April 12, 2012
So recently I have been involved in two separate conversations (one at a Q and A, another in correspondence) about John Ashbery, in which I strongly have contended that he is our greatest living poet. I feel his greatness is, to some extent, cumulative (see the letter below in which I make this point in somewhat confused yet ardent detail), but I also believe that he has written a sizeable number of what I would consider “great” fine isolated poems. So in order to demonstrate this point, I have selected 30 poems, with links below.
A few notes (from the air). First, the bias is heavily towards poems from the first 3 decades of his career. It seems to me there are more truly great single lyric poems from that time period, than from the next several decades (a body of work in my mind at least equal to the first half of his career, but maybe even in a more cumulative way). This is just my impression currently, and therefore my bias towards the earlier work. Second, I only included poems for which I could find links (with a few exceptions, “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” and “The Wrong Kind of Insurance,” as well as “Qualm”), so that people could just read the poems right here without hunting around. I left out a lot of great poems, to try to keep it to around 30, and of course people could easily disagree with these selections. But in my mind these 30 poems make the point that he is a master poet.
“The One Thing That Can Save America” is the poem that changed my entire view of Ashbery. After trying to read him several times, this poem (in Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror) suddenly clicked for me. Since then I have been able always to read his poems. He writes a lot, and of course I prefer some poems to others (thus this list), but he always brings me where poetry is.
Finally, I got most of these links from Poetry Foundation, Academy of American Poetry, Penn Sound, Paris Review, etc. places which presumably have the copyright to reproduce them: a few are from personal blogs or tumblrs, which is a grey area, but since they are already up on the web and can easily be found by searching I figured I would link to them. You can also hear several of these poems as well as other great ones I did not list here read on Penn Sound, at this link
Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror
The Wrong Kind of Insurance: I can’t find a link to this on line, but it is one of my favorite Ashbery poems. It appeared in the June 27, 1977 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read it on line), and in his Selected Poems. It begins:
I teach in a high school
And see the nurses in some of the hospitals
And if all teachers are like that
Maybe I can give you a buzz some day
Maybe we can get together for lunch or coffee or something
and somehow eventually arrives at the ending lines
Each night/ is trifoliate, strange to the touch.”
Paradoxes and Oxymorons (probably my single favorite Ashbery poem)
and finally, here is a poem I could not find a link to, but is one I like very much, so here is the full text, from the book Shadow Train.
Warren G. Harding invented the word “normalcy,”
And the lesser-known “bloviate,” meaning, one imagines,
To spout, to spew aimless verbiage. He never wanted to be president.
The “Ohio Gang” made him. He died in the Palace
Hotel in San Francisco, coming back from Alaska,
As his wife was reading to him, about him,
From The Saturday Evening Post. Poor Warren. He wasn’t a bad egg.
Just weak. He loved women and Ohio.
This protected summer of high, white clouds, a new golf star
Flashes like confetti across the intoxicating early part
Of summer, almost to the end of August. The crowd is hysterical:
Fickle as always, they follow him to the edge
Of the inferno. But the fall is, deliciously, only his.
They shall communicate this and that and compute
Fixed names like “doorstep in the wind.” The agony is permanent
Rather than eternal. He’d have noticed it. Poor Warren.
And here is part of what I wrote to my friend:
“Reading A. for me has always been more like taking a drug than anything else. That is, if I read his poems for half an hour or so I feel completely altered and frankly stoned. It’s not that I think every poem is brilliant or even “good,” and it’s really hard to explain to people what it is about his work that can feel so powerful and true, because the poems for the most part don’t operate the way single lyric utterances most often do. I realize writing this, that this is exactly the sort of nonsense people always say about bad “experimental” poetry, so I am horrified even to be saying it but I really do think it is the case for A’s poems. Maybe just read “Soonest Mended” or “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” I mean I know a couple of great poems is what it is but still. Also, I think of him in the same category as those poets who process their experience or basically live through poetry. The question arises whether it is necessary for anyone to actually read 90% of that “processing,” but you could also say, well, let other people sort out what is and is not valuable about the mass of poems that emerges from this particular strange language conduit known as John Ashbery.
I don’t think by the way it is one bit A’s fault that people write the way they do, i.e. bad imitations of him. First of all, what is he supposed to do about that? Maybe publish less or more selectively, but see above for unformed thoughts on that. I think the bad ways that people write in a period style have to do more with basic feelings of shame or fear, a lack of courage that manifests in whatever way is most acceptable depending on the current literary vogue. Beat poetry, confessionalism, stones and bones, surrealism, arch ironic poet theorizing, sounding like Algernon Swinburne … there’s always going to be that temptation, to write was is “acceptable” (literally, if you are talking about something like literary magazines or prizes or whatever), in the guise of art. I guess it’s our job as poets to try not to succumb.”