John Ashbery’s Flowing Love
Published in Magma Poetry 54, November 2012
John Ashbery was eighty-five years old this summer. His latest poetry collection, Planisphere, published in 2009, is as subtle, lyrical, intelligent and surprising as always. Last year he produced his outstanding translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations and had his second solo exhibition of collages at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York.
Ashbery’s long-standing link to visual culture began in 1953 when the Tibor de Nagy Gallery published his debut book Turandot and Other Poems. The poems, except two, were later included in Ashbery’s collection Some Trees, now considered his first book of poetry, published in 1956. In 1950 Ashbery had written the play The Heroes, which was produced two years later in New York by the Living Theatre. This was also the time when Samuel Beckett was writing his most important works, the novels Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and the play Waiting for Godot, a time that was their common modernity, not least because they were both passing through French language and literature. And modernity was something both writers wanted to challenge and transform. And they did it, and Ashbery is still doing it, in such strikingly different ways: Beckett by negating, Ashbery by affirming, albeit in ways both intricate and rich in nuances, degrees and digressions.
Another thing that they had in common both then and in the years to come, together with Paul Celan, who for his own implacable reasons refined and strengthened negation, was their meticulously personal commitment to language. While modernity for Beckett and Celan was given fewer and fewer words to express itself and became more and more a powerless silence to withdraw into, for Ashbery it expressed itself in what he once called the “buzzing of poetry”.
Before discussing Ashbery’s exclusive lyricism, there is another significant writer that we could contrast Ashbery to, a writer and thinker who helped to profoundly broaden and alter our modernity and the language we use to interpret it. Maurice Blanchot, unlike Beckett and Celan, did not stop at the inertia and nothingness that confront and paralyse our participation in the world, but took a crucial step further (as maybe Celan would have done had he had a greater will to live). That which neutralizes language and our will to use it in our interaction with others and the world in general prompted Blanchot to explore what for him was unreachable, the impossible beyond. The effort to write about impossibility gave us a number of great literary works like When the Time Comes, The Infinite Conversation and The Writing of Disaster (in which he cites Celan: “Poetry, ladies and gentlemen: an expression of infinitude, an expression of vain death and mere Nothing”, and comments: “the final nothingness which nevertheless occupies the same plane…, as the expression which comes from the infinite, wherein the infinite gives itself and resounds infinitely” – Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, translated by Ann Smock. London: University of Nebraska Press 1988, p. 90 and 91.) His work urges us to question the role of metaphysics, while reaching for whatever is (often an impossible) other, both inside and outside the self.
It is within this mightily present and equally mightily debated modernity that Ashbery traces and shapes his own. And I believe that he gives us a picture of the way he perceives and is affected by his own modernity and what matters in it when he writes about Rimbaud in the preface to his recent translation: “…absolute modernity was for him the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second. The self is obsolete…” This simultaneity in Ashbery’s own poetry has been discussed in various ways by the poet himself and by many of his readers. Its trace, its open lyrical expression, is the abovementioned “buzzing of poetry” springing out of the buzzing that life itself makes as it streams freely around almost all his poems, and especially the long and in many ways epic Flow Chart from 1991.
It is this “open” and this “freely”, the generosity they presuppose and generate, that makes the reader jump into the ashberian buzzing flow. Ashbery gives in abundance, generating gratitude in giving and receiving.
This flowing freedom becomes all the more concrete as it is depicted by what Ashbery also calls “visuals”, by his seemingly effortless skill in giving thoughts a physical presence when he turns them into images. The buzzing of his poetry reaches us through incessant successions of illuminations that make visible the invisible activity of thoughts, while at the same time they succeed in preserving within the visible the very invisibility of the roots and significance of these thoughts. What the visual illuminates is the epiphanic movement of life that does not spring out of any religion but rather out of its own epiphanies, old, new and future.
In this tangible and yet never wholly visible flowing freedom, which brings to mind quantum boundlessness and simultaneity, the modification of the flow by just observing or being part of it, the turning of cosmos into cosmetics, substance into endless arrangements embellished as one wishes, Ashbery, together with other writers of very different aesthetic means and intensity but with similar moral and philosophical concerns (such as Tomas Tranströmer or Don DeLillo), offers us a world that turns Beckett’s, Celan’s and Blanchot’s negative or impossible approach into an affirmative gesture. This presents itself in the immediacy of a surrounding “here” which, almost always, addresses a “you”.
In the “here” of Ashbery’s work the conversation with the other, the need and love for the other, for the other’s warm proximity to the “I” and “us”, are as important as the proximity of a broader world that incessantly pours in from everywhere, distant and close, high and low, simple and complicated, trivial and sublime, a world that becomes another “you”.
I believe this is what can be intuited in the first few lines of the poem “So many lives” (in A Wave):
Sometimes I get radiant drunk when I think of and/or look at you,
Upstaged by our life, with me in it.
And other mornings too
Your care is like a city…
It is not the pouring or the flow as such, however, not the quantified aspect of it, either wild or controlled. It is the way the flow subverts the power and even the very presence of truth in it, the way limits and certainties yield to the freedom and openness that the flow brings forth. It is not that the flow affirms everything, even negation, but the way the negative, within the flow, is not given ground to stand on. The flow springs up from an abyss and pours into the open. Thus, affirmation is not tragic, if that would mean the violent conflict between metaphysical beliefs. Instead, the groundlessness of the flow produces tragic awareness, which in its turn keeps active the participation of the abyss in the function and the will of language to affirm. In the poem “Just what’s there” (in And the Stars Were Shining) tragic awareness beckons to us yet remains uncircumscribed as it dashes away in the lyrical undefinedness of Ashbery’s own making:
In the past I was bitten.
Now I believe.
Nothing is better than nothing at all.
Winter. Mice sleep peacefully in their dormers.
The old wagon gets through;
the parcel of contraband is noted:
a brace of ibex horns,
a scale worshipfully sung at the celesta.
We know nothing about anything.
The wind pours through us as through a bag
of horse chestnuts. Speak.
We still are something, we still have anything, we still can speak, and we always have each other.
Ashbery’s poetry is a democratic poetry opening up a space where negativity and the violence of metaphysics are not only left out but most importantly, are not even given the arguments to sustain themselves. He creates the state where nothing is enforced upon anyone, where affirmation informs responsibility, care and love for the other. As he tells us in ‘Latvian’, (in Can You Hear, Bird) “We are a falling in love,/Let’s leave it that way.”
There is nevertheless a sense of loss in such a state where the abyss and the flow have usurped the place of foundation and permanence, where the perishable transforms eternity into the pliability of the current. In the poetry of John Ashbery this sense of loss turns into a sometimes unmistakable, sometimes concealed, melancholia. At the same time, however, there is a sense of the liberating enactment of tragic awareness, the affirmative workings of which turn melancholy into euphoria. The buzzing of ashberian poetry is permeated and inspired by the confluence of melancholy and euphoria, by their inseparability, by the gentleness (that the absence of any boundaries creates) with which joy bears sadness within it. Can we not read these two fermenting together in the last verse of “Zymurgy”, the last poem in Planisphere, a verse that stands alone after a blank line, as a casual afterthought, an open-ended reflection, suggesting, appealing, yearning and inviting: “Love me anyway, he said.” Can we not enjoy the euphoria of “love” as it allows the melancholy of the “anyway” to leaven itself in it?