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Letters of Blood and other works in English

Göran Printz-Påhlson

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Part Eleven. Surface and Accident: John Ashbery

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1John Ashbery’s position in modern poetry (or modernist poetry or, indeed, postmodernist poetry) is now so secure, but also so peculiar that it seems more difficult than ever to bring it into focus, relating it to the American poets of his own or a slightly younger generation. Critics like Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler have worked hard at rounding it up in a more traditional fold of American poetic development, but for every new departure taken in his later books there seem to be more and more stray mavericks among his poems, which quite definitely refuse to let themselves be classified in those terms. It is some time since the heyday of the New York poets, and it might be difficult to remember how Ashbery could be seen to have anything in common with Ted Berrigan or Frank O’Hara. There is, however, in his latest books—and perhaps more so in A Wave—enough to remind habitual Ashbery-readers of the time when he was considered l’enfant terrible of the American poetry scene.

2Whereas quite a lot of ingenious and sometimes brilliant criticism has been directed to important areas of Ashbery’s activities, in poetry—and one should perhaps add, fiction and drama—the main territory they are addressing themselves to and, in a way, the very rationale behind those activities, have remained in need of elucidation and confrontation with the poetic practices espoused by his rivals and peers. This is, let me reiterate, a peculiar situation, in view of his undisputed importance, but it is also eminently understandable. The acceptance of Ashbery has to a large extent been a matter of trust, as it must have been for the very early modernists. There have been no popular introductions to Ashbery’s works—many have attested to the difficulty involved in teaching his poetry to undergraduates. For those who have accepted the trust, or contract, matters of elucidation are thoroughly irrelevant; as for the poetics of undermining reference which can be seen at the core of his style, questions of meaning become irrelevant. For those who cannot accept the contract, the poetry itself becomes irrelevant, meaningless, and critical elucidation just a part of a strategy of obfuscation. What has appeared is a critical void, similar to the one Ashbery himself mentions with regard to one of his early heroes, the French pre-surrealist Raymond Roussel. Roussel made the principles for organizing his work—fantastic as they were—explicit in painstaking and pedantic detail. The principles immanent in innovatory work of this kind—however eccentric or alien to accepted literary conventions—have to be taken at face value or not at all.

3It is of paramount importance to bear in mind that this situation is radically different from the one pertaining to the acceptance of modernism in the 1920s or 1930s, both in England and in the United States—it may of course be much more similar to the slower acceptance of surrealism in France. The principles of modernism were here inculcated with expository and explicatory zeal by a whole generation of scholars and poets, and related in great detail to various cultural and moral and educational schemes that had it as their rationale to make these principles plausible. One only has to think of Leavis and Richards, of New Criticism in America as expressed in simple terms in the egregious Brooks and Warren; but one should remember as well that the main protagonists of this struggle for acceptance were directly involved. The very considerable critical work of Eliot or Pound constitutes—apart from its critical worth per se—a concerted pedagogical effort that has changed the sensibility of this century to a remarkable degree.

4It is easy to see that these conditions do not apply today. The turn taken by critical practices—and it is a moot point whether we call it ‘linguistic’ or ‘philosophical’—has perhaps irrevocably gone in a different direction, and the kind of instructive and interpretive sensibility which went into a document like Pound’s ABC of Reading would seem today very naïve in its assumptions, and anyhow out of place. The preconditions underlying this somewhat artisan-like belief in the substantiality of the images invading our minds has been obliterated very thoroughly, likewise any faith in a cultural unity where these images can find a natural home.

5Some of the problems have been fairly and squarely faced by Charles Altieri, most recently in his comprehensive critical volume Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. For Altieri, Ashbery appears as a cultural anti-hero, and his quest is intimated on the very first page where he cites the opening lines from Don Juan: ‘I want a hero: an uncommon want’ (11). It might be doubtful that it is such an uncommon want, even in these times of anti-heroic agons. But Altieri is certainly correct in associating Ashbery and Byron as cultural phenomena, at the same time catering to needs of novelty and profundity and to the virtues and conventions of popular culture.

