What have we proved? That we don't have the one idea
Worth having, that all else is beneath us,
If within our grasp? But no, it should be in some book
Perhaps, the book one has never read: there it keeps
Its high literacy like a pearl: no point in displaying it,
It's too eloquent, too gracious, for these times
At least."Winter Weather Advisory," April Galleons
"All the learned doctors in the world will never come to a clear understanding of his madness, because he's plainly an off-again on-again madman, shot full of lucid streaks."Don Quijote, volume 2, chapter 18
A remarkable phenomenon in recent American writing has gone largely unnoticed. A major poet, now eighty, has over the last sixteen years published at a rate few poets half his age could match. To put the matter in purely quantitative terms, since 1991 John Ashbery has issued eight major collections of poetry, two book-length poems, and three volumes of critical prose—the equivalent of an entire career's output for many poets. The nine poetry volumes alone total 1,210 pages, more than the sum of all his previous books of poems, published between 1956 and 1988. Few critics would claim that Ashbery's recent poetry rises to the impossibly high mark set by his three masterpieces of the early 1970s, The Double Dream of Spring, [End Page 195] Three Poems, and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; indeed it seems clear that the poet himself has renounced much of the canonical ambition that issued in those books. Yet I think it would be a mistake to assume, as some critics have, that Ashbery's poetry of the last decade and a half is simply an inferior version of his earlier work.1 In fact, I hope to show that this new poetry differs fundamentally from what precedes it, though it can't be fully appreciated apart from the earlier work, either. Ashbery's recent poetry might best be understood as an exuberant, often openly comic fantasia on the central themes and narratives of his major poems from the 1970s. The poet's ongoing preoccupations with the elasticity of time, the elusiveness of knowledge, the waywardness of desire—themes his earlier poems had explored with a kind of bemused severity—now appear gorgeously decked out in sequins and spangles, arrayed in glittering tropes and delicious phrases. By turns lucid and ludic, Ashbery's recent poetry reveals an artist still in love with every aspect of his medium, still eager to try out new tricks and techniques, still incomparably eloquent in his voicing of the inner life.
A Late Abundance
Before I attempt to describe the special qualities and virtues of Ashbery's recent poetry in detail, let me return to the question of his remarkable fecundity and consider some possible explanations for it. One event that had an undoubted effect on Ashbery's productivity was his winning a lucrative MacArthur fellowship in 1985, which allowed him to take an extended break from teaching and other breadwinning activities. This in turn led to a significant change in his writing habits, as he explained in a 1988 interview with John Tranter: [End Page 196]
I don't usually write every day but in fact I have been in the last six months. I've got this large grant which is for five years. I actually got it three years ago this month, so I've got two more years to go. It took me two years to recover from a lifetime of drudgery, and to rest up, and get my bearings, as it were.
I used to think that it wasn't good for me to write very often. I thought once a week was perhaps the maximum. Otherwise it seemed as though it was coming out diluted, or strained.
However I seemed to have changed my mind about this, and...