- The Brink of Continuity (on Ashbery)
On September 5, 2017, a few days after John Ashbery died, Le Monde published an obituary for him by Olivier Brossard: “Pour le poète américain, l’écriture était ouverture, fuite ou fugue, le refus d’une identité ou d’un poème qui soient clos ou définis à jamais”: For this American poet, writing was an opening, flight or fugue, the refusal of an identity for a poem that is closed or defined forever.
I appreciate that Brossard addresses the identity of the poem in this opening paragraph, something sometimes lost in America, where there is so much attention given to the identity of the poet that the identity of the poem is eclipsed.
Not that a poem can ever be separated from the person who wrote it.
It’s just that with a poem you start with the flight and fugue of the words, not with what the poem represents.
The day Ashbery died, the New York Times posted an obituary by its official obituary writer, the talented Dinitia Smith (with “Maggie Astor and David Orr contributed reporting” appended at the end). The oddest thing about Smith’s obit (O-1) was a paragraph on Ashbery’s relation to his parents:
When I was about 3 or 4 years old, [my father] said to me one day, ‘Who do you love more, me or your mother?’ and I said, ‘My mother.’”
No doubt the bored masses of Times readers could find at least this something they could relate to. I might have said the same to my father when I was three, but I hope it doesn’t land in any obituaries.
Smith had the historical sense to mention Barbara Guest as one of the company of poets most closely associated with Ashbery, even if she called “Frank O’Hara” John, which I am sure Ashbery and O’Hara would have found amusing:
Mr. Ashbery was originally associated with the New York school of poetry of the 1950s and ’60s, joining Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, John O’Hara and others as they swam in the currents of modernism, surrealism and Abstract Expressionism then coursing through the city, drawing from and befriending artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Jane Freilicher.
When David Orr’s byline was added to Smith’s the next morning (O-2), “Frank” was back and the poets were no longer “swimming in the currents of modernism” but, less aptly, reveling. And alas! Guest was out and the New York School was just guys:
Mr. Ashbery was originally associated with the New York school of poetry of the 1950s and ’60s, joining Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara and others as they reveled in the currents of modernism.
The anecdote about the poet’s mother was also excised, making way for a bit more ideological clean-up.
David Orr is most notable for his April 2, 2006, front-page Times Book Review rave for a favorite of Ashbery’s, Elizabeth Bishop. The piece begins:
You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop. Granted, our culture owes its shape to plenty of other forces — Hollywood, Microsoft, Rachael Ray — but nothing matches the impact of a great artist, and in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop (1911–79).
This claim is so wacky that it can only be understood as a fetish for Bishop and her patron Robert Lowell, two of the central ideological icons of Cold War Official Verse Culture. And like all such fetishes, it reduces the poetry to propaganda.
Ashbery and his New American Poetry comrades were the proponents of an alternative to the “cooked” (a.k.a. half-baked) poetry of Official Verse Culture – sometimes called “raw,” meaning grounded in process. (Lowell makes the deceptive distinction between open-form “raw” poems and closed-form “cooked” poems in his 1960 National Book Award acceptance speech.) So Brossard’s elegant Ashberian phrase, “clos ou définis à jamais,” is quite specific and delightfully so.
O-1 mentions a key issue of Cold War aesthetic ideology –
But [Ashbery’s] most significant artistic...