6The kind of rhetoric we associate with Byron and Ashbery has always had a self-perpetuating quality that does not easily subordinate itself to the constraints of narrative or description. I think that Altieri is justified in describing Ashbery’s concern with the muddledness of language as fundamental, as an area where he finds grounds for the recovery of the philosophical ambitions of High Modernism. ‘Concern for rhetoric,’ he writes, ‘becomes a meditation on rhetoricity, on what is involved in being thrown into a language which corrupts all it touches and on the other hand keeps promising to take it beyond its corruptions to some still point…’ (150). There seems to be more Derrida than Ashbery in this, and the formula Altieri has devised for his poetry—‘Discursive rhetoric within a poetics of thinking’ (150)—appears ultimately misleading, in that the kind of mental activity referred to seems very different from what we normally call ‘thinking,’ e.g. problem-solving or evocation of past events. Furthermore, ‘discursive’ is never defined in a satisfactory way, but in relation to poets of very different outlook, Pinsky and Creeley for example.

7Altieri is quite unabashed in his attempts to accommodate Ashbery’s poetry within the perimeter of modern Mandarin culture, but he has to admit—which is quite damaging to his argument—that remaining on an abstract level entails missing the true emotional drama in the poetry. And it is similarly difficult to see that Daffy Duck—in one of the most famous or infamous of Ashbery’s pop poems—as a dramatic persona can live up to the expectations of highly abstract discourse, not because the poem does not deserve to be taken seriously, but because that discourse is obviously part of the things it mocks and undermines. Ashbery’s infatuation with popular culture has to be taken more seriously, in fact, than either cultural analysis or ideological criticism can begin to intimate, as a very thoroughgoing identification with or loyalty to that culture with all its debunking force. I discern the same loyalty in some of his younger American contemporaries, like Robert Hass or Robert Pinsky, who have found completely opposed, or at least very different means for the restructuring of their poetic territory.

8I might be excused for advocating a more relaxed and less intimidating (or intimidated) approach to John Ashbery’s poetry than is nowadays most often the case, as my preoccupation with his poetry has not been in the main as a critic but as a translator. I have been engaged in translating Ashbery into Swedish, off and on, since the mid-1960s, and I have been much cheered and sometimes utterly baffled by the process. Most of my translations were collected in a volume, with the perhaps inescapable and at least easily recognizable title Självporträtt i en konvex spegel (Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror), although it contains poems from all his major volumes with the exception of Three Poems—up to and including Shadow Train.

9The difficulties facing the translator of poetry of this type—and I can only speak from my own experience—seems to me to lie less in the cultural, popular or literary references ingrained in all modern poetry, as in finding and maintaining a tone which seems right and convincing, including the registers Ashbery might have used had he been writing in Swedish. This clearly is an intuitive undertaking, where actual interpretation of the cultural ambiance plays a fairly minor role. It is no doubt important to be able to place these references when they occur in crucial contexts: as, for instance, recognizing—to take a perhaps uncharacteristically simple and straightforward example—the anonymous ballad ‘Tom o’Bedlam’ behind the poem ‘Loving Mad Tom’ (from Houseboat Days). But the reference occurs, apart from the title, only in one line: ‘A spear of fire, a horse of air’ (17), and there has been enormous care taken in not letting the rhythmic magnificence of the old poem shine through in any line:

With a host of furious fancies
Whereof I am Commaunder,
With a burning Spear and a horse of Air
To the wilderness I wander. (See Logan 180)

10It would be futile to expect a rendering of this poem in a version where the Swedish reader could sense that magnificence. But it would be more than futile: it would be wrong, if it could be done. For such are the rules of Ashbery’s poetic universe that references are allowed only as negations.

11On the other hand, some more mundane references tend to create worse problems. How do you convey to the Swedish reader what it is like to be in Warren, Ohio? ‘Are place names central?’ Ashbery asks in a poem from Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, ‘One thing that can save America,’ immediately, and characteristically, preceded by the obvious retort ‘Is anything central?’ (44–45)

12The makeshift nature of poetic translation can certainly be felt almost painfully when working with somebody like Ashbery, but it might also serve to re-interpret the whole question of reference in poetry and the fact that no reader, ideal or real, can be expected to be familiar with the frame of reference as part of an incontestable body of shared knowledge. This makes the whole business of poetic translation somewhat haphazard, but not necessarily any more so than other forms of cultural dissemination, the point being that the Swedish reader may know nothing of Warren, Ohio, but the same may apply to the British reader, not to speak of readers in Canberra or Saskatoon, who can partake of the original in their native language. The indeterminacy of the text is clearly a case in evidence; but the word ‘indeterminacy’ gives a false impression as far as the negative principle so often invoked in Ashbery’s pronouncements goes: i.e. that if a text of Ashbery’s is called ‘The Tennis Court Oath’ or ‘Civilization and its Discontent,’ they are in fact determined by their titles in so far as they cannot possibly be about the Tennis Court Oath or our civilization and its discontent. There are of course some exceptions to this: most notably that most famous and quite unusual excursion into ekphrasis, ‘Self-Portait in a Convex Mirror.’

