30 Poets/30 Days: John Ashbery

POEM AT THE NEW YEAR

Once, out on the water in the clear, early nineteenth-century twilight,
you asked time to suspend its flight. If wishes could beget more than sobs,
that would be my wish for you, my darling, my angel. But other
principles prevail in this glum haven, don’t they? If that’s what it is.

Then the wind fell of its own accord.
We went out and saw that it had actually happened.
The season stood motionless, alert. How still the dropp was
on the burr I know not. I come all
packaged and serene, yet I keep losing things.

I wonder about Australia. Is it anything about Canada?
Do pigeons flutter? Is there a strangeness there, to complete
the one in me? Or must I relearn my filing system?
Can we trust others to indict us
who see us only in the evening rush hour,
and never stop to think? O, I was so bright about you,
my songbird, once. Now, cattails immolated
in the frozen swamp are about all I have time for.
The days are so polarized. Yet time itself is off center.
At least that’s how it feels to me.

I know it as well as the streets in the map of my imagined
industrial city. But it has its own way of slipping past.
There was never any fullness that was going to be;
you waited in line for things, and the stained light was
impenitent. ‘Spiky’ was one adjective that came to mind,

yet for all its raised or lower levels I approach this canal.
Its time was right in winter. There was pipe smoke
in cafés, and outside the great ashen bird
streamed from lettered display windows, and waited
a little way off. Another chance. It never became a gesture.

From The Poetry Foundation:

John Ashbery is recognized as one of the greatest twentieth-century American poets. He has won nearly every major American award for poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Griffin International Award, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Ashbery’s poetry challenges its readers to discard all presumptions about the aims, themes, and stylistic scaffolding of verse in favor of a literature that reflects upon the limits of language and the volatility of consciousness. In the New Criterion, William Logan noted: “Few poets have so cleverly manipulated, or just plain tortured, our soiled desire for meaning. [Ashbery] reminds us that most poets who give us meaning don’t know what they’re talking about.” The New York Times Book Review essayist Stephen Koch characterized Ashbery’s voice as “a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with a weird pulsating rhythm that fluctuates like a wave between peaks of sharp clarity and watery droughts of obscurity and languor.”

Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees (1956) won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The competition was judged by W.H. Auden, who famously confessed later that he hadn’t understood a word of the winning manuscript. Ashbery published a spate of successful and influential collections in the 1960s and ‘70s, including The Tennis Court Oath(1962), The Double Dream of Spring (1970), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) and Houseboat Days (1977). Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, considered by many to be Ashbery’s masterpiece, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, an unprecedented triple-crown in the literary world. Essentially a meditation on Francesco Parmigianino’s painting “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the narrative poem showcases the influence of visual art on Ashbery’s style, as well as introducing one of his major subjects: the nature of the creative act, particularly as it applies to the writing of poetry. This is also, as Peter Stitt noted, a major theme of Houseboat Days, a volume acclaimed by Marjorie Perloff inWashington Post Book World as “the most exciting, most original book of poems to have appeared in the 1970s.” Stitt maintained in the Georgia Review that “Ashbery has come to write, in the poet’s most implicitly ironic gesture, almost exclusively about his own poems, the ones he is writing as he writes about them.” Roger Shattuck made a similar point in the New York Review of Books: “Nearly every poem in Houseboat Days shows that Ashbery’s phenomenological eye fixes itself not so much on ordinary living and doing as on the specific act of composing a poem…Thus every poem becomes an ars poetica of its own condition.”

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