Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Past Process

This column for Process is about poetry that tries to make sense of sharing time together as it passes. For that I turn to John Ashbery, about whom I have never been willing or able to write, except in a very brief and unsatisfying conclusion to my first book. I live with several of Ashbery’s poems ricocheting around in my consciousness, along with stray lines by Herbert, Dickinson, McKay, and Rich. The idea of writing something about his poetry is particularly daunting because it carries a lot of emotional weight. More than anything else, the name Ashbery calls to mind the people who shaped and continue to shape what I know or feel about poetry. So when I think about Ashbery, the situation in which I think about his poetry is, almost automatically, a social one. But there is something about his poems that solicits this—what to call it? To put it in a way that’s too grandiose: a feeling of reassurance that a world exists. Like tapping on an empty vase and hearing the sound of the glass. A certification of reality.

Is there a moment in life in which something like the following sentences, all from the beginning of Ashbery poems, would be said:

“The concept is interesting”

“These are amazing”

“Yes, they are alive and can have those colors”

“The system was breaking down”

This is to ask somewhat more, or less, than the question: do those lines make sense? Maybe what I mean is: when do these lines make the most sense? One answer, if I was talking about a different poet, might be: they make sense in the context of the rest of the poem. But that would only be true occasionally with Ashbery—either by virtue of syntax or else by virtue of certain aesthetic elements that are difficult to define (tone, mood).

Here are the lines that follow from those initial sentences:

The concept is interesting: to see, as though reflected

In streaming windowpanes, the look of others through

Their own eyes. (“Wet Casements”)


These are amazing: each

joining a neighbor, as though speech

were a still performance (“Some Trees”)


Yes, they are alive and can have those colors,

But I, in my soul, am alive too. (“A Blessing in Disguise”)


The system was breaking down. The one who had wandered alone past so many happenings and events began to feel, backing up along the primal vein that led to his center, the beginning of a hiccup that would, if left to gather, explode the center to the extremities of life, the suburbs through which one makes one’s way to where the country is. (“The System”)

The initial components of these longer passages move quickly from noun, pronoun, or demonstrative pronoun to predicate adjective (except in the final example). As the poem goes on, the sentences grow in complexity. James Longenbach, in The Lyric Now, offers an extraordinary account of Ashbery’s syntax, placing Ashbery within a line of prose writers from Ruskin to Proust and Woolf. But what accounts for the heart-tug of those initial, brief and uncomplicated clauses?

Encoded in those short sentences is (in my imagination) a perpetual conditional. I am present at the moment in which the sentence or clause or phrase would have been uttered, had it been spoken (or thought). I know that context—by feel, as it were—because I’ve heard it before, or rather, something very much like it. It is familiar to me as a greeting is familiar and, when a line or a phrase jars, that jarring is a recognition of the surprise that repetition can bring. It is a different kind of presentness than either the time of living or the immediacy of the poem as isolated utterance, though the latter forms an apt vessel. Behind each line of Ashbery’s is a ghost of a timeline, but it’s not something that’s lost: rather, the lines are a test of the ordinary, a way of making sure it’s still there.

Poster promoting a poetry reading on April 15, 1977 by John Ashbery
Fig. 1. Poster promoting a poetry reading on April 15, 1977 by John Ashbery at the Poetry Center at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The photo portrait of Ashbery was taken by Darragh Park in 1975 for the cover of the Penguin paperback edition of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One way I have explained Ashbery to myself and others is by claiming that Ashbery’s lines and phrases are extracted from the context in which they would have appeared. I am not sure that explanation is sufficient to me anymore, if it ever was. It is more that the lines are separated from the time in which the listener (to use the fiction of speech that they solicit) would have been present for their appearance. Each poem invites, in its rueful, friendly way, the mistake of trying to put the poem together as a whole, over and over, whereas the discrete elements of phrase, clause, and sentence keep calling to us from their own spots of time, which are also our spots of time.

What is this particular kind of mistake or temptation? And why does it feel (to me) more tragic than comic? A kind of realism works underneath Ashbery’s poems that gets less credit than his gentle, elegiac postmodernism. The poem cannot restore the time of its individual pieces, but it can give us the repeated experience of that time by offering sample after sample, present after present. This immediacy of the poem is an extended metaphor, not a replacement, for the immediacy of the time in which I might have heard you speak, I might have read a phrase from your letter.

But why would there be a need for anything like that— an insistence on metaphors for presentness? Take the sentence “The poem is you” from “Paradoxes and Oxymorons.” I’ve never found that sentiment very arresting when taken as a proposition, in part because all the emphasis falls on the word “you,” and in part because it seems too obvious, if still sweet, a nod to Whitman. The copula, “is,” carries a different weight. The poem “is” in a way that I cannot be, or cannot be all the time. I want to be present to you, but I drift. My attention turns dully away. And more than that: I tend to avoid you, I often hide from what you are saying. Ashbery’s poems ask about our availability to others in the present time: how and why such availability can or should be maintained.

Shame, terror, anxiety, embarrassment, exhaustion, and probably many other feelings as well, press towards us from the other side of the coin of an Ashbery poem. The poem wants to help with this situation by keeping a small piece of the present intact, but it cannot actually put things together in sequence. That would be doing too much. At best, maybe, the poem can show me my mistake. I admit there’s a kind of theatricality to how I’m interpreting these pieces of poems. In the staging I’m imagining, Ashbery’s poems return to a certain ur-scene in which people try to be there with each other and fail but keep trying anyway. It is you (here, now) because you are revealing yourself to me and I am still dodging you. What you say right now, as you are speaking, is beautiful. It “is” you because my time is not exactly the same as yours and both of our times are moving into the past more quickly than ever.

To put it differently, the lines I’ve quoted above don’t fit within the context of the rest of the poem in way that can be explained by claims about paradox or unity. Nor do they refer to their missing context, out there in the world of their potential usage, as a puzzle piece does to a puzzle. Their logic is not the logic of the modernist metonym—the musical notes and staves in the Pisan Cantos that stand in for the birds and wires above Pound’s actual cell—nor the postmodernist relic without any stable referent. Cristina Rivera Garza recently commented, in a reading with Natalie Diaz, that the unit of the sentence has a relation to the sacred. Ashbery’s poems are a test to make sure we haven’t forgotten that one proof of the world is the process of moving through it in time together. As long as the poems make sense, and sentences, the myriad practices of mutual life and cohabitation are there. They are present both in the extreme—the love that lies behind Three Poems, the death behind April Galleons—and in the middle range—a near-infinite catalogue of whatever we might say to each other, while we still can.