John Ashbery is a familiar name to readers of contemporary American poetry and art criticism. He is, one might say, the poetry establishment and the art establishment woven into one. He has won all the honors, including a lucrative MacArthur Fellowship (which came to him, predictably, after it might have been needed). With this background, Ashbery will find Viking’s new collection of his poems greeted rhapsodically in such places as The American Poetry Review and, perhaps, attacked by impolite youths in more independent sources.

To an educated public-at-large, which doesn’t follow new poetry, Ashbery’s assembled work offers an instructive look at a hugely successful career in an era of innovation and individualism, and it suggests the future direction of American poetry.

In 1956 Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees, established the delicacy of tone and elegance of vocabulary which still, in general, mark the most satisfying efforts in his nine later volumes of verse. At his best, Ashbery is so sure of his sound and his rhythms that a purist may even admire the freer poems for their reliance on the old verities of style. In this passage from “The New Realism,” for example, the immediate sense of which suffers from a lack of punctuation, he brings a welcome freshness to a eulogy. The deceased woman, a daffy gardener perfectly suited to the genre that might someday be called the Cape Cod Poem, lives on in images and metaphors drawn from her seaside environs:

. . . The zinnias

Had never looked better—red,

yellow, and blue

They were, and the

forget-me-nots and dahlias

At least sixty different varieties

As the shade went up

And the ambulance came

crashing through the dust

Of the new day, the moon and

the sun and the stars.

And the iceberg slowly sank

In the volcano and the sea ran

far away

Yellow over the hot sand, green

as the green trees

But as with so much fashionable subjective writing, if there is something attractive or even excellent in it, the trick is to identify what. This can be hard, especially when the poet also excelled in writing art criticism, a phylum of prose rarely praised for reserve or clarity. Maybe Ashbery had to edit a great deal of bad writing and simply got overexposed, like a chemical worker handling hazardous compounds. In the 1960’s, when he headed ArtNews, a new critical style, unprecedented in its obscurantism, dominated the cultural vanguard in New York City. It arose from—or produced—dogma as well, which held that self-reflective style, antiformal innovation, and insistence on multiple perspectives were the hallmarks of good art and even of a worthy personal life.

By 1970, most of Ashbery’s poetry becomes not only very cool and distant, like the art of the period, but also nearly incomprehensible. He indulges a love for suggestive words, unreferred pronouns, and abstract vocabulary —”so much news,” “imperative of subtlety,” “hungers,” “the climate of the indecent moment,” “breached sense of being.” Unfortunately, such phrases conform to the orthodox manner of contemporary verse, and Ashbery slips them to us with the authority of a master. It could, in fact, be argued that it was Ashbery who established the precious “private vocabulary” as poetic orthodoxy. His subjectivism eventually led him, in Three Poems and, most recently, in A Wave, to write whole tracts of vague, pretentious almost-prose—smart, self-consciously naughty manifestos that speak of “uncomplete importunes,” “theories of action,” and “the advantages of sinking in oneself” As in “A Wave,” Ashbery gives way to a windy nihilism:

. . . a great victory

That tirelessly sweeps over

mankind again and again at the end

Of each era, presuming you

can locate it, for the greater good

Of history, though you are not

the first person to confuse

Its solicitation with something

like scorn, but the slow polishing

Of an infinitely tiny cage big

enough to hold all the dispiritedness.

Contempt, and incorrect

conclusions based on false

premises that. . . .

True, Ashbery can still write an evocative, clever poem like “Frontispiece” in Shadow Train or “Just Walking Around” in A Wave. In these he seems to be communicating with his own friends, to be letting his verbal nets hang to dry in a moment of sincerity. In so doing he draws the reader in with his grace and sensitivity, and he achieves anew his sureness of tone and effortlessly fine pacing of line—always the main strength of Ashbery’s best verse.

But such pieces become rare indeed as one reads through the 340-odd pages of Ashbery’s collected poetry. Instead, one finds an ever-mounting intellectualism, a jaded aesthetic and vague despair that bode ill for poetry, at least in this country.


[Selected Poems, by John Ashbery (New York: Viking) $22.95]