I knew John Ashbery before I met him, by which I mean that I subsequently realized that I’d adopted in my teens and early twenties more or less the same tastes and attitudes as John had a generation earlier.
I actually first came across John’s name as the translator of an essay on Raymond Roussel, the French protosurrealist writer who felt from early childhood that he was predestined for greatness, to the extent that he thought he had been born with a star on his forehead.
Written by Michel Leiris, the essay “Confection and Reality in the Work of Raymond Roussel” was published in the spring 1964 issue of “Art and Literature.” Reading the essay was to change my life as an artist at the impressionable age of twenty-one, describing as it did several of the techniques Roussel had utilized in writing his bizarre books, techniques that I myself would later use to paint my own bizarre paintings.
The article that John had translated also contained a wealth of Rousselian anecdotes, including the occasion when Roussel had visited the great French astronomer Camille Flammarion. Such was Roussel’s admiration for Flammarion that, after their meal was over, Roussel kept a little star-shaped cookie as a souvenir, and subsequently had a star-shaped glass container specially made to preserve his pastry treasure.
A few months after reading John’s translation, I learned that the translator himself was due to give a reading of his own poetry at the American embassy in London. I cut classes at the Royal College of Art where I was a student in order to attend, and I’m glad I did, since it changed my life just as surely as the Roussel article. Not that I actually met John at the reading — I was far too shy to introduce myself. Little did I know at that time that John was a shy person himself.
I realized through John’s reading that poetry could be as rich and inventive as painting and contain as many ideas and — this was especially important to me as a young painter — contain as many images as a painting. I later realized that it was the richness of John’s vocabulary that led automatically to a richness of imagery, as it had for Roussel.
To close his reading, John read his poem “The Skaters,” a poem which concluded with the lines:
To refuse the square hive, postpone the highest …
The apples are all getting tinted
in the cool light of autumn.
The constellations are rising
in perfect order:
Taurus, Leo, Gemini
The final lines hit me with the force of a thunderbolt, relating as they did to Roussel’s little star-shaped cookie I’d become obsessed with, and also because simultaneously I was becoming enamored with Joseph Cornell’s boxes, many of which had astronomical charts pasted onto their rear surfaces.
John and I were obviously on the same wavelength, since a couple of years later, when he reviewed a Cornell retrospective, he concluded the review with the spot-on observation that, and I quote:
The genius of Cornell is that he sees and enables us to see with the eyes of childhood, before our vision got clouded by experience, when objects like a rubber ball or a pocket mirror seemed charged with meaning, and a marble rolling across a wooden floor could be as portentous as a passing comet.
This conflation of the large with the small, adult vision with childhood vision, was important to both John and Roussel, too, and became one of the characteristics of my own painting, mainly as a result of reading John’s Cornell article.
Jump ahead another year or so, when I’d moved from London to New York. John arranged that we should make a pilgrimage together to visit Joseph Cornell in his nondescript house on the inappropriately named Utopia Parkway in darkest Queens. I took along a copy of Roussel’s “New Impressions of Africa” as a present, a volume ending with a drawing of a star-filled sky.
After eating some rather unbearably hard — if not downright stale — cookies that Cornell had specially bought from the only automat in Manhattan that still had the gall to sell them, we all three went downstairs to Cornell’s workplace in the basement, a spooky basement straight out of Psycho. The workplace was lined with shelves laden with various-sized boxes, bearing such labels as “silver balls, clay pipes, white sand, stardust.” As Cornell was opening one of his thimble peepshows on the table before us, I noticed a cheap, transparent jewel box beside my elbow. It contained a heap of glass stars.
A tasteless comedy in one act
Jean Hache-Béret, a famous French poet
Miss Guinevere Moxley, a pursed American poet
Ambrosine Philpotts, a humorless Queer Theorist
James Schuyler, himself
Velma Handler, a powerful literary critic
Pearl Indeterminate, a slightly less powerful literary critic, archrival of Handler
First Café Waiter, an American PhD candidate writing about Jean Hache-Béret
Second Café Waiter, a poet and graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop who blatantly imitates Hache-Béret in his work
Le Select, a once-famous literary café in Montparnasse. The reclusive French poet Jean Hache-Béret is sitting one table in, stage right, drinking a martini and looking rather bored. At the table next to him sits American poet Miss Guinevere Moxley, writing in her journal. She pretends not to notice him, though she knows perfectly well who he is. The bar is to the back and left.
Somewhere in Paris a large gathering of American academics are holding a conference on Hache-Béret’s work.
When the curtain rises, Velma Handler enters Le Select with an imperious attitude and goes to sit at the bar. Following behind, though not with her, are Pearl Indeterminate and Ambrosine Philpotts. Hache-Béret raises the “Best Books of the Year” issue of the Times Literary Supplement in front of his face in an attempt to hide.
Guinevere (to Hache-Béret): You can’t hide from them, you know.
Hache-Béret: You certainly can. They’ll never notice you.
Pearl (glancing at Handler): Oh, of course Velma Handler had to be here. She thinks she owns Hache-Béret’s work!
Ambrosine: So do you. And you’re both complicit in the heteronormative matrix of late-capitalist household dwellers.
Pearl: Oh brother.
Ambrosine: See what I mean! Your very word choice proves my point, enforcing familial relations which privilege gender norms and masculine dominance.
Pearl and Ambrosine sit at a table to the right of Hache-Béret. They immediately recognize him.
