In Memoriam, John Ashbery

Following the death of John Ashbery earlier this month, a number of eloquent, incisive memorial essays have been appearing on the web. Given Ashbery’s long history of publishing in the New Yorker, it’s no surprise that some of the best would come from others involved with that magazine. Here, for instance, is Ben Lerner, a great admirer of Ashbery and effectively his protégé:

The first time I met John (a decade ago), he thought I was someone else. This became slowly clear to me because he kept asking me questions about the poet Landis Everson, about whom I knew basically nothing. (It turned out that John thought I was the writer Ben Mazer, who edited Everson’s collected poems.) There was something appropriate about being misidentified by the poet who’d become my hero, in part because of the beautiful fungibility of his “you”: the way sometimes the poems address you, are alone in the room with a particular reader (yes, you), and sometimes address all possible yous, expand until we feel the mundane miracle of address as such — that there are other people, that there might be a common language.

Lerner’s remarks on the experience of reading Ashbery’s poems, which appear in his novel Leaving the Atocha Station and should rightly be attributed to his narrator Adam Gordon, have also been haunting me since Ashbery’s death:

The best Ashbery poems, I thought, although not in these words, describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem; his poems refer to how their reference evanesces. And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately. It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading.But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. But it is a presence that keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the true poem remains beyond you, inscribed on the far side of the mirror. “You have it but you don’t have it. / You miss it, it misses you. / You miss each other.”

Lerner has previously elaborated on those notes on Ashbery in an essay for the Paris Review.

Larissa MacFarquhar, too, has lately attempted to put her finger on what it is about Ashbery’s poems that makes them so distinctly his:

He didn’t write to command attention, or to seize the reader by the shoulders and shake him, or to stamp the world with his way of seeing. There was a piece of music by Erik Satie that he loved, called “Musique d’ameublement” — furniture music, which was written to be played between the acts of another work while people in the audience were milling around and talking to one another, so that they were only indirectly aware of the music. “It sometimes seems to me that my poetry is like that,” he said. “You don’t really have to pay that much attention to it — it’ll be doing its job if you are just intermittently aware of it, and thinking about other things at the same time. I was probably thinking of environmental art, where you’re surrounded by different elements of a work, and it doesn’t really matter whether you’re focusing on one of them or none of them at any particular moment, but you’re getting a kind of indirect refraction from the environment that you’re in.”

And Paul Muldoon, outgoing poetry editor of the New Yorker, has used the occasion of Ashbery’s death to assess the technical basis of the poet’s legacy:

It seems that he almost singlehandedly not only changed the rules of the game but also remapped the field on which the game was played.

He managed this by developing a poetry that was absolutely equal to our later-twentieth-century/early-twenty-first-century predicament. It’s a simple argument: a world that is complex requires a poetry that is complex; a world that is somewhat incoherent may actually demand a poetry that is itself incoherent; a world in which no conclusions apply may even revel in its inconclusiveness. To read a John Ashbery poem is to be scrutinized by it. It is less a recording than a recording device, a CCTV screen taking us in.

But my favourite posthumous assessment of Ashbery — which is to say the one that hews most closely to the words on the page and their ambiguities — comes from Billy Mills in the Dublin Review of Books:

What marks Ashbery out from most of his contemporaries is his extraordinary immersion in syntax as the prime organising force of his verse. Many readers have noted the parallels between his mature writings and the late novels of Henry James; as with James, expandedly serpentine sentence structures enable the elaboration of a kind of constructive ambiguity, a faithfulness to the indeterminate nature of experience in the round. However, where James had the exigencies of character and plot to ground even his most convoluted utterances, Ashbery’s complex sentences float free, lead nowhere and everywhere, build apparently logical structures that, in the end, undermine themselves carefully, with a “so” or a “that is” leading to conclusions that do not follow but make perfect sense, if you let them.

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