Charles Altieri, in Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry, labels Ashbery “the major poet of our minor age”. But as Susan Schultz points out: “Ashbery criticism has also failed to catch up with its subject, generating itself out of a value-ridden set of terms”. While criticism of Ashbery’s poetry has tried to fit him into a tradition and to find a method or system in his poetry he remains quite elusive. In The Invisible Avant-Garde, Ashbery commented that “Artists are no fun once they have been discovered” and it seems that his poetry is an attempt to elude what Eliot called “the lemon squeezing school of criticism”.
Elusiveness perhaps best describes Ashbery’s poetry. His poems are difficult reading for those weaned in the early 20th century poetry. David Lehman writing in Beyond Amazement asks: “Does Ashbery’s poetry yield meanings, or does it militate against the very possibility of articulating them? Landscapes dominate Ashbery’s poems. His pictures are always liad against the backdrops of vast landscapes, as the train is against the photomural of the
Alps in Melodic Trains. As Lehman commented, “If, however, the longitude and latitude of Ashbery’s poetry are now thought to be known, the territory itself remains a dark continent”. But Ashbery suggested finding a path in that field by closing one’s eyes, and then what we get is “a thin vertical path”. It is this thin vertical path leading to the skies of the imagination which is the thought as well as the form of Ashbery’s poetry.
A similar technique is a deliberate avoidance of technique of system. Ashbery attempts to write without taking a firm stance anywhere in the field of poetics. His poetry therefore alludes to a poetic. Marjorie Perloff calls this The poetics of Indeterminacy in the book of the same title. Susan M. Schultz in The Tribe of John Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry points out: “There is a meditative Ashbery, a formalist Ashbery, a comic Ashbery, a late-Romantic Ashbery, a Language poet Ashbery, and…even a love poet.” She sums up saying: “No poet since Whitman has tapped into so many distinctly American voices and, at the same time, so preserved his utterance against the jangle of influences”. It is to this that Charles Molesworth points when he says: “What stands behind Ashbery’s rather sudden success is the triumph of a poetic mode”.
Ashbery often writes by assuming a persona i.e. a character who narrates the story but who is distinctly not the poet. As a result we have many different personalities talking to us in his poetry and none of them can be confidently attributed to the poet himself. Harold bloom’s comments that “Ashbery is essentially a ruminative poet, turning a few subjects over and over, knowing always that what counts is the mythology of self.” We have a good example of this in the traveller in a tweed coat and holding a briar pipe in Melodic Trains who may be Ashbery but he is soon lost in a multitude. By assuming this persona, Ashbery is able to bring in all the social voices he needs to paint the landscape of experience in American society. Ashbery substantiated this when he said. “Poetry includes anything and everything”. It is very difficult to categorize either Ashbery himself or his poems. He stands unique in the vast realms of poetic creations. Though Ashbery is a 20th Century Post-modernist yet we find so much diversity in respect of his technique and subject-matter that at one end, he seems classic like Elizabethans and at another, he seems much like romanticists such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. But we can label Ashbery for his anachromatistic technique and futuristic ideas as Avant-Garde (again a new form of post-modernist). Below we study various aspects of his poetry which establish Ashbery’s reputation as post-modernist.
Another technique used by Ashbery is to echo other poets, to borrow their style, phrases or images to establish a link or to draw an ironical relation between their and his point of view. He has been known to echo Stevens, Eliot, Pound, and the Romantics. With Stevens he raises questions about reality, the power of the imagination to capture reality and of the art to portray it. As David Perkins points out in On Ashbery’s Predecessors “for both Stevens and Ashbery the imagination creates, destroys and immediately creates another vision of reality”. We see this in the painter where the version of reality of the sea can not be conveyed in paints and the artist needs a different medium to do that while his concern is that nature and not art might usurp the canvas.
Ashbery’s subjects are “not doings in the world but in the mind” In Melodic Trains the journey exists in the poet’s mind and he mingles humour with pathos, resignation with hope, and maintains his relaxed, and wonderfully imaginative, speech despite premises that might have led to despair. The anguish of the passengers of the train is shared by the poet but their anxiety and “dogged impatience lead the poet to say “These figures leaving/The platform or waiting to board the train are my brothers….” The way he describes his passengers has been described by Marjorie Perloff as neutral description with colloquial characterization.
Ashbery’s poetry brings us to strange metaphors and shifts in descriptions. The clouds of smoke in Melodic Trains are ‘wearying and world weary’ and look like ‘great white apples’. The tweed coat with its pattern is likened to ‘date-coloured Sierras’ while the lines of seams plunge into ‘unfathomable Valleys’. The figures may not always be this difficult as the anxiety-laden passengers on the platform look like Tower of Pisa figures though their ‘dogged impatience’ makes them look like determined birds ‘banking forward into the wind’. In The Painter, the artist chooses his wife as a subject and makes her “vast like ruined buildings”.
Sometimes Ashbery uses voices of other poets. David Perkins points out “he adopts or alludes to a style in order to invoke the tone of feeling associated with it….he exhibits the modern colloquial voices of different types of people”. As Marjorie Perloff says: “in Ashbery, almost everything sounds like a citation, sounds like something we’ve heard before or read somewhere.” Andrew Ross calls it “the technique of collage and montage”. The Painter thus seems to be a direct echo from Browning’s many poems on the subject of art. We have echoes here of Fra Lippo Lippi when the protagonist was criticised for finding his subjects in real life and was asked to make his portraits reflect the soul and not the body.
Music is another quality of Ashbery’s poetry. The optimistic tone of his poetry makes even trains to be melodic. This makes Jonathan Morse say “he is the lyricist of what in us is most typical of all.” Melodic Trains describes the anguish and anxiety of the journey in musical notes which end at a fanfare of celebration with music of human voices and clapping and all that.
Ashbery remains a difficult poet whose full scope and measure can only be known by keeping track of his voice, style and poetics over longer periods of his production. David Lehman says in Beyond Amazement. “If, however, the longitude and latitude of Ashbery’s poetry are now thought to be known, the territory itself remains a dark continent” and then he echoes the student in desperation. What mileage does he get out of his habit of rapidily shifting gears in a poem?” Even then, themes like music, rebellion, art, habit of wrapping lines into long paragraph-like stanza is also a recent invention which makes Ashbery a post modern poet and establish him as a poet on sure foundations of contemporary American poetry.