Guinevere (to Hache-Béret): You won’t be able to inhabit the divine sepulchermuch longer.
Hache-Béret (insouciantly): Cocktail hour and its discontents.
Pearl: Oh! Monsieur Hache-Béret, I’m sure you remember me, Pearl, Pearl Indeterminate. I just delivered a paper on your intransitive and copulative verbs!
Hache-Béret: Dear me.
Ambrosine: Heteronormed and depoliticized!
Pearl: This is my colleague, Ms. Philpotts.
Ambrosine: Please call me Ambrosine.
Guinevere: I’m a political poet. (They ignore her)
Hache-Béret (to himself): Some days hell seems very near.
First Café Waiter (to Ambrosine and Pearl): Mesdames …
Ambrosine: Do you have any guava juice?
Pearl (to the waiter): So this is where you’ve been hiding. You owe me several chapters!
First Café Waiter: I know, I know. But I can’t write the conclusion to my dissertation until Hache-Béret stops writing books!
Second Café Waiter: My poetry is just like his and I went to Iowa, why don’t you write about me?
Guinevere: And what about me?
Second Café Waiter (to Guinevere): Oh give me a break, you’re way too determinate. Besides, you’re a girl.
Guinevere: Woman. I’m a middle-aged woman.
Ambrosine: Gender distinctions must be abolished.
Hache-Béret: Miss Philpotts regrets.
First Café Waiter (turning to Hache-Béret, picking up his empty martini glass): Please stop writing poems.
The ghost of James Schuyler appears behind Hache-Béret’s chair. He is chubby and wears angel wings. Only Hache-Béret can hear him.
Schuyler: What a cutie.
Hache-Beret looks confusedly about.
Schuyler: Bettina to you.
Guinevere: I thought your camp name was Dorabella.
Schuyler: That waiter is hung like a horse.
Schuyler: Don’t worry, no one can hear me.
Guinevere: I can hear you.
Schuyler (bitchily): Fag hag.
Hache-Béret: Yes, and what kind of name is Moxley? Ms. Moxley, Moooooxley!
Guinevere (in all seriousness): You can’t say it that way any more! It means, “she who comes from the mouse-infested wood.”
Schuyler: It should mean “she who took all her best moves from Jimmy,” including that tacky pseudonym.
Guinevere: It’s Guinevere — like the queen.
Schuyler: Not any queen I know.
Guinevere (to Hache-Béret): At least I don’t write like those legions of straight-boy-Iowa graduates who relentlessly imitate you, all hoping to repeat your 1975 triple crown!
Second Café Waiter (to himself): I wonder if I should read more French theory?
Hache-Béret: Don’t kid yourself, “The Sense Record” practically plagiarizes “Self-Portrait.”
Guinevere frowns and hurumphs.
Hache-Béret: And your poem “The Drip” would be nothing without “Clepsydra.”
Guinevere: That’s not fair. Those editors asked me to respond to “Clepsydra.”
Schuyler: So there.
Hache-Béret: You could have politely said “no.”
First Café Waiter (bringing Hache-Béret another martini): Would you like more poems with that. I mean, would you please stop writing poems!
Ambrosine: Queerness denied in every one.
Pearl: Don’t be foolish Ambrosine. His indeterminate strategies decenter the subject.
Schuyler (though they can’t hear him): Jean is devoted to the impossible.
Ambrosine: Nevertheless Pearl, his conformist closet works to globalize the heterosexist episteme.
Guinevere: No, its Pearl Indeterminate, a critic.
Schuyler: Oh ick, that’s the one who called my wit “camp.”
Handler (to the audience): I own the meaning of Hache-Béret.
Pearl: He’s mine, he’s mine. Stay away Velma Handler, Hache-Béret is my poet!
Schuyler: Why is this play called Boiled Dinner?
Guinevere: It was originally going to take place in Maine.
Schuyler: I wish I were paddling an Old Town canoe with red and peeling shoulders.
Hache-Béret: The rise of capitalism parallels the advance of romanticism and the individual is dominant until the close of the nineteenth century.
Second Café Waiter (writing in a small notebook): What a great line.
Guinevere: But I’ve invested so much in the individual!
Ambrosine (to Guinevere): Your complicity with the system denies the possibility of revolution. Just listen to your language, “invested.” You’re no different than a venture capitalist.
Schuyler: The word is fag hag. (To Guinevere): Why did you change the location?
Guinevere: Hache-Béret wouldn’t come to Maine.
Schuyler: Not for you anyway.
Ambrosine (to Hache-Béret): You must write explicitly about your sexuality!
Pearl and Both Café Waiters: Please no, don’t!
Schuyler: Why can’t we just be witty?
Guinevere: What about my sexuality?
Hache-Béret: These decibels are a kind of flagellation.
Guinevere (to Ambrosine and Pearl): Why don’t you leave us poets alone.
Second Café Waiter: Be quiet! Don’t upset Ambrosine, I’ve just asked her for a blurb.
Guinevere: So sorry!
First Café Waiter: Please stop writing poems!
Handler: I own the meaning of Hache-Béret!
Pearl: No, I own the meaning!
Hache-Béret: I have to go to the bathroom.
Guinevere: Me too.
Schuyler (fading away): Talulah banks off to the head, toot-da-loo you two, two to the loo … adieu
Guinevere grabs Hache-Béret’s hand and they sneak down the stairs of the café, while the rest continue to argue, repeating variations on their previous lines.
