- Reading Late Ashbery
John Ashbery is frequently cited as one of America’s most important living poets. For over fifty years his work has broadened the horizons of contemporary literature. For at least half as long he has been at the center of debates that have defined the contours of literary criticism. Schools of thought that seem to agree about nothing have been able to see themselves reflected in his work. Thus he is said to be a belated Romantic, lyric inheritor of Stevens. He is also said to be a daring avant-gardist, deconstructing illusions of coherence. Both of these views were already entrenched midway through his career. The recent appearance of Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, however, complicates the story of Ashbery’s reception, a story that has tended to proceed as if his output ended with the 1991 publication of Flow Chart. Ashbery’s immense productivity over the past two decades has been met with a variety of benign neglect summed up by a 2005 review in the New York Times: Once considered exasperating and difficult, Ashbery now has “become a part of our mental furniture.” At this point he “seems almost avuncular, the grand old man of American poetry.”1 Critics such as Marjorie Perloff have long been arguing against such a “normalization” of Ashbery.2 To understand his achievement, however, requires more than insisting that the octogenarian is still experimental after all these years. The difficulty of Ashbery’s work [End Page 527] stems from the fact that his particular forms of experimentation resist the discourses used to describe avant-garde poetry just as much as they evade traditional understandings of lyric. Though the Times review unjustly suggests that readers needn’t struggle with his actual work, there is something apt about its description of Ashbery’s curious canonicity. He is not the father of contemporary American poetry but its uncle.
The eccentricity of Ashbery’s late work highlights, among other things, the impoverishment of the aesthetic vocabulary currently available for understanding experimental art and literature. Two recent monographs make important headway on addressing this deficiency. Ashbery’s Forms of Attention by Andrew DuBois and John Ashbery and You by John Emil Vincent both demonstrate that the poet’s decades-long career rewards intensive scrutiny; both offer readers a heuristic map for the poetry without explaining away the difficulties or frustrations it poses. They are, in other words, devoted to close reading. But they also recognize that understanding Ashbery requires a reconfiguration of what it means to read at all. As DuBois explains, Ashbery’s career “both challenges and validates how we pay attention, or do not, to what we read” (Ashbery’s Forms of Attention, xi). Critics have often noted that the particular challenges Ashbery poses have to do with his apparent evasiveness, a quality that invites readers to peek behind the surface only to find that, in fact, “everything is surface.”3 Both of these new studies offer a vision of Ashbery’s evasions and interruptions that stresses their generative rather than negative qualities. In doing so, they address the difficult question of why, given its manifest frustrations, readers might care about Ashbery’s poetry in the first place.
Vincent takes up this challenge and addresses the generosity of Ashbery’s evasions. His argument hinges on the “intimacy effects” generated by Ashbery’s varied formal experiments, notably the exploration of the possibilities of the second-person pronoun. Vincent is not the first critic to remark upon the versatility of you in Ashbery, but his study is an impressively nuanced account of the changing work this elastic pronoun accomplishes over the course of a career. Hotel Lautréamont (1992), for instance, documents a frustrating moment in which the poet’s access to a second-person interlocutor outside...