Monday, July 16, 2012

Re-reading John Ashbery ("Soonest Mended")

I first came aware of John Ashbery in the late 90s. If that seems a little late its probably a sign of the impoverished poetry teaching I received on my undergraduate degree (the Morrison/Motion Penguin anthology, Heaney & Hughes) and a subsequent disinterest in poetry that lasted best part of a decade. I'd probably heard the name and would have looked up a few poems in one of those monstrous Norton Anthologies I'd had bought whilst studying 20th century American fiction. Poems like "The Instruction Manual" immediately resonated with me. It helped that I'd just started on an M.A. with his British publisher, Michael Schmidt, and over the next few years I picked up quite a few Carcanet volumes. I was amazed that, Mark Ford aside, nobody in British poetry seemed to have much time for Ashbery, (if they did like the New York Poets, it was always O'Hara), and when occasionally poets tried to write like him they would go for the surrealism and juxtaposition and miss what I always liked about his work: the generosity; the openness.

For I've always thought its a bit stupid trying to "understand" or "paraphrase" an Ashbery poem. He came out of a millieu that included Charles Ives and Jackson Pollock. We can hardly gloss their work - so why should Ashbery be any different? Of course, British poetry's infatuation with America had got as far as the Beats - for their looseness - and the confessionals - for their unbuttoned emotion; and Ashbery was something else. I got the chance to see him read a couple of times at the turn of the century, and he's thankfully still with us, aged 84, and still writing. That he's not won the Nobel yet is one of the Swedish Academy's most consistent oversights.

But all of that wouldn't mean much: for poetry is read one-to-one, or occasionally to a crowd where the experience is still the singular one. I can't get far in a Heaney book without putting it down; he has never seemed a "modern" poet to me; yet Ashbery - I'd realised I'd not been reading him for a while - is hard to put down. Flicking through the first 5 collections, anthologised as "The Mooring of Starting Out", I skipped the usual pleasures of "The Tennis Court Oath" and went for 1970's "The Double Dream of Spring." Its a more straightforward collection than people sometimes ascribe to Ashbery, but his work is vast and varied. These poems, written during a liberating time, the late 60s, seem to have a lightness and generosity that has none of the hippy overtones of the Beats or the English poets who attended the Poetry International. These are quieter works, about a complex America; as much Dickinson's quiet corners as Whitman's great spaces. One poem in particular stood out as I was reading last night. "Soonest Mended", a medium length poem from which "The Mooring of Starting Out" takes its name. Its easy to forget, with thinking of Ashbery as a "New York" poet, part of an urban demi-monde, how many of his better poems are embedded in lands, in other lands. "Soonest Mended" is about that other "hippy" dream, of going back to nature, or being from nature; but really, in typical with so much of his best work, the "it" in an Ashbery poem is a malleable one, he wants the poem to be applyable elsewwhere. The details of the poem "Angelica, in the Ingres painting" or "Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile" give it a centre, but one which doesn't dominate. It is a painterly technique, where the focus is as much on the horizon or the light, as on the individual figures that create that perspective. "This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free" he writes, a small ambition, at odds with "The American Dream" but also part of it - to have a little piece of this vast continent that we can make our own; where we can live, cheaply and happily. We know now how much that "dream" has been brutalised -

"It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,   
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time.   
They were the players, and we who had struggled at the game   
Were merely spectators...."

- writing in the mid-60s, Ashbery is surely looking back. On what? The dust bowl farmers of his youth in the depression perhaps? But it feels a little timeless. This idea of familiar struggle; where we believe that our hard work and the close ties of our friends and family will keep us "in the game", and only later do we realise our role - as spectators (consumers perhaps). It seems a very appropriate poem for today; an ecological poem in some ways; this is shortly after "Silent Spring" for instancel; and the late sixties would see the music of the Band and others extolling a rural simplicity. Yet, for Ashbery, he isn't a sentimentalist (or at least not in this poem), and instead accepts time's passing as not a game to be "won" but as a life to be lived. The result: we may not be any further forward; yet we have to believe that it is possible - not necessarily for the great ambitions - but for the smaller ones. There is much more in the poem, and like so much of his work, a literal interpretation seems rather pointless. When others write Ashbery-like they often write with a rigidity that his plain, but expressive language avoids. He is uniquely expert at creating an atmosphere that seems to stay in the poem, beneath the meaning of the words. The colloquialism, "least said, soonest mended" that my own farmer grandparents would use to get over a minor upset, seems exactly right for the poem's tone of getting on with life, but still retaining our hope, based upon the strengths and desires we have had all along. 

The poem can be read at the Poetry Foundation website here and is in his "Selected Poems".

1 comment:

Shelley said...

That's actually the best four lines Ashbery ever wrote, as far as I'm concerned. Thanks for passing them on.

Glad you're reconciled to poetry. It's a mansion of many rooms, and Ashbery is only one of them.