Being an art critic is for the most part a low-paying job. It is particularly insecure if you do not have a position at a university. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was far worse than it is now. In an informative interview with the English poet and literary critic Mark Ford, Ashbery talked about the financial side of being an art critic living in Paris:
I got the job of art critic for the Herald Tribune, but that wasn’t until May 1960. That didn’t pay anything but it did open the way to other things that did pay. Even after five years in the job I was only making about $30 an article, but they could pay slave wages because there were so many Americans in Paris who were dying for that kind of work. So I really just lived from hand to mouth.
In 1961, in addition to his regular job at the Herald Tribune, Ashbery became the art critic for Art International, a magazine. He also wrote articles for ARTnews.
Ashbery may have felt that he backed into his career as an art critic, but his first reviews are not tentative. In his first published review (on Bradley Walker Tomlin), he is poetic and precise, and gets the viewer to want to look again:
In Number 8, 1949, the nervous energy of a pattern which seems to be made up of scythes and swear-words in Chinese is tempered by the sweet blue background. This contrast between form and color was to be the central idea in all the pictures Tomlin painted until his death in 1953.
Often, after summing up the subject he is reviewing, he steps back and argues eloquently for both the difficult and the impossible. He ends his review of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation (1956) for Poetry with the following observation:
Stanzas in Meditation is no doubt the most successful of her attempts to do what can’t be done, to create a counterfeit reality more real than reality. And if, on laying the book aside, we feel that it is still impossible to accomplish the impossible, we are also left with the conviction that it is the only thing worth trying to do.
Is it all that surprising that this is the first and last time Ashbery reviewed a book for Poetry? Thus, shortly after publishing Turandot Other Poems (1953) and Some Trees (1956), he started his career as a critic by defining a worthy aesthetic goal as doing “what can’t be done,” which is “to create a counterfeit reality more real than reality.”
Three years later, in an essay on Pierre Reverdy, Ashbery wrote:
The lines drift across the page as overheard human speech drifts across our hearing: fragments of conversation, dismembered advertising slogans or warning signs in the Metro appear and remain the rock crystal of the poem. And far from banishing poetry to the unconscious, he lets it move freely in and out of the conscious and unconscious. Since we do not inhabit either world exclusively, the result is moving and lifelike.
Elsewhere in this review, while comparing Reverdy to the film director Robert Bresson, who “created an ascetically transparent world,” Ashbery wrote:
Like Reverdy he has a keen ear for le langage de la tribu and a deep feeling for nature. Trees, clouds, lakes, automobiles, the texture of a woman’s skin and of her dress are shown for what they are and are also undetachable from the story being told; they are like electrodes in the limpid bath of a precise context.
Already masterful in his ability to shift tone and focus, Ashbery has consciously rejected transparency, received notions of realism in poetry, and confession, all of which were (and still are) believed to be allegorical narratives that naturally culminate in revelation, universal truth, or epiphany. All too often, these states of illuminated insight are familiar and border on cliché. The revelation is not something the poet discovers in the process of writing, but is something he or she already possesses, and must figure out how to package. Such poems are full of detachable symbols and images, triggers that set off the reader’s sympathetic Pavlovian response. Ashbery is against both the predictable and the detachable, which allows a poem to be reduced to a theme or be summed up.
Ashbery’s interest in both “counterfeit reality” and the “lifelike” helps explain why, nearly twenty years after writing about Stein and Reverdy, he would write his widely acclaimed poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” The poem is ostensibly about Parmigianino’s trompe l’oeil painting, a counterfeit reality that depicts the artist as if he is looking into a convex mirror. By being a “mirror” of the absent painter, the self-portrait displaces the viewer who is standing where the artist once stood. We see his imprisoned reflection looking back at us. On both the visceral level and in a larger sense, the artist’s absence reminds us of our immediate and impending departure. At the same time, the painter stares at us, locked inside the wooden sphere, his hand in the foreground, as if protecting him from us and from time. This is one of the ways Ashbery describes the portrait:
The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place
Don’t poetry and art share the paradox of embodying a frozen time, while outside its domain, time (“autumn leaves”) keeps surging ahead?
Ashbery’s description of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry is particularly apt about both his own writing and Parmigianino’s arresting and disturbing painting:
We live in a quandary, but it is not a dualistic conflict between inner and outer reality; it is rather a question of deciding how much the outer reality is our reality, how far we can advance into it and still keep a toe-hold on the inner, private one.
Ashbery’s observation also applies to his choices as an art critic. For one thing, he has never been known as a critic who either celebrated hyperbolically or grumbled mightily about the work of artists that were or weren’t in the spotlight. I suspect this is because early on in his career he recognized that the outer reality (or what the art is intently focusing on at a particular moment) would subsume him if he advanced too far into it.
After all, he chose to live in Paris, not New York. And he never tried to stay young and become the Paul McCartney of art criticism.
About the art criticism of Ashbery, the question boils down to this: what does he stand for and against? I would like to approach this question by beginning with a distinction he made in an essay about Artaud:
His famous pamphlet on Van Gogh (Van Gogh or The Man Suicided by Society) is great not because Artaud was a great critic (which he wasn’t because fortunately he could only create, not criticize) but because of what it says about all artists
This is what Ashbery says about artists and the critic’s relationship to them: “To create a work of art that the critic cannot even begin to talk about ought to be the artist’s chief concern.” He is championing art that exists outside of language, particularly when it is academic discourse. It might make his job tougher, but he is against any kind of art that can be explained by a preexisting discourse. Thus, in this same review of Brice Marden’s monochromatic paintings, he writes: “it is not an abstraction but an object made by and for the senses.” This observation is in line with his statements about art and poetry that is “lifelike,” and that moves between the conscious and unconscious.
Ashbery is an heir to Walter Pater, who proposed that all art “aspires to the condition of the music.” The difference is that Pater is seen as paving the way for abstraction, while Ashbery began publishing poetry and criticism after abstraction’s triumph. Thus, he wants an abstract art that is an object made by and for the senses. In other words, he isn’t interested in abstraction as an idealized state, but in something messier and closer to life. He believes in art and writing that are autonomous but not removed from reality. This is why many find it nearly impossible to write about his poetry; it keeps slipping through one’s fingers and reconstituting itself just beyond one’s grasp.
While Ashbery isn’t particularly interested in criticizing an artist’s work, one should not deduce that he wasn’t critical of artists, because he was, but in a way that can only be described as creative.
Leland Bell is a painter and a polemicist. Seeing him in his studio, vigorously at work on a number of canvases and meanwhile sounding off on his various pet peeves and enthusiasms, one has the feeling of coming upon an almost extinct variety of a whooping crane, alive and well in its environment, happily honking around the pond and causing quite a commotion. For polemics, and by extension commitment — to art, that is — is all but extinct in the art world. Where polemics seem to flourish, it often turns out to be the wishful thinking of artists dedicated to the hopeless task of doing away with the art of the past, and must therefore be construed as a romantic metaphor rather than a practical exercise in persuasion.
What is striking about Ashbery’s irreducible view of Bell is that it is simultaneously comical, critical, cold, entertaining, and even sympathetic. After all, none of us wants to see any animal, particularly a whooping crane, become extinct. Clearly, the tonal shifts and multiple voices that are an integral part of Ashbery’s poetry are also found mainly in his essays. Even though many of his essays are assignments and commissions that appear in art magazines and weekly journals, he has an original prose voice. He isn’t afraid of using a rich complex metaphor or citing a popular term. He isn’t a miser who feels compelled to hoard his metaphors for his poems.
One wonders why in his review of Selected Prose, Charles McGrath made this observation:
On the evidence of Selected Prose, in fact, it’s tempting to conclude that prose is something Ashbery isn’t especially good at, which makes him unusual among poets of his stature. Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, to take the two most obvious examples, are brilliant critics and essayists, with prose voices as original and pleasing as their poetic ones. Ashbery’s prose writing is clear and competent (he worked as a journalist and art critic for many years) but also dutiful and uninspired. Most of the pieces in this volume are the equivalent of literary chores — and from them you get no sense of how much fun Ashbery can be or what a master of tone and voices he is, able to shift gears in a single line. Most of Selected Prose is written in an all-purpose monotone.
On the evidence of McGrath’s review, one is tempted to conclude that he never read Reported Sightings, and that being, as his byline describes him, “the former editor of the Book Review and a writer at large for the Times” means you don’t have to know a whole lot more about your subject than the average reader of your publication.
Written more than a decade before the emergence of appropriationists, a number of whom were championed by Hal Foster, Ashbery’s observations regarding polemics have a particular relevance in both the art world and literary culture. One doesn’t think of what appropriation artists such as Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine do as being a “romantic metaphor,” and certainly that is not how their work has been framed and written about by art historians involved with postmodern pronouncements such as the death of originality and the death of the author. And while it certainly wasn’t on his mind when he wrote this in 1970, nearly a decade before the emergence of Language poets and others who (influenced by European theorists) proclaimed the death of the author, as heated arguments mounted against the use of “I,” it should be noted that Ashbery’s use of “I” is unlike that of any other poet. Ashbery’s “I” is porous and changing, and the reader doesn’t sense that it is connected to a fixed personality, as it is in the writing of James Tate, Charles Simic, or Jorie Graham, just to name three obvious examples. I would further suggest that something of the personality of such poets as Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, and Leslie Scalapino comes through in their work. Thus, whether one uses or doesn’t use the “I,” and publicly believes in or doesn’t comment on the death of the author, isn’t really the point, is it? Making statements about these issues is really a way of announcing to others what club you belong to or are trying to be admitted to.
Influenced by contemporary art — and here I am thinking of Jean Hélion and Jasper Johns (two artists he has written about) — Ashbery has submerged his personality in favor of something that is seemingly objective and distanced. His descriptions of Johns’s work seems particularly applicable to his own poetry:
Johns is one of the few young painters of today whose work seems to defy critical analysis, and this is precisely a sign of its power — it can’t be explained in any other terms than its own, and is therefore necessary.
For more than four decades Ashbery has defined, defended, and championed the difficult and unexplainable, not because he is “a harebrained, homegrown surrealist,” but because he recognizes that the beginning of modernism, which is manifested by the poetry of Baudelaire and the painting of Manet, is marked by the collapse of collective language. How can you be edifying when there is no collective language or set of symbols to rely on? Within this situation of absence, particularly of moral authority, the writer has two choices: write poems as if there still existed a collective language or try to write poems that achieve complete autonomy. Ashbery chose the latter.
Both T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound tried to erect a collective language, however gloomy or willed, but Ashbery never tried to achieve a didactic totality. Thus, in his poem, “Into the Dusk-Charged Air,” one named river replaces another, and there is no sense of landscape (context) or use of the word “I.” Reality is indifferent to us, and its constant, relentless change carries us along, whether we like it or not. Each of us begins in the middle of it:
Far from Rappahannock, the silent
Danube moves along towards the sea.
