September 13, 2017

The Poet at the Door — John Ashbery in the Living Years

By Stuart Mitchner

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins explained the difference between novelists and poets this way: “I think of the novelist as a houseguest. The poet is more someone who just appears. You know, a door opens and there’s the poet! He says something about life and death, closes the door and is gone. Who was that masked man?”

It’s a nice analogy as long as you don’t take it too far. From what I’ve read and tried to read of contemporary poetry, most door to door poets would get, at best, a blank stare. John Ashbery, who was remembered in the New York Times as “a major figure in American literature” when he died ten days ago at 90, once spoke to The Paris Review about “how weird and baffling my poetry seems to so many people and sometimes to me too … on the one hand, I am an important poet, read by younger writers, and on the other hand, nobody understands me. I am often asked to account for this state of affairs, but I can’t.”

I know whereof he speaks. Almost every poem I tried to read in Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems (Ecco 2007), was like opening the castle door to a long fall to nowhere. I should say at the outset that I’m a total novice in the domain of Ashbery, my impressions based on a five-day whirlwind tour of his work that leaves me somewhere between “Is he kidding?” and “Why do poets have all the fun?” The last thought came after reading poems like “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” that remind me of what happened after I discovered e.e. cummings at 16 — how good it felt to sit down at my parents’ Royal typewriter running naked through the alphabet, scattering punctuation marks like confetti while throwing grammar out the window, riffing wild and free in the days when writing “poetry” was like driving through the night to the shuffle-shuffle beat of “Bo Diddley,” singing along as Bo catches a nanny goat to make his pretty baby a Sunday coat and a big bear cat to make her a Sunday hat.

Knock, Knock

So if John Ashbery had knocked at my door two weeks ago, he’d have been a stranger in the night. But had he admitted straight off “Nobody understands me,” I’d have invited him in for some tea and cookies. The way I picture him now is in the photograph accompanying a recent New Republic article (“How Should We Grieve John Ashbery?”), where he’s shown standing in a doorway (of all things), one hand gripping a picturesquely weathered red door, the other clutching the door frame as he gazes straight ahead, looking right at you; he’s wearing a pale gray green jacket, crisp blue shirt open at the neck, large stylish eyeglasses. He’s not smiling; it’s a no-nonsense expression but you can see “the wraith of a smile” behind the stare.

The Hand

In Dan Chiasson’s New Yorker Postscript, where he speