Alphabetical order is useful for miscellaneous collections of items such as indexes, directories, dictionaries and encyclopedias, address books, and musings and bits of lore (Voltaire’s Alphabet of Wit, for example). Elsewhere it serves a pedagogical purpose, as in children’s readers and old collections (medieval bestiaries, botanical compendia). John Ashbery’s latest volume, Planisphere: New Poems, contains 99 poems arranged alphabetically by title; the rationale for this organization is not, however, immediately evident. Might the alphabet have served as the inspiration for the collection? Probably not, since K, Q, and X have no corresponding poem, and most letters are overrepresented. Moreover, the fact that some poems were published previously in magazines suggests gestation over time and discrete composition rather than an initial governing intent. Might the author have been attracted by the possibilities of correlation between meaning and alphabetical order, the latter bringing out relationships, insights that enrich the whole? Possibly, if the reader’s imagination is thereby activated fruitfully. Might Ashbery, instead, have decided on the arrangement for its very arbitrariness, its lack of inherent grounding—rational order imposed on miscellaneous material? This is quite likely, given the characteristics of his poetry—almost aleatory, marked by uncertainty, even apparent randomness. At least the alphabet has recognizable direction and structure. Perhaps Ashbery hoped that it would carry the reader to the end of the book.
The title image is appealing and suggestive; the way a planisphere represents on a flat surface what is actually spherical constitutes a tour de force, something like pi—useful, but never perfect. The art of poetry might be viewed similarly—a sort of defiance to prose, as language, like adjustable circles allowing display of celestial phenomena at any given time, is raised, by its own tricks, to a higher power, revealing aspects of being, otherwise shadowy, and new flashes of understanding, new perceptions of wholes. (Strangely, the design for the Title Page of Planisphere, though attractive, bears no relationship to the connotations of the word, whereas the dust cover includes an old French map of the heavens.) The challenge for readers of Planisphere is to make this leap to meaning—to move from flat to spherical, to force obscure (not to say nonsensical) language to render something seemingly beyond it. Much of the time, unfortunately, readers will be, as an earlier commentator put it, simply befuddled.
Ashbery (born in 1927) is a very prolific poet—also a sometime painter and critic of both literature and art—with excellent credentials. After Deerfield Academy, Harvard (A.B.), and Columbia (M.A.), he went to France on a Fulbright fellowship. He stayed ten years, serving as art editor for the French edition of the New York Herald Tribune and living with a French poet, Pierre Martory, whose work (along with that of better-known poets) he translated. Ashbery has won four major American literary prizes, including the Pulitzer, and was both a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Fellow. He is a member of prestigious academies and gave the 1989-90 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard.
Shall we blame Ashbery’s failures on the French? Surely not. He called himself “a harebrained, homegrown surrealist whose poetry defies even the rules and logic of Surrealism.” Surrealism had, of course, no rules; its aim was iconoclasm. But the oneiric images by which it chiefly lived were not always without appeal. “Soluble Fish” (André Breton), like Meret Oppenheim’s Object (Furry Teacup), is not without facile charm in its irrationality. “The earth is blue like an orange” (Paul Eluard), a synthetic image omitting the middle term (“round”), gives a new, flashing perception of the globe. True, a little goes a long way; at the end of the path is silliness. Even among the wacky, however, there are degrees; some ravings have visual or verbal interest, wit in one sense or another, insight, vision, whereas others are worthless meanderings. In the present collection, Ashbery is often just juvenile and tedious, as in the poem “Half-Riders,” which begins:
Oh all the sheaves are getting attended
to and the girth is right.
Then I have to start and say
with more fish at the door one is also more
takes that in and
plays some more.
The wounded in their fens counter
we are a live tribe this season!
To judge by this sample—not unrepresentative—of what a MacArthur “genius” can produce, maybe we’d better do without such towering talent. Or perhaps we readers are just not imaginative enough.
How has Ashbery achieved, and maintained, his stature? W.H. Auden’s choice of Ashbery’s early book for the Yale Series of Younger Poets gave him early momentum. An experimental impulse and cultivation of the weird propelled him forward, and he came back from Paris, one assumes, with the badge of the avant-garde. Connections in New York publishing did not hurt, nor his acquaintance with graphic artists. He had the support of Andy Warhol and, presumably, that of numerous others in the homosexual community, which influences disproportionately the distribution and reception of literary and art products. And some people really like this stuff, one concludes, while others think they are supposed to.
Ashbery’s case illustrates how deplorably low the standards of literary appreciation in America—if one can speak of them—have fallen. The juvenile, the silly, the scandalous (to the degree there is any scandal left), the politically fashionable attract favorable attention, to the detriment of works having real aesthetic value. Ashbery’s work—more than 50 years’ worth—continues to get acclaim from well-placed figures in critical and academic circles in New York, London, and elsewhere. He is sometimes compared with Walt Whitman for his aims as well as his scope. “No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years,” Langdon Hammer of Yale is quoted as saying. Nicholas Everett noted, however, in the Times Literary Supplement that some readers found Ashbery simply frustrating and dull. Stephen Burt, in the same publication, acknowledged that his poems “do not even seek the kinds of formal completion” found in Wallace Stevens. Ashbery “has become the poet of our multi-tasking, interruption-filled, and entertainment-seeking days.” So much the worse for him, and us. The true artistic innovator goes beyond the contingencies and dictates of foolish fashion. Surrealism is passé; anyhow, though a major cultural movement, it was not productive of much great literature. Let’s eschew poetry-as-entertainment and honor verse of mature literary sense and verbal beauty.
[Planisphere: New Poems, by John Ashbery (New York: Ecco/HarperCollins) 160 pp., $24.99]