Without fanfare, Ashbery often challenges some of our most cherished views of art. In his essay on Edwin Dickinson, which appeared in New York (October 13, 1980), he made the following observation:
Coming on this shoe fresh from Whitney’s [Edward] Hopper retrospective made me wonder once again if we really know who our greatest artists are. I would be the last to deny Hopper’s importance, but even in the smallest and most slapdash of these oil sketches, Dickinson seems to me a greater and more elevated painter, and all notions of “cerebralism” and “decadence” — two words critics throw around when they can’t find anything bad to say about an artist — are swept away by the freshness of these pictures, in which eeriness and vivacity seem to go hand in hand, as they do in our social life.
Hopper, of course, is the artist everyone points to when they want to prove that a collective language of representation still exists. It is Hopper who many fervently claim most powerfully evokes our urban isolation and alienation, which is all well and good. At the same time, meaning has been detached from Hopper’s paintings, making them into a background against which a very programmatic conversation can unfold. Hopper is easy to sum up, while it is impossible to do so with Dickinson. However, without ever denying Hopper’s importance, Ashbery brings up “eeriness and vivacity” as aspects of our “social life” we might want to pay more attention to. Hopper hints at his figures’ inner life, but everything we see takes place on the painting’s surface. It is why so many mainstream poets have used Hopper’s paintings as a starting point. With Dickinson, however, it is all but moot to discuss what constitutes inner and outer reality.
One of the painters that Ashbery became friends with while living in Paris was Jean Hélion, whom he championed many times. A provocative, commanding painter who challenges one’s assumptions about art, Hélion worked both abstractly and figuratively, and did not “attach much importance to the two categories.” He is impossible to categorize, and, in that way, is comparable to Philip Guston. The difference is that Hélion worked in four different modes of abstraction before shifting to figuration; he was both more stylistically restless and less seductive than Guston. Like Guston, Hélion tried to deal with dailiness after he moved away from abstraction.
A friend of Raymond Queneau and Francis Ponge, Hélion published They Shall Not Have Me (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1943), a memoir about his experiences as a POW in World War II. His letters to Queneau are full of bright gems about art. He wrote poetry before switching to painting. In the late 1920s, he became known for his abstract paintings that excluded “lyricism, drama, and symbolism.” In the early 1950s, Hélion, who, by the way, was a big influence on Leland Bell and his polemical stance, began working on “fantastically realistic still-lifes.” Writing about these works and a portrait he was working on, Ashbery concludes his essay on Hélion with this:
As he once said: “I realize today that it is the abstract which is reasonable and possible. And that it is the pursuit of reality which is madness, the ideal, the impossible.”
It so happens that there is a retrospective of Jean Hélion currently on tour. It opened at the Centre George Pompidou, Paris, and will have stops at the Museu Picasso, Barcelona, and the National Academy Museum, New York. The accompanying catalog contains essays by French, English, and American art historians. However, Ashbery’s early championing of Hélion — and he was pretty much one of the only American critics to do so — seems to have made no impression on any of the historians, and none of his writings are included in the English version of the catalogue. It is just another example of a lost opportunity.
Being a poet and art critic means that much of your writing will appear in fugitive publications, in small magazines, middlebrow magazines with a short shelf life, and catalogues that only a few people will ever see or read. Most of the people who read the poetry probably won’t read the essays about art and vice versa. The mainstream literary establishment won’t pay much attention and that part of the literary establishment that thinks it is avant-garde or radical also won’t pay much attention because art, after all, makes money and therefore it must be corrupt. The art world still largely ignores poet-critics. And yet, despite the absence of attention in this area, and even though nobody might have bothered to notice, it must be apparent by now that Ashbery does take positions in his art criticism and literary essays, and that throughout his publishing life he has done so with remarkable clarity and precision. It seems not to have mattered to Ashbery whether or not someone read what he wrote about art. He would take a stand even if no one were listening. That, I believe, is the definition of integrity.
Excerpted from “The Poet as Art Critic,” published in The American Poetry Review, May/June 2005.
2. In contrast to many of the other abstract expressionists, Bradley Walker Tomlin (1899–1953) moved in both the commercial world and downtown bohemia. He was both a successful illustrator and painter. He designed covers for Vogue and House and Garden. In the last five years of his life, Tomlin used a vocabulary of ribbon-like calligraphic strokes, which are the temperamental opposite of Franz Kline’s clashing slathers of paint. Both Philip Guston and Robert Ryman have admired Tomlin’s tonalities and matter-of-fact, structural brushstrokes.
8. John Ashbery, “Throughout Is This Quality of Thingness: Elizabeth Bishop,” in Selected Prose. First published in the New York Times Book Review, June 1, 1969. For those who are interested in the degree to which Ashbery has dissolved the distinction between inner and outer realities, I would recommend they compare the early poem “The Instruction Manual,” which makes a clear distinction between these two realms, to his recent poem “Interesting People of Newfoundland,” where one is unable to apply such distinctions.
