So from my last entry in which I was lead to read again about Ashbery, I must again profess my love for Ashbery. Why? Largely because he writes lines I'm most intensely jealous of, wishing that I had written them. They are fresh and beautiful and utterly convincing, coming as they do amid great heaps of nonsense linguistic play. He mixes some deep-seeming philsophical moment with the telephone ringing - because the telephone always does ring: we are constantly interrupted, as he says so nicely in one of my all-time favorite poems of his, "Around the Rough and Rugged Rocks the Ragged Rascal Rudely Ran" (what a title!):
I think a lot about it
Think quite a lot about it --
The omnipresent possibility of being interrupted
While what I stand for is still almost a bare canvas:
A few traceries, that may be fibers, perhaps
Not even these but shadows, hallucinations...
This poem has spoken to me for years and years. (Oh, how Ashbery puzzled me when I was 16, 17 years old.) I keep coming back to it because it's so right. It's such a bare, succint moment about the anxiety of death, that final interruption. Not finishing life's work, being cut off unfairly from the attempt - this stanza most clearly embodies why Ashbery puts out almost one book per year now, and has been keeping up that pace for about a decade. But what I love about this poem and about Ashbery is that he doesn't stop at the anxiety of death, as many poets would. Instead, he goes on:
And it is well then to recall
That this track is the outer rim of a flat crust,
Dimensionless, except for its, poor, parched surface,
The face one raises to God,
Not the rich dark composite
We keep to ourselves,
Carpentered together any old way,
Coffee from an old tin can, a belch of daylight,
People leaving the beach.
If I could write it
And also write about it --
The interruption --
Rudeness on the face of it, but who
Knows anything about our behavior?
I have to pause and simply adore the humanity in this stanza. That we keep "the rich dark composite" to ourselves, the depth of self, and give the surface to God or anyone else. That the composite is made of any old thing - coffee from the old can, a bit of daylight, people on the beach: the memories, objects, and presence of which life is comprized. That this life is a patchwork so varied that any writing of it must contain the tin can as well as "the face one raises to God" (love that line so much), as well as what is added at every moment, the way life keeps building itself always, constantly - to contain it is nearly impossible. Ashbery comes closest of any writer to putting down all of life on paper. He does not discriminate. Not even against the interruption which forestalls life and the writing of life, seemingly rude "but who / Knows anything about our behavior?" There - that last line of this stanza - that is a typical Ashbery moment: a question so commonplace as to border on cliche which draws such resonance from the lines he's used to build to the moment of that line. A tolerant smile at the excuse. Because interruption is life too, and though they appear rude, interruptions (driven here by other people) can be well-intentioned. And often as not, Ashbery can make good use of them.
Now we come to the last stanza where we have prescriptive Ashbery writing in the imperative - as much, one thinks, to himself as to anyone reading. Because I don't believe his poetry is ever didactic, even if one can learn so much from it.
Forget what it is you're coming out of,
Always into something like a landscape
Where no one has ever walked
Because they're too busy.
Excitedly you open you rhyming dictionary.
It has begun to snow.
That last line intrigues me because it is such an abberation in what is otherwise a fairly straight-forward stanza. I take it as not only a change of conditions, something new, but also as an affirmation that life continues despite the interruption. And I love this line because it always, always reminds me of a favorite line from Wallace Stevens: "It was evening all afternoon / It was snowing and it was going to snow" (I never get the line breaks right - it's three lines total; from "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"). I love the inevitability of continuance in the Stevens lines: life breathes about us still, despite our not always taking notice. Never mind how clearly "It was evening all afternoon" captures the sky on a snowy day, or how the future seems to overtake the present.
To return to the Ashbery poem, it has only just occurred to me that the title bears a great resemblance to Dante's mountain in the Purgatorio. That is, I always imagine the ragged rascal running round and round the rough and rugged rocks of a mountain - not only round and round, but up and up, as one does the mountain of purgatory. But this reading implies that one is getting somewhere; to heaven in Dante's case. I don't believe that is what Ashbery has in mind. Rather, more like a track or an orbit - treading over and over the same path each year that is always, because of the dimension of time, changing.
And I love this poem because I love the way Ashbery reads it. One should always, if one can, listen to poets reading their own work. (Go listen to T.S. Eliot read The Waste Land - it'll put the fear of God or anihilation in you. Whereas it's hard to take Pound seriously when he reads his work because his voice is so nasally, though listening to him read his Usura Canto is like listening to a sermon on the fires of hell: brilliant.) Ashbery reads beautifully in a voice nearly devoid of inflection: the perfect voice for a poet to whom tin cans are equal to anything else. (Yusef Komunyakaa, on the other hand, or Kevin Young who emulates Yusef's readings, is big on emphasizing the breath that goes into a line and the jar of line breaks: not surprising since he is a jazz poet and breath is so important in jazz.)
Oh, I love poetry so much. It is ecstasy. Makes me wonder why I chose to concentrate on fiction, even if I do know the answer.
I close with two of my favorite poems which are similar in content and affect. Written seventeen years apart from each other. (Ashbery ages well.)
"At North Farm"
from A Wave, 1984
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?
Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?
Such yearning in the last four lines.
from Your Name Here, 2001
This room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
Such loss in these lines. The dedication "For Pierre Martory 1920-1998" in Your Name Here suggests a specific "you," but there is never a specific "you" in Ashbery. And of course, the absence of "you" does not only imply death; "you" could be in the next room - the next compartment of memory, since this is a poem primarily about memory. But how suddenly those last lines come, with all their weight. That is Ashbery's genius: making the ordinary heavy and meaningful, and thereby reinscribing meaning in throw-away statements like "Why do I tell you these things?"
I can never read these poems without reading them as if for the first time. I love, I love, I love.