Greg Simon
John Ashbery and the Poetry of Nothing


For some poets, writing prose is like going to the dentist. The longer it's put off, the more daunting it becomes. Once there, of course, unless you've placed yourself in the hands of a quack, it's never as bad as it seemed it was going to be. And so it's a pity that John Ashbery waited so long to sit down and write about the poets whose work interests him. Despite the self-deprecating disclaimers he has scattered throughout the text, Other Traditions (Harvard University Press, 2000) proves him to be an engaging writer of prose when he wants to be. More importantly, it seems to me, the six essays show him to be a poet who, during his own long career, has been an intrepid and sympathetic investigator of other poets, and the treasure troves they left behind.

It is everywhere apparent in this book that Ashbery would like nothing better than to discredit the prevalent theory that a poet's work can be illuminated by access to biography. He deliberately, perhaps even perversely chose six poets who are on the borderline between obscure and completely obscure, as far as what is known about their day-to-day lives, anyway, and whose work has at one time or another been long out of print or even lost. But all six poets did lead very unconventional lives, to say the least, and it is Ashbery's perserverance in dusting off and making sense of the sacrifices they had to make just in order to continue to write, the exertions he had to make in order to unearth their writing, and gain poetic pleasure from it, that forms the connective tissue of this book. Ashbery has been tireless in his quest to find, read and plumb for understanding and illumination the complete works of these poets, and that kind of dedication can only be explained by a very sweet biological impulse on his part to serve, protect and preserve. If we pay close attention to the Ashbery methods of discovery and determination in pursuit of these poets and their work, writing that he claims has meant a great deal to his own, Other Traditions can be read, perhaps against its author's wishes, as a primer on how to identify poetic obscurity, and, even better, how to defeat it for profit and pleasure. "I can only hope," Ashbery declares disingenuously in the very first chapter, "that the relative unfamiliarity of most of [these poets] and the fact that most haven't received enormous attention from critics will be a sufficient reason for reading this book."

At first glance there wouldn't seem to be much reward available from a study of these six poets. Thomas Lovell Beddoes and Raymond Roussel ended their lives as suicides. Laura Riding impelled herself out of a third story window and became her own evil twin instead of dying. John Clare and David Schubert spent years in asylums, or wandering the streets without a penny. The sixth, John Wheelwright, was killed by a drunken driver less than a week after his 43rd birthday. But Ashbery takes great pains to show us that in or out of straightjackets, jails, debtors' prisons, hospitals or strange menageries of lovers, animals and children, and despite poverty, ill health, eccentricity and desperation, all six managed to pack a strange power into their poetry that he is able to recognize and then draw on for his own purposes when, as he disarmingly puts it, "the batteries have run down."

Now, you are going to ask, because this is important to any poet, how does this method of recharging work? And it is here that I feel the utmost sympathy for a group of students with whom Ashbery spent time in a question-and-answer period, at the invitation of his friend and their teacher, Richard Howard. "They wanted the key to your poetry," Howard told him afterwards, "but you presented them with a new set of locks." Nevertheless, I'll stick my neck out and say that I think the key to Ashbery's attraction to the six other poets
in this book is mathematical. He is somehow able to recognize the poetic problems each poet was trying to solve within their writing by looking carefully at the numbers and sequences of words they marshaled to the attack, the way a mathematician admiring someone else's equations would. (He even quotes a very strange poem by John Wheelwright that is written as an equation: "Any Friend to Any Friend (A - B)squared = (B - A) squared.") It's a very proactive kind of math, poetic math, the math of the infinite varieties and possibilities of human speech. In fact, Ashbery refuses to write about any poet whose work he is not able to read in the original language it was written in. The most important sentence in the book is this: "Or is there something inherently stimulating in the poetry called 'minor,' something it can do for us when major poetry can merely wring its hands?" Ashbery's answer is yes and yes. He calls his method "special handling," "previous adjustment" or, my favorite, "tuning." This is what he writes about Wheelwright (1897-1940): "Even where I cannot fully grasp his meaning, which is much of the time, I remain convinced by the extraordinary power of his language as it flashes by on its way from somewhere to somewhere else. At times it seems like higher mathematics; I can sense the 'elegance' of his solutions without being able to follow the steps by which he arrives at them."

I believe the story in Other Traditions is the way Ashbery, in six unique ways, tries to describe the mystical power and attraction of formal or metrical poetry, because or even though he has written very little of it himself. Ashbery quotes this phrase in praise of a poem by Beddoes (1803-1849): "...what words can possibly do justice to its movements and music?" He then adds that he himself has "contemplated [the same poem] for many years without feeling that I've plumbed its formal intricacies or its ambivalent message..." And he writes the following as praise for Roussel (1877-1930): [He] has a prodigious gift for spinning fluid alexandrines that are nevertheless far from being poetry but are instead exquisitely ordered rhymed prose. Roussel's purpose is not to tell a story -- there barely is one -- but to describe objects and decors as minutely as possible, in a medium that is both seamless and pedestrian. The work is all of a piece (and one understands how this massive uniformity could have excited Roussel as he was writing..." (My italics.)

I must admit I've never looked at formal poetry in that way, or considered that the point of it could be to replicate every sonnet, villanelle or pantoum perfectly without using the same sequence of words. Ashbery calls that kind of poetry "nothing," and quotes from the writing of John Cage, at the end of his chapter on Roussel, to define and/or defend it: "I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is / poetry / as I need it." The paragraph also contains an envious Ashbery definition of Roussel's achievement as a poet, and perhaps, by assimilation, of his own. Modern poetry, Ashbery writes, is "a labyrinth of brilliant stories told only for themselves..." Wouldn't it be something if Ashbery could achieve that kind of perfection without the crutch of formalism? In the pantheon of poetic achievement, it would be next to nothing.