Recently, a lively discussion was raised in this space by some notes on the poetry of John Ashbery that I published after hearing him read at MIT and reading a James Wood article at The New Yorker. In a rough outline, I was attempting to work out a then-vague idea of the relationship of Ashbery’s work to contemporary American poetry, and to the larger culture – between apparently discontinuous elements therein especially.
As I pointed out in that discussion, when you attempt to make judgments about thirty years of a prolific poet’s work, critical acumen and baseless claims become too similar. In the interest of helping to explain at least my own idea a bit more clearly, I’ve consulted some better and more articulate critics, and re-read Ashbery and some of his commonly cited predecessors, such as Stevens, Pound, and Wordsworth. I’ll still be painting in broad strokes here and will do my best to use terms such as “tendency” and “commonly” – please keep in mind that I mean them in a technical sense: there are few definite statements that ever go un-disproven, and it is always better to discuss poetic elements in terms of their relative power than as absolute truths.
Underpinning my analysis is a strong belief that American culture is not terminally disjointed – as has been often claimed and lately assumed in cultural criticism – and that it is, in fact, continuous and coherent in surprising ways. Perhaps I am expressing a reaction to the thesis of postmodernism that, as a young person, is the orthodox academic tradition I’ve inherited. Regardless, it is a foundational idea for me right now, though not the topic immediately at hand.
There seems to be a surprising parallel tendency between the project of John Ashbery’s poetry and the more extreme anti-intellectual evangelicalism that has gripped a large part of America. At the heart of both we find a deep-seated skepticism of language, and of the meaningful competence of language, which I feel is a product of the postmodern and anti-humanistic inheritance of the 1970s and 80s especially. What is unexpected is that this inheritance seems not to have been segregated to intellectual realms and “liberal” culture.
Since Ashbery, as early as 1984 (and likely earlier), was considered “incontrovertibly a great poet” by the likes of Harold Bloom [1. Modern Critical Views: John Ashbery. Ed. Bloom], it seems not improbable that there be such a link between the great poet’s critical framework and that of his culture.
I referred previously to much of Ashbery’s work as being “just words,” the same attack that conservative pundits once laid against Barak Obama in the current Presidential election. This was not an attack against the worth or quality of Ashbery’s poetry (not necessarily) – rather, it was meant to be descriptive of the common critical theories that are so prevalent in his poetry. This phrase expresses that postmodern skepticism of language so well, and the way it has been simultaneously absorbed and reviled by once-pragmatist American culture. It may be the synthesis of the culture wars: postmodern skepticism has been entirely sublimated.
Many counter-arguments rested on this phrase. Ashbery was accused of being alternately a fraud and a language poet – but he is neither. I was accused of not understanding his project or not reading his work closely enough, which are not true either. In fact, I have some excellent critics who have made similar analyses. Harold Bloom writes, Ashbery’s poetic method “never restores as much representational meaning as it curtails or withdraws … [his] resource has been to make a music of the poignance of that withdrawl.” (1) In her essay “A Commission that Never Rests,” Anita Sokolsky writes of the way Ashbery’s work “disrupts the possibility of aesthetically neutral lucidity” and focuses its attention on “the inevitable double-blind of language.” [1.] The phrase “just words” seems to sum up, in some critical way, the postmodern critical framework of Ashbery’s poetry. He employs these deconstructive ideas to show, again and again, the ways that language is suspect as a vehicle for the conveyance of meaning; that, as Sokolsky writes of “Convex Mirror,” even as a poem is apparently lucid, it is self-consciously and on some level ironically so.
It was the connection to a political view with which, I’d guess, 95% of Ashbery readers would disagree that seemed to cause the greatest backlash. However, the skeptical postmodern premise is not so different from a conservative pundit attacking Obama as “just words.” The implication is that words themselves are objects of suspicion, incapable of conveying real meaning (wherever that lies), and stripping reason of its traditional authority. The goal of these pundits is for the language of sophisticated reason to elicit immediate suspicion in the audience. These attacks exhibit a “narcissism that believes in its own concealed meanings and substantive insights” [1. Sokolsky] while they deconstruct the very possibility of such insight.
Though critics such as Helen Vendler emphasize that Ashbery’s poems are, even at their most elusive and allusive, “about” something, the skepticism and self-consciousness continues to complicate that lucid reading in some important way. And it is that complication that makes Ashbery a great poet of the twentieth century, in spite of his “table talk” [1. “Understanding Ashbery.” Vendler] and sentimentality.
The parallel development that I see between intellectual “liberal” postmodernism (as expressed in Ashbery’s poetics) and anti-intellectual extreme evangelicalism (given voice by preachers and pundits) is surprising: in both is found an inherent skepticism of humanistic, rationalist-enlightenment endeavors. Over the last forty years, it seems to me that America has inclined towards this postmodernism / evangelicalism, depending on which side of the internal political debate one fell.