineering structure: it is anchored at one end and extends over empty space; "thrips" are a type of insect.) But there is also, as Kinzie observes, a difficulty in the storytelling. We know what kind of story this is -- it appears to be a narrative about a road-trip or a journey. But it is clearly not Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." In some sense, Ashbery writes a poem that takes into account the reader's prior experience with poems like…