Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 173-174
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You and I:
John Ashbery's Open Invitation
Ashbery's poems rest on the "Here" of the title often. Critical observations on Ashbery often reflect this moment's fusion. But they point frequently to oppositions, rather than to actions of "you" and "I" Commonly, we are asked to follow his tragicomic sensibility, his play with the grotesque and parodic in carnival, his interest in the highs of the lows.
Ashbery certainly can still make straw strong; the mundane, fun: "Unicyclists are out in force, / leading to the Next Interesting Thing." Or better (though in practice sometimes worse), he can make golden hay himself. "I can stand to stand here, standing it, that's all" (from "Rain in the Soup").
His nods to other poets also pull out unbrainy beauties. He winks at Stevens ("Good day Mrs. Smith. Your daughter is as cute as anything," from "Rain in the Soup"), at Eliot ("As inevitable as a barking dog, second-hand music / drifts down five flights of stairs and out into the street, / adjusting seams, checking makeup in pocket mirror" from "Bloodfits"), and at Larkin in "Of the Light." He assumes their voices for an additional reason. Any moment is a candidate for the sheer finish of language; the voice of another is more easily detectable. Yet in these poems, finish is never a finish. It does nothing and everything at the same moment. Language is both see-through (narratively associative) and self-contained (lyrically meaningless).
For this vision, comprehension is only a theoretical possibility. It does not sit at the top of any hierarchy except as finish, delight in both sound and recognition, whether from other poets or other "you[s]" colliding with "I[s]." In this way, without even using it, Ashbery implicitly inverts the lyric "O." Traditionally and not uncommonly, lyric poets make, and then reject, worldly meanings. They lift the poem out of its human frame using the pure sound "O."
Ashbery's equivalent "O," however, does not mark the human inability to find words and meaning. It imbues the height of emotion instead to voicing's sudden and fleeting moment of comprehension (recognition at least). Ashbery brings a line into hearing from out of hearing, thereby bringing into focus from out of focus language's "O." Voice is what any moment misses, and neither adds nor detracts from the sum of the poem, except to have required its existence through the poem's body. [End Page 173]
For example, the beautiful line "Outside, in the street, a length of silk unspools beautifully,' rejoicing in its doom" (from "They Don't Just Go Away, Either") rejects its self-conscious beauty: recognizable symbolism, allusion, metrical echoing. These serve only to allude to comprehension. What matters is the collision of the poem's particular "you" and "I" for just a moment in this occasional and artificial comprehension, not the comprehension itself. This leaning on comprehension for lyric relief is a reason that Ashbery is valued. Your Name Here has more inverted "O[s]" than appear in his previous books and fewer displays of the unmaking of metaphor. Your Name Here offers to others what it literally cannot contain in itself, the "Here" that is not "I" but always colliding "you."
Ashbery's poems speak to no one and subsequently speak with everyone—every "you." "But I was totally taken with you, always have been" (from the closing poem "Your Name Here," italics added), "Thought I'd write you this poem. Yes, / I know you don't need it. No, / you don't have to thank me for it ..." (from "Not You Again," italics added).
"You" is both necessary and strange. Much of Ashbery's complexity resides more with understanding the anchoring action of his "you" and lyric "I" than with his technique. Once Ashbery's presumptions about "I" and "you" are accepted as assumptions, the poems open to their...