Nonsense and sensibility

Quick Question, by John Ashbery, Carcanet, RRP£9.95/Ecco, RRP$24.99, 106 pages

John Ashbery, 85, is the last surviving member of the New York School of poets, which drew inspiration from the abstract painting of Jackson Pollock and the hermetic verse of Wallace Stevens. (Its leading light, Frank O’Hara, died in 1966, aged 40, after being knocked over by a beach buggy.) Ashbery’s work, with its disjunctive syntax and lyric sparseness, is concerned with the contradictions and paradoxes of language. There’s an inescapable circularity in any conscious reflection on language through the medium of language but in Ashbery that self-reflexiveness becomes an occasion for philosophic humour and commentary on American life. President Barack Obama has praised Ashbery’s ability to create “new possibilities” in verse.

WH Auden was an early, if qualified, admirer but not everyone has been so appreciative. Ashbery’s work is of formal brilliance, say his detractors, but of negligible import. His second collection, The Tennis Court Oath (1962), contained collage-like verse in the style of the cut-ups of William Burroughs, where an impasto of random impressions replaces narrative. Reactions were generally hostile. Ashbery “defies even the rules and logic of Surrealism”, one critic complained.

For all his opacity, Ashbery is regarded as America’s greatest living poet. Quick Question, his 26th book of poems, considers quasi-philosophical questions of knowledge, the nature of time and the role of language. At points the writing is mildly funny (“Now, doesn’t that make a lot of sense?” we read in “The Bicameral Eyeball”, a particularly difficult verse). The sensuous immediacy of detail and punctilious descriptions of American foodstuffs and landscapes combine in a bracing gallimaufry of the demotic (“yes sirree”) and the oddly spiritual. Thoughts of death are never far away (“it’s a never-ending getting / closer if you will”); the fear-ridden tone marks something of a departure for Ashbery.

Though often exquisite, Quick Question lacks the vertiginous attack of Ashbery’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, published in 1975 (the title poem, a disquisition on a painting by Parmigianino, is a masterwork). The new poetry makes the usual taxing demands in the way of patience and understanding. Nonsensical phrases (“What’s needed is a priest, or lacking that a raincoat”) frustrate easy comprehension. But difficulty always has its own rewards with Ashbery, whose bright orchestrations of language open up unexpected musings in the reader.

Public and personal histories are subtly interwoven; the ghost of Ashbery’s father, a fruit farmer in Sodus, New York, hovers over the verse. Few dates or place names are supplied; instead of specifics, Ashbery communicates an abstract dark comedy or disquiet (“after we arrived things started to go haywire”). Staccato phrases – “the absolute stench of romance” – stand in for real events. When a proper name does emerge, it causes a jolt of recognition. “Mabuse’s Afternoon” alludes to the 13th arrondissement of Paris; Ashbery had lived in Paris in the late 1950s when he was art critic for the European issue of the New York Herald Tribune.

During the years of his Paris exile, Ashbery became acquainted with the nouveau roman authors Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet and other experimental writers. Their influence shows in Ashbery’s neutral registering of things and sensations. (“A room with six chairs / and a small table ... ”) Yet Ashbery differs from these often humourless anti-novelists. “A Voice from the Fireplace”, for example, radiates a ghoulish absurdity and Dürer-like imagination: “Like a wind-up denture in a joke store/fate approaches, leans quietly. Let’s see ... ”

Quick Question, with the hushed intensity of its music and great lyric beauty, could only be Ashbery. Even the less abstruse of the poems are likely to disorientate. “This Economy”, a bravura performance, is touched with an element of surrealism:

In all my years as a pedestrian

serving juice to guests, it never occurred to me

thoughtfully to imagine how a radish feels.

She merely arrived. Half-turning

in the demented twilight, one feels a

sour empathy with all that went before.

Is the “pedestrian” a waiter? Who is “she”? The price Ashbery pays for technical virtuosity is a lack of transparency, and occasionally a lack of human involvement. Yet beneath his fearsome erudition and the allusions to avant-garde film and music (John Cage is another influence) lurks a man with a vocation for wit and satire.

A refined and civil voice, Ashbery shares the conviction of the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges that all writing is forged from a ceaseless dialogue with tradition. Quick Question offers an apology for poetry as a vast network that links all things, from the Texas sky “flat / as flypaper” to chain-link fences. For all its difficulty, the book serves as a tonic to the dumbing-down (as Ashbery sees it) of modern life. “Why is dumbness to be prized?” he asks; it’s a good question.

Ian Thomson’s biography of Primo Levi is published by Vintage

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