John Ashbery Turns 25

Octogenerian poet John Ashbery keeps 'em coming with his 25th collection of new poems.

Book Cover John Ashbery is not one of my favorite poets, but his longevity and prodigious accomplishments put him in that newly minted category of the “too big to fail.”

Having won countless major awards (Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Yale Younger Poets Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, etc.), including the lottery for which all artists wish, the MacArthur Foundation fellowship—though never selected as the U.S. Poet Laureate (he was poet laureate of the State of New York)—Ashbery seems to have risen to a level of critical immunity. His new collection Planisphere: New Poems (Ecco), his 25th, pretty much offers the same kind of poem Ashbery has been writing for 50 years. Some commentators assert his poems are essentially about poetry. Ashbery himself says:
“I don’t find any direct statements in life. My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness come to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don’t think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation. My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life.”
What I do find attractive about Ashbery’s poetry is his Whitmanesque inclusion of the reader and his manifold sources: movie titles, street slang, conversational fragments, and more, and that all-important ingredient humor—sometimes of the self-effacing sort:
“I’m quite puzzled by my work too, along with a lot of other people. I was always intrigued by it, but at the same time a little apprehensive and sort of embarrassed about annoying the same critics who are always annoyed by my work. I’m kind of sorry that I cause so much grief.”
The following poem comes from Planisphere:

Just as the day could use another hour,
I need another idea. Not a concept
or a slogan. Something more like a rut
made thousands of years ago by one of the first
wheels as it rolled along. It never came back
to see what it had done, and the rut
just stayed there, not thinking of itself
or calling attention to itself in any way.
Sun baked it. Water stood, or rather sat
in it. Wind covered it with dust, then blew it
away. Always it was available to itself
when it wished to be, which wasn’t often.

Then there was a cup and ball theory
I told you about. A lot of people had left the coast.
Squirt conditions obtained. I forgot I overwhelmed you
once upon a time, between everybody’s sound sleep
and waking afterward, trying to piece together
what had happened. The rut glimmered
through centuries of snow and after.
I suppose it was trying to make some point
but we never found out about that,
having come to know each other years later
when our interest in zoning had revived again.
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