13Summarizing the experience of translating Ashbery, I can just say that it feels very different from what one would expect when faced with the philosophizing of some of his critics. Literal translation was in most cases out of the question: one had to find the conversational flow of the language and make adjustments as one went along. Some recalcitrant clichés had to be abandoned, metaphors and similes substituted. I inserted a nice quotation from a seventeenth century Swedish poet in the middle of Section III of ‘The Skaters.’ Other similar allusions had to come out. A line from the Swedish translation of ‘The Internationale’ about pursuit of happiness (indeed not in the original!) gave me the title for the poem of that name from Shadow Train. In short, very much what one is normally forced to do in poetry translation (or allows oneself to do, as the case may be).

14What one is made to realize, however, is that the self-reflexiveness of the kind of poetry Ashbery represents, which is always contending with its own creation, is able to supply amazingly straightforward and down-to-earth descriptions of this very process (I am thinking of Ponge as a parallel case) And when the poem pauses, which does not happen too often, in order to give a notation to its own progress, it is very much an occasion for serious reflection, as in ‘The Skaters’:

This, thus is a portion of the subject of this poem
Which is in the form of falling snow:
That is, the individual flakes are not essential to the importance of the whole
becoming so much of a truism
That their importance is again called in question, to be denied further out, and
again and again, like this. (
The Mooring of Starting Out 199)

15When, however, it encapsulates a statement on poetics, as it does in ‘And Ut Pictura Poesis is her name,’ it is with an uninhibited gleeful matter-of-factness that it parodies its antecedents in the high Modernist tradition:

So much for self-analysis. Now,
About what to put in your poem-painting:
Flowers are always nice, particularly delphinium.
Names of boys you once knew and their sleds,
Skyrockets are good—do they still exist?
There are a lot of other things of the same quality
As those I’ve mentioned. Now one must
Find a few important words, a lot of low-keyed,
Dull-sounding ones. (
Houseboat Days 45)

16‘The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind’ (45) being presented as the fertility principle of poetic creativity, does not allow many inroads for sweeping philosophical generalizations. In a way, it both confirms and erases the artisan-like naïveté of Poundian poetics.

17In ‘A Wave’ we are very much back in familiar Ashbery surroundings, presented almost with contempt: ‘In the haunted house no quarter is given: in that respect / It’s very much business as usual. The reductive principle / No longer there, or isn’t enforced as much as before’ (A Wave 69). The wave seems a perfect embodiment of his austere emptiness. It is insubstantial and still well formed, individual, but collectively placed, as are indeed the flakes of falling snow on ‘The Skaters.’ Never before have so many themes been combined and fully orchestrated in Ashbery’s work. This is not the place to attempt a fuller consideration of what is new and what is familiar in this masterful summation. Some of the lesser poems in the book show new departures, although in not unfamiliar territory, in particular in the exacting form of the prose poem. Others, like ‘The Songs We Know Best’ seem to be moving towards a painfully gruff idiom, unmistakably American, cracker-barrel.

18It is perhaps in this direction one can feel that John Ashbery wants to move in the future. But the programmatically unpredictable has always been his forte. His dream world America may be escapism or nightmare: it shows both the smooth surface ‘and the accidents / Scarring that surface, yet it too only contains / As a book on Sweden only contains the pages of that book’ (Self-Portrait 55). This reading from Sweden can only try to contain the images shaped by such surface, such accidents.


Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Ashbery, John. Houseboat Days. New York: Viking, 1977.

—. The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry. New York: Ecco, 1997.

—. Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

—. A Wave. New York: Viking, 1984.

Byron, Baron George Gordon. The Works of Lord Byron: Poetry, vol. 6. Ed. by Ernest Hartley Coleridge. London: Murray, 1903.

Logan, W.H., ed. A Pedlar’s Pack of Ballads and Songs. Edinburgh: Paterson, 1869.


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