In Jasper Johns’s “Painting Bitten by a Man,” the artist has bitten a hunk out of his painting, leaving behind teeth marks. The action of the bite transforms into an image to be seen, an image that relates to nothing else on the field of gray encaustic. The bite conjures the presence of the artist at work and a flash of spleen. The gesture of the bite keeps receding back into its intrinsic muteness, suggesting the frustration of a desire to communicate verbally. At the same time, the plain speech of the title stands in stark contrast to the enigmatic bite mark; the temptations of legibility and illegibility animate one another. In a sketchbook, Johns writes, “‘Looking’ is and is not ‘eating’ and ‘being eaten.’” Looking may (or may not) approximate eating, biting, marking, writing; perhaps what is also pictured here is the viewer’s gaze (sexual, temporal, avid) expiated by realization. I’ve always viewed this painting as a kind of aggrieved self-portrait because of what is pictured: the bite literalizing the self’s effort to be as real as the mark it leaves on a representational plane.
Another kind of distressed self-portrait: in 1953, Robert Rauschenberg made “Erased de Kooning Drawing.” Variously interpreted as a patricide, a collaboration, an homage, an essay on draftsmanship, a beau geste, it is also an approach to looking, a critique on a purely optical, disinterested way of viewing art. Rauschenberg is said to have begun the project by erasing his own drawings, but he found that for the final work to have any traction, he needed to start with another significant artist’s work; he sought to suppress something external to his own practice to summon something new. In erasing de Kooning’s work, he makes a strong equivalence between that famous artist’s act of drawing and his own act of erasure. This erasing-as-drawing gets at looking, or rather a kind of representation of looking, negatively. On view are just the faintest traces of crayon and ink, yet Rauschenberg once insisted, “A canvas is never empty.” The almost invisible quality of the picture takes us from a purely optical moment to a mode of address; the artist captures our awareness of the conditions of our perception (active, contingent, coming upon absence) in that near-blank return “stare” of the canvas. The ghostly presence of the disappeared drawing and the telltale marks of its erasure even suggest that we are looking at representation coming to consciousness of itself.
John Ashbery’s poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is in one vein, a lyric consideration of looking’s strangeness. In the poem, looking is understood as temporal, corporeal, and intimately tied up in the structure of subjectivity. The poem explores how this sort of looking in self-portraiture is pictured as the very form of representation; self-portraiture vividly illustrates how immediacy and self-evidence come to lack any self-sufficiency the moment representing starts. The self-portrait shows “both” the self and the self’s gaze or cast of mind turning back on the self; it renders the seeing visible, regrouped in time and space. Looking is framed and intensified on multiple levels in this poem: Parmigianino and the mirror-portrait, Ashbery’s ekphrastic poem, the self-reflection and self-portrayal of both artists, and not least, the reader’s complicit positioning. The opening “As” of the poem casually posits the reader’s implicit self-projection into the position from which the painting (and poem) was made:
As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises.
The distortion of looking gets figured in the mirror’s reflection of head and hand; bigger than the head, the hand approaches and recedes from the viewer. The hand’s possible dramatic implications, its protective guise or its “reflex / To hide something,” get reinterpreted within the circumstances of the painter’s medium: “There is no way / To build it flat like a section of a wall: / It must join the segment of a circle.” And so the convexity returns the hand towards the body “of which it seems / So unlikely a part.” In the mirror, the hand does not make sense in terms of scale. It acts as a metaphor for both sensory data (the strange reflection of the hand in the convex surface) and the experience and interpretation of that data (all the implications of “handling”). The mirror’s distortion, whether unsystematic or expressive, paradoxically draws the hand back towards a greater materiality by indicating touch and literal paint handling. It also indexes the self-consciousness of the moment, since the hand wants to break out of the system of representation — “One would like to stick one’s hand / Out of the globe” — but it cannot really exist outside that system and still be seen.
The hand is not the only thing that wants to escape the portrait; that hand points to, or in the poem’s language, “shore[s] up” that mysterious face of the painter. And within the face appear the eyes, which, in the custom of self-portraiture, signal the self’s inwardness: “The soul establishes itself. / But how far can it swim out through the eyes / … unable to advance much farther / Than your look as it intercepts the picture.” The soul, that consciousness of individuality on the one hand, or an intimation of wholeness and boundlessness on the other, is determined by the onlooker’s attention, rather than characteristics inherent to itself. The adage of the eyes as windows to the soul, the standard instrument of interiorization, is found to be impoverished:
But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room our moment of attention.
Instead of depth and metaphysical mystery, we are left with an image of looking. The soul “has no secret.” The understanding that a soul has of itself is a kind of seeing, but it’s the kind of seeing demonstrated in Johns or Rauschenberg’s work: seeing pictured as robbed of its self-evidence, and yet shown to have other powers.
This sort of seeing might open up other ways of contemplating what it could mean to have or be a self. This re-presented, pictured self-consciousness (as hand, as Parmigianino’s gaze) can act as supplement to an idealized, totalizing vision (the one exempt from or exterior to the circuit of representation): “This otherness, this / ‘Not-being-us’ is all there is to look at / In the mirror.” These representations, or aesthetic forms, are not transparent, but they have a different ambition, they motion towards the artist’s desires and dreams:
The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty
As they forage in secret on our idea of distortion.
Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since
Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed?
Something like living occurs, a movement
Out of the dream into its codification.
The codification of form (“second-hand knowledge” he calls it later in the poem) is necessary to look back on the dreaming; the movement between dreams and forms is characterized as living itself. This sort of looking, involving loss and diffusion, replaces soul with all its force and enigma.
I like to read Ashbery’s poems alongside the work of Johns and Rauschenberg in part due to the ways in which all three artists investigate the literal aspects of their medium’s processes and enlist them to deploy a generative self-reflexiveness in their works. I’m interested in how the artists’ skepticisms become a sustaining part of picturing at all. The nature of self-reflexiveness, and its attendant characteristics of skepticism, irony, wit, coolness of tone, are, in their works, both conserved and yet more than inclusive of the forces often taken as their foils: ardor, advocacy, confession, material lushness. For Ashbery, the example of painting and painterly experimentation acts as an expansive and apposite setting for contemporary language to explore self, representation, interiority, legibility, agency. Casting self-consciousness and its abstractions in terms of representation saves them from a naïve transparency and gives the reflective topography a kind of concreteness in imaginative reach. It’s also where the seductive aspect of his (and Johns and Rauschenberg’s) self-portraits often comes into play. In the self-portrait where one confronts seeing’s strangenesses — its guises and aggressions, distortions, erasures, feints, manipulations, and second thoughts — one may more viscerally encounter the possibility that such components are constitutive of the mystery that can be created in no other way.
“Crowd Conditions” (click here to read) appears near the end of Ashbery’s 2000 book Your Name Here. As the title indicates, this is a book centrally, if playfully and earnestly, concerned with “you,” the mercurial second-person, singular and sometimes plural, pronoun. Your Name Here invites the reader to title it after her or himself, but this turns out to be a partial tease, since we are invited in, but never given full grammatical purchase. Despite the offer or exhortation, it will never be named after you, but always after you naming it after you.
Throughout Your Name Here, poems address both a general and a particular you. The particular, for instance, likes Wheatena or the cookies with a very little sugar on them. This is the you with whom the speaker has lived a life “like that of the great dead poets.” This said, the poet just as often addresses a less intimate or locatable you, a roomy, inviting, taking-every-comer you — a you that can very comfortably accommodate the reader and which often offers the reader grip and traction in difficult poems.
“You” in later Ashbery offers a flexible site of identification and sympathy. Either you are you the reader, and the fond poet addresses you and asks you to put a candle in his wreath and he’ll kiss you, or “you” provides a tender launching pad for the poet to address a lost but beloved other. With this pronominal activity in mind, “Crowd Conditions” is unusual for the book, and in fact, for Ashbery’s oeuvre more generally, since it is most convincingly read, whole cloth, as a persona poem — by this I mean that the poem invites us to read it as spoken by one specific person who is not the poet. But in its oddity, it is illustrative, even programmatic. It schematizes the tension and splay between an attention to landscape and an attention to attention itself. In a sense, the poem offers a take on the condition of the crowd of Ashbery’s later poetic output, poems torn between shaking everyone’s hand, or ducking into a waiting car.
The poem’s closure, its last word even, shows that what seemed on first read to be a free associative train is in fact a train with a destination. The seeming randomness of landscape, address, and invitation, a kind of suspended solution, crystallizes when a single persona is introduced: the president. Throughout the poem, the “we” so prominently featured becomes very possibly a “royal we,” or in this context, these days not so different, a “presidential we.”
Each stanza features a specific mood — manifest in increasingly negative reactions to the imperfections of the world. The first stanza finds the speaker cozening his listener — “Does this interest you, ma jolie?” — into being interested in the landscape. This apparently fails, since the speaker continues to cozen by suggesting that things just might have been postured differently, “perhaps” “more to your liking.” “Yet,” he continues, there are certain things that can’t be undone about the landscape, so it will pretty likely always disappoint. Most of the important things the speaker notes have been obliterated to bring us the landscape we’re left with — this could be night which makes the light show of the sky and landscape possible, or something more like the way in which focusing attention on one thing inevitably takes attention from another. Further, the speaker intuits that his interlocutor in the poem is uneasy with the sexual posture the landscape provides as a “free gift.” This is someone who might wish to “undo the sexual posture of everything.” One might speculate that the idea of a “free gift” in its redundant insistence implies a sort of overzealous posing, or sexual (and commercial) posture. In this case, a double positive might make a negative. A “free gift” may be neither free nor gift, but grift: a showy gesture eliciting return.
The second stanza, then, finds more than the speaker’s interlocutor discontent with the landscape; here, the landscape is fed up with itself. “The ocean sighs, finding the process of striking the shore / interminable and intolerable.” And as in the first stanza the speaker offered the “possibility” that things could have been different to soothe his companion, the speaker here, in the second stanza, tries again to placate his companion by offering a game of “Let’s pretend.” But just as this game gets increasingly complicated and builds a more and more elaborate world, the speaker finds that he has qualified his pretend scenario out of its usefulness — the ability to distract from reality. He starts confidently enough with “Let’s pretend it’s back when we were young / and cheap, and nobody followed us.” Then he backpedals slightly: “Well, the poodle followed us,” then heaps on a more dramatic and suggestive situation: “… men in limousines followed at a discrete distance, the back seat banked with roses.” The let’s pretend game develops until the speaker (and ostensibly his pretend companion) recall getting older and not being able to take a step “without creating crowd conditions.” Presumably, the crowd conditions called up here are crowds that require management by police or security. There are “men dressed as reporters” and “old ladies … crooning about the loss they supposed we shared with them.” The final line of this stanza suggests that the speaker is posing as a sympathetic figure, but in fact doesn’t care about those who imagine he shares a loss with them, or at least doesn’t care very much. His sympathy for the crooning old women is to say the least “imperfect.”
