Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems
by John Ashbery
Reviewed by Troy Jollimore
San Francisco Chronicle
"Some people have an idea a day," writes John Ashbery in And the Stars Were Shining,
others millions, still others are condemned
to spend their life inside an idea, like a
bubble chamber. And these are probably
the suspicious ones. Anyway, in poems
are no ideas...
Judging by his prodigious recent output -- Ashbery's Notes From the Air: Selected Later Poems gathers poems from 10 volumes, and this, as the subtitle suggests, represents only the latter half of his career -- Ashbery might be assumed to be one of those who have "an idea a day," quite possibly more. Except that it's not at all clear that he isn't entirely sincere (though "sincere" is always a dangerous word to apply to Ashbery) in his denial that poems contain ideas. At any rate, Ashbery's poems often give the impression that any ideas that do happen to find their way in are there unintentionally, and are really quite beside the point.
Which raises the question that has vexed so many readers: Just what is John Ashbery's point? Devotees of the work will immediately respond that asking about the point is itself beside the point. (Perhaps doing so smacks too much of ideas, or of some idea about ideas.) One wouldn't want to say that the point is to resist interpretation and thereby subvert our traditional ideas about meaning. That in itself would be to place Ashbery's project in a fairly conventional means-end framework, and so to distort it. But it might nonetheless constitute a helpful starting point for the reader faced with the obscure, opaque and downright maddening passages that make up so much of Notes From the Air:
My sudden fruiting into the war
is like a dream now, a dream palace
written for children and others, ogres.
She was braining my boss.
The day bounced green off its boards.
There's nothing to return, really:
Gumballs rattled in the dispenser, I saw
my chance for a siesta and took it
as bluebottles kept a respectful distance.
"Mutt and Jeff"
This random (if not nonsensical) piling of detail upon detail can be off-putting, to say the least. But if the poet is aware of the difficulty, he rarely acknowledges it -- though he does from time to time offer something that might look, at first glance, like a justification:
Suppose this poem were about you -- would you
put in the things I've carefully left out:
descriptions of pain, and sex, and how shiftily
people behave toward each other? Naw, that's
all in some book it seems. For you
I've saved the descriptions of chicken sandwiches,
and the glass eye that stares at me in amazement
from the bronze mantel, and will never be appeased.
"The Problem of Anxiety"
The audience-participation element that marks this poem is carried even further in "Lemurs and Pharisees," which ends:
Never were we to be invited back again, I mean
no one asked me back again. The others sinned too, each
in her different way, and I have the photographs to prove it,
faded to the ultima thule of legibility.
Next time, you write this.
The urge to read such passages as offering a sort of key to understanding Ashbery's work is another one of those temptations that presumably ought to resisted. It is merely another version of the temptation to regard Ashbery as an essentially conventional poet, trying to do what poets have traditionally tried, for most of human history, to do -- that is, to say meaningful things beautifully -- by nontraditional means. And this, of course, is to get Ashbery deeply and completely wrong.
Indeed, Notes From the Air evinces little concern for either beauty or meaning. More surprisingly, it doesn't seem all that interested in language, either. This signals a radical shift away from the aesthetic that dominates Ashbery's earlier work, up to and including 1984's "A Wave." (In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and pretty much every other major literary prize). The poetry in the books from this period often seemed aimed at turning the reader's attention away from beauty and meaning -- those things for which language is so often made to serve as a vehicle -- and toward the language itself.
But the more recent poems tend to divert the reader's attention not only from questions of meaning and beauty but from the language as well. One's attention instead is focused on the speaker of the poem, who assumes an insistent, even aggressive role. The pre-1985 poems seemed to descend from a celestial body or some astral plane, or simply to hang in the atmosphere of a room, attached to no particular speaker at all. A great many of the poems in Notes From the Air, by contrast, come across as dramatic monologues; the experience of reading them is like that of being confronted with an apparently harmless but entirely unpredictable eccentric making demands whose true nature one never quite manages to fathom.
The main problem with Notes From the Air -- the thing that keeps it from being the great book one would have liked it to be -- is that this tone is too pervasive, too consistent, particularly toward the end. This is, of course, a frequent problem with selected collections: Poems that read well in the shorter individual volumes in which they first appeared can be rendered somewhat inert by being packed in with too many others bearing similar DNA. One who reads the collection straight through is all too likely to think, "OK, enough, I get it." "It," of course, is not in this case the point -- there is none, we acknowledge -- but rather the method, the repertoire, the poetic bag of tricks. And this represents a real danger for any writer, but particularly for Ashbery, precisely because so much of the pleasure his work gives depends on his ability to surprise.
Still, Notes From the Air certainly has its pleasures (particularly if you don't try to read it all at once). It does sometimes manage to surprise; it is frequently funny; and occasionally -- despite the poet's intentions? -- it is quite beautiful. There are passages that tremble on the brink of profundity, and some that drift, perhaps without meaning to, toward the sublime. The English language is Ashbery's chemistry set, and he is the kid who stays at home while everyone else is out playing, mixing the various beakers together at random and hoping for an explosion. "Hey, look what else language can do," he wants to tell us, besides all those boring things you use it for. Part of me wants to write him a letter and thank him for his service to science. And the other part wants to tell him to go outside and get some air, before he ends up spending the better part of his life having lived inside a single idea, like a bubble chamber.
Troy Jollimore's book Tom Thomson in Purgatory won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry.