After the MIT John Ashbery reading last night, a number of us went out for conversational libations and began discussing the potential merits of the work we'd just heard. Several of the poems he'd read were 'collages' – of movie titles, of movie premises from a 1920s book, of something else I can't recall now. A few of the poems required biographical details, which he gave us before recitation, to find a useful point of entry. More than some of it seemed to be approaching nonsense.
At one point during the poem of movie premises, the greater part of the audience laughed hard at the sound of a funny name, and it occurred to me how basically juvenile many of his poems were. Or rather, that a juvenile response is perhaps the only worthwhile reaction to much of Ashbery's work. If you want something with depth, it just isn't there. As one friend exclaimed in Asberry's defense, 'It isn't supposed to mean anything!', I couldn't help but think of the old commercials for Apple Jacks – Grownups don't understand: it isn't supposed to taste like apples.
In The New Yorker recently, James Wood wrote about the Republican party's attack on words – and therefore, as Wood sees it, on meaning and insight. He writes, 'The leathery extremist Phyllis Schlafly had this to say, at the Republican Convention, about Palin: “I like her because she’s a woman who’s worked with her hands, which Barack Obama never did, he was just an élitist who worked with words.” The fresher-faced extremist Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator, called Obama “just a person of words,” adding, “Words are everything to him.”' The implication that words themselves have no meaning – a renunciation of thousands of years of human thought – is startling.
I feel there is a strong connection between the type of attacks that Wood describes and the poetry of John Ashbery. Of course I'm fully aware of the influences that 'built' Ashbery's poetics – dada, surrealism, postmodernism, pop-culture, romanticism – and that what he is trying to accomplish is certainly interesting to study academically. But what is interesting about his work is also damning. His is a poetry of 'just words', strung together, evocative at times but intentionally un-meaningful. Words actually are the end of the experience, words that purposefully lack their referential meaning, that undermine by extension the idea of all possible meanings.
Oftentimes, an approach to Ashbery's poetry is compared to listening to music or viewing visual arts, as a passive consumptive enterprise – but that's misleading. The restriction of a medium places demands on any artist. Visual and auditory experience is primarily phenomenological: it is an experience that is non-linguistic and sub-cognitive, although it can be 'put into words' to some degree. Language, however, demands that there be an underlying meaning, and demands that the reader actively engage with it. Because language is the way we create meanings and values, the Form of language is its communicative meaning. It is how we have constructed knowledge, love, ethics and insight and god. Language might be all that it means to be a human being, and so whether a poet – or a person? a candidate? – is 'just words' does, in fact, matter. The words have to have meaning, they give meaning to our lives.
Perhaps it is a case of poor timing, but the new Library of America volume of Ashbery only highlights the disjunction within American culture today, and how detrimental it truly is. How is it possible that the leading poet of our day, the banner of avant-intellectualism and darling of postmodern academics, seems to be undertaking the same project as the anti-intellectualism evangelical conservative front? He may not intentionally be pursuing the deterioration of meaning, intellect, and humanism, but his work demands just that by denying so much of it. It is destruction without replacement – it is a gag without any substance, all laughing at the funny sound of names.
If Ashbery is America's foremost poet, as he is claimed to be, then something is fundamentally wrong. There is more eschew here than matters of taste and enjoyment. I admit that I find some of his poems better than others, entertaining occasionally, funny or intriguing – but they are 'just words' in a way that other, even lesser, poetry is not. I often take Meghan O'Rourke's advice on reading Ashbery: 'If you're bored, skip the poem, or skim.'
But skipping and skimming are bad habits that I don't need reinforced; there are too many other poets who at least try to impart something meaningful. To make not just the poem but the human world value-full. I don't find that in Ashbery, after reading and reading, and hearing him read, and hearing his work lauded. I wonder, what word is left in the wake of all Ashbery's hysterical deconstruction? When others have said something best, I defer myself to them. In his collection The Triumph of Love, Geoffrey Hill writes:
"What remains? You may well ask. Construction
or deconstruction? There is some poor
mimicry of choice, whether you build or destroy."
*** Thanks to everyone who participated in this discussion in the comments section, especially those who gave reference to critical works. If anyone is interested in explicating the merits of Ashbery's work in detail here (specific poems, lines, etc), shoot me an email. ***