The final stanza, then, begins with the speaker giving up trying to put together some kind of more tolerable or convincing past, landscape, or reality: “Forget it. It all comes undone sooner or later.” In part this has to do with the crescendo of the second stanza, where the speaker sees what is expected of him and realizes he can’t fulfill it: he can’t both fill in the myriad details and individuals of a crowd and be sympathetic to them all. He can tarry in the general and experience one kind of imperfect sympathy, or get netted by specifics and feel another. Thus, at the limit of patience or caring or fellow feeling in a complicated and big world feeling itself comes undone.
As we’ve seen, “Crowd Conditions” begins eager to please and becomes increasingly exasperated by its inability to do so. The speaker starts by trying to tell a pleasing story, trying to grip his listener: “Does that interest you, ma jolie?” — but the project of pleasing others, making a world to his or her or their requirements, comes apart in his hands. At the peak of discontent in this poem, and at the peak of the inadequacy of description, or at the very limit of its interest: “The vetch goes on growing, wondering / whether it grew any more today.” This finds even the landscape’s landscaping not just discontent, but entirely unsure of its own actions, let alone dimensions. At this point of extreme alienation, we come to the final line: “Such, my friends, is life, wondered the president.”
This line grounds the movement of the poem: the scanned frontier, the poodle, the limos with their roses, the reporters in their visors and the crooning old ladies. The final word reorganizes what seemed a kind of poetic flypaper, catching what flies past, and transforms it into a train of thought that moves from possibility, “frontier,” to resignation, “such is life.” Significantly, it hitches this development to a specific persona: the president.
This location of the speaker as “the president” refigures the first two lines as less an image of the night sky than one of the snapping of jostling cameras. In fact, the “imperfect sympathies … twinkling” and the “gaga sky” both drop from some poetic height to the sidewalk of politics described from a particular point of view. What seemed a kind of unmoored Stevensian lexical flight proves instead a focalized description of a very particular kind of “crowd condition.”
That the president’s one real verb is “wonders” is curious. He shares it with the vetch. They both wonder. The phrase, “such is life” is neither a stoical stance, nor a statement of meditation; rather, it is the frayed end or vernacular cauterization of wonder. This could be a statement the president makes aloud, but it seems, with all its sighing commas, to be interior — the friends, then, phantoms. Imaginary friends. In other words, the crowd conditions of the title aren’t just snarls of interest in the exterior world; they are the way in which one person, a president, navigates the immensity of the world, an immensity which forces any sympathy to be an imperfect one.
The imperfect sympathies of the first line, those camera flashes that desire to fix the image of the president, soak through every image and speech act in the poem. The president, while offering the reader access to and an axis through the poem, finds himself ill at ease, unable to connect with “ma jolie,” and like the vetch in its unponderable immensity, not able to sympathize with those he represents. His location occasions his dislocation from the landscape just as the statement of his dislocation occasions our location within the poem. The president represents more than he can feel for. He retreats from this impasse to a position of resignation: such is life.
And Ashbery one-ups this imperfect sympathy: the president may just be talking to himself, internalizing his own “royal we,” being his own crowd of friends. The poem, which started out flirting with the pathetic fallacy, those lights twinkling their imperfect sympathies, then diving wholeheartedly into it with the sighing ocean, ends doubling back on itself in a sort of fallacious pathos.
But weirdest of all is the fact that this poem, this crowd of images and propositions and observations, does in fact crowd around a persona once it is added. The poem, when given a single persona, ALL MAKES SENSE. It is a relief — AND our relief is EXACTLY the discontent the president feels. And we were warned: early on the speaker reports that in order to have a petit suite of lights under the gaga sky “most of the important things” would have to be obliterated. We are satisfied to have the poem become a petit suite exactly to the extent that our sympathy is imperfect: we fill in the blanks, provide the timeline, perhaps even draw analogies to contemporary figures. No persona, the poem suggests, ever goes anywhere without creating the clog and jostle of crowd conditions.
On the other hand, this poet is careful not to suture his poem too snugly to its persona. Perhaps the president is just one of the crowd (of images, of possibilities) and the poet dares us to read the crowd of images always as if for the first time; put differently, resisting the magnetism of a single persona becomes central to rereading the poem.
The poem invites us to consider ourselves the occasion for “crowd conditions” — do we shake everyone’s hand? Or do we duck into our waiting car? How willing are we to maintain the tension of a landscape always threatening to explode into the impossible generality of “vetch” and simultaneously contracting to the ponderings of a single official personage? A persona, it must be said, who is characterized above all by his exasperation with the effects of our making him a persona.
Across the frontiers, imperfect sympathies are twinkling,
a petite suite of lights in the gaga sky.
Most of the important things had to be obliterated
for this to happen. Does that interest you, ma jolie?
Something else would have happened in any case,
more to your liking, perhaps. Yet we can’t undo the sexual posture
that comes with everything, a free gift.
Now the blades are shifting in the forest.
The ocean sighs, finding the process of striking the shore
interminable and intolerable. Let’s pretend it’s back when we were young
and cheap, and nobody followed us. Well,
that’s not entirely true: The poodle followed us
home from school sometimes. Men in limousines followed us
at a discreet distance, the back seat banked with roses.
But as we got older one couldn’t take a step
without creating crowd conditions. Men dressed like reporters
in coats and hats with visors, and yes, old ladies too,
crooning about the loss they supposed we shared with them.
Forget it. It all comes undone sooner or later.
The vetch goes on growing, wondering
whether it grew any more today.
Such, my friends, is life, wondered the president.
“Crowd Conditions” was first published in Your Name Here (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Copyright © 2000 by John Ashbery. All rights reserved. Used by arrangement with Georges Borchardt Inc. for the author.