Sharing some John Ashbery, and Poetry in California

Wanted to pass along some beloved excerpts from John Ashbery, who I try my utmost to imitate. Nothing is like his poetry.

An immodest little white wine, some scattered seraphs,
recollections of the Fall—tell me,
has anyone made a spongier representation, chased
fewer demons out of the parking lot
where we all held hands?

Little by little the idea of the true way returned to me.
I was touched by your care,
reduced to fawning excuses.
Everything was spotless in the little house of our desire,
the clock ticked on and on, happy about
being apprenticed to eternity. A gavotte of dust-motes
came to replace my seeing. Everything was as though
it had happened long ago
in ancient peach-colored funny papers
wherein the law of true opposites was ordained
casually. Then the book opened by itself
and read to us: “You pack of liars,
of course tempted by the crossroads, but I like each
and every one of you with a peculiar sapphire intensity.
Look, here is where I failed at first.
The client leaves. History goes on and on,
rolling distractedly on these shores. Each day, dawn
condenses like a very large star, bakes no bread,
shoes the faithless. How convenient if it’s a dream.”

In the next sleeping car was madness.
An urgent languor installed itself
as far as the cabbage-hemmed horizons. And if I put a little
bit of myself in this time, stoppered the liquor that is our selves’
truant exchanges, brandished my intentions
for once? But only I get
something out of this memory.
A kindly gnome
of fear perched on my dashboard once, but we had all been instructed
to ignore the conditions of the chase. Here, it
seems to grow lighter with each passing century. No matter how you twist it,
life stays frozen in the headlights.
Funny, none of us heard the roar.

“Wakefulness,” in John Ashbery, Wakefulness, 1999

I was introduced to his works by this September 2018 LitHub article by Nathan Goldman, on the pleasures of Ashbery’s poetry. Written a year after the master’s death, the piece is part personal engagement on Goldman’s part with Ashbery’s work and part deliciously close reading of his final poem, “Climate Correction”.

“I came to believe that entering Ashbery’s often incomprehensible work requires us to set the goal of comprehension to the side and to linger patiently in the poems’ pleasures,” Goldman writes – beautifully, I think.

Orpheus liked the glad personal quality
Of the things beneath the sky. Of course, Eurydice was a part   
Of this. Then one day, everything changed. He rends   
Rocks into fissures with lament. Gullies, hummocks   
Can’t withstand it. The sky shudders from one horizon   
To the other, almost ready to give up wholeness.   
Then Apollo quietly told him: “Leave it all on earth.   
Your lute, what point? Why pick at a dull pavan few care to   
Follow, except a few birds of dusty feather,
Not vivid performances of the past.” But why not?   
All other things must change too…

…Meaning also that the “tableau”
Is wrong. For although memories, of a season, for example,   
Melt into a single snapshot, one cannot guard, treasure   
That stalled moment. It too is flowing, fleeting;   
It is a picture of flowing, scenery, though living, mortal,   
Over which an abstract action is laid out in blunt,   
Harsh strokes. And to ask more than this
Is to become the tossing reeds of that slow,
Powerful stream, the trailing grasses
Playfully tugged at, but to participate in the action   
No more than this. Then in the lowering gentian sky   
Electric twitches are faintly apparent first, then burst forth   
Into a shower of fixed, cream-colored flares. The horses   
Have each seen a share of the truth, though each thinks,   
“I’m a maverick. Nothing of this is happening to me,   
Though I can understand the language of birds, and   
The itinerary of the lights caught in the storm is fully apparent to me.
Their jousting ends in music much
As trees move more easily in the wind after a summer storm   
And is happening in lacy shadows of shore-trees, now, day after day.”…

“Syringa,” by John Ashbery in Poetry, Apr 1977

Goldman chronicles Ashbery’s own grappling with his status as a “difficult” poet. When after a seminar he asked his friend Richard Howard how it had gone for his students, Ashbery was told, “They wanted the key to your poetry, but you presented them with a new set of locks.”

Goldman adds a flourish on that anecdote: “Here, as in Ashbery’s description of his reputation as ‘a writer of hermetic poetry,’ his work’s difficulty is framed as impenetrability, as inaccessibility: it withholds its meaning from the reader. But the fact that the work is difficult does not mean that is inaccessible—not if we try to see open doors where Howard’s students saw keyholes. Rather than suspect Ashbery of deliberately concealing his poems’ true meaning, we might begin from the premise that Ashbery left doors open everywhere in the particular modes of strangeness he chose.”

So what if there was an attempt to widen
the gap. Reel in the scenery.
It’s unlike us to reel in the difference.

We got the room
in other hands, to exit like a merino ghost.
What was I telling you about?

Walks in the reeds. Be
contumely about it.
You need a chaser.

In other words, persist, but rather
a dense shadow fanned out.
Not exactly evil, but you get the point.

“Climate Correction,” by John Ashbery in Harper’s, Sep 2018

By the by, I have learned that there is no currently appointed poet laureate for the great “state of California,” as Gov. Newsom would say. The post is irregularly filled, and this lacuna is no great chasm; still, this is a different state of affairs than the one prevailing when Charles Garrigus held the post, as he did from 1966 through to the end of the millennium.

The position has been extant since 1915, when the state commanded within its borders just a hair above three millions. Our last poet laureate was Dana Gioia, a graduate of Stanford’s GSB and former executive at General Mills, who went on to become Chairman of the National Foundation of the Arts. As poet laureate, he was the first to undertake a tour of all of California’s 58 counties.

‘We’re going,’ they said, ‘to the end of the world.’   
So they stopped the car where the river curled,   
And we scrambled down beneath the bridge   
On the gravel track of a narrow ridge.

We tramped for miles on a wooded walk
Where dog-hobble grew on its twisted stalk.
Then we stopped to rest on the pine-needle floor   
While two ospreys watched from an oak by the shore.

We came to a bend, where the river grew wide   
And green mountains rose on the opposite side.   
My guides moved back. I stood alone,
As the current streaked over smooth flat stone.

Shelf by stone shelf the river fell.
The white water goosetailed with eddying swell.   
Faster and louder the current dropped
Till it reached a cliff, and the trail stopped.

I stood at the edge where the mist ascended,   
My journey done where the world ended.
I looked downstream. There was nothing but sky,   
The sound of the water, and the water’s reply.

“The End of the World,” by Dana Gioia in Interrogations at Noon, 2001

Los Angeles’s poet laureate-ship also appears to have lapsed – Robin Coste Lewis, whose debut collection, The Voyage of the Sable Venus, blasted onto the world and won a National Book Award in 2015, was appointed to a two year term in April of 2017.

Last summer, two discrete young snakes left their skin
on my small porch, two mornings in a row. Being

postmodern now, I pretended as if I did not see
them, nor understand what I knew to be circling

inside me. Instead, every hour I told my son
to stop with his incessant back-chat. I peeled

a banana. And cursed God—His arrogance,
His gall—to still expect our devotion

after creating love. And mosquitoes. I showed
my son the papery dead skins so he could

know, too, what it feels like when something shows up
at your door—twice—telling you what you already know. 

“Summer,” by Robin Coste Lewis, in Voyage of the Sable Venus, 2015

Legendary LA poet Bill Mohr (also a CSU Long Beach professor of English) posted about the city’s department of culture putting out applications for the next poet laureate, which were due in March of this year. So I guess we’ll have to see.

Waiting for the sink to fill and foam with the soap of permission,
I know it’s only ordinary tasks that tremble with any hope of permission.

How do I know, for certain? The aspiration’s fixed, and how
Could this wet bowl be other than a stage prop of permission?

Young lovers play at being disobedient, like constellations
In a galaxy that flutter in a dance that says we elope with permission.

I held out as long as I could. Poignant thrusts and I grope.
How even after fucking starts, it all rolls to a stop for permission.

A spigot leaks. I tease the parched trees round my house with playful arcs
Of water every other day. Even on webs, spiders grope for permission.

Did anyone ask the cop how horny he felt in his patrol car? Who says
That punishment awaits those who are given enough rope of permission?
Don’t laugh, my friend: ‘The protestors clashed with lightly armed police.’ Lightly?
In swearing to uphold the law, they mock the trope of permission.

“Hasty Deceptions of a Dishwasher,” by Bill Mohr in Ghazals, 2015

…This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers   
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.

These then were some hazards of the course,
Yet though we knew the course was hazards and nothing else   
It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,   
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time…

“Soonest Mended,” by John Ashbery in The Double Dream of Spring, 1966

One thought on “Sharing some John Ashbery, and Poetry in California

  1. I was gifted a copy of John Ashbery’s collection by my only female companion, back in 2013, and though I never made a conscious effort to mimic him, and though I don’t believe I inch a fraction of his talent, I always ideated my pinnacled form as a poet to be some odd coalescence of Milosz and Ashbery. In that dream, I’m named Zoltan, however.
    I loved the poems you selected; including the ones by Dana Gioia and Robin Coste Lewis.

    Liked by 1 person

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