A Worldly Country
by John Ashbery
Carcanet ₤9.95, 96 pages
FT bookshop price: ₤7.95
John Ashbery, who is 80 this year, has probably had more influence on the kinds of poetry currently being written in the US than any other living poet. His work has inspired and shaped a large and active “tribe of John”, to borrow the title of a volume of essays on his work by his American admirers. It has become customary to see Ashbery’s capacious, open-ended poetics, his sinuous braiding together of the languages of advertising, politics, cartoons, aesthetics and soap opera, as a postmodern updating of Walt Whitman’s bold claim in “Song of Myself” to be large and “contain multitudes”.
Ashbery’s democratic chants undoubtedly figure his country in much more worldly terms than did those of Whitman, whose keenness to celebrate the nascent republic’s urge to expand at times verged on jingoism. The title poem of this new collection, on the other hand, presents a series of negatives in spoofy, jarring couplets that uneasily link private and public spaces and concerns: “There was no peace in the bathroom, none in the china closet / or the banks, where no one came to make a deposit.”
Ashbery’s poems are frequently stalked by some ominous but obscure threat, and his resilient but bemused protagonist must normally content himself with sifting through a set of fragments he can never hope to shore against his ruin. The comically enormous “one thing” puzzling the narrator of “A Worldly Country” as he gazes at “the quiet rubble” is “What had happened, and why?”
Of course we never find out. The subdued tone of menace that suffuses so many Ashbery poems was derived initially from his reading of W.H. Auden’s poetry of the 1930s. The longest piece in this volume, “The Handshake, the Cough, the Kiss”, borrows its title from an Auden lyric that ends: “The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss, / There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.” In Ashbery’s kaleidoscopically dishevelled worldly country, the wicked secret often seems to be everywhere, but that doesn’t make it any easier to define or resolve. Rather it is taken for granted, and the poetry’s energies are devoted to savouring the fleeting textures of experience in a doomed effort to ignore it.
Doubts, habits, bodily urges, resolutions compete in turn for Ashbery’s roving attention: “Prop up the ‘meaning’, / take the trash out, the dog for a walk, / give the old balls a scratch, apologize for three things by Friday - “
Ashbery’s poems often present the reader with a paradigmatic range of the sorts of choice available at any given moment, but avoid committing to any particular course of action: “ -oh quiet noumenon / of my soul, this is it, right?”, the lines continue, characteristically running together high- romantic metaphysical language and imprecise, everyday speech.
“In a capitalist country,” Ashbery’s friend Frank O’Hara once wrote, “fun is everything.” Neither Ashbery nor O’Hara was ever able to believe as, say, the Beats were, that capitalism could be escaped; instead they sought new ways of inflecting and inhabiting the worldliness of the country and conditions they inherited. Even this volume’s pastoral moments exude a somewhat battered, washed- out aura; the ironically titled “One of His Nature Poems” begins by optimistically pondering a “move west”, but ends observing spectators at some unnamed event straggling “home through a rude wind, mud, and chaos”. In “Of the ‘East’ River’s Charm” he pays homage to Samuel Greenberg (1893-1917), one of the unsung pioneers of 20th-century urban poetry, and a powerful influence on another city poet, Hart Crane, who rather brazenly plagiarised his “Emblems of Conduct” from this desperately poor and ill-fated poet. Ashbery’s poem movingly commemorates Greenberg’s original and haunting vision: “the possible bares its teeth / in a grin like a long line” - as indeed it does throughout this superb volume.
Mark Ford is professor of English literature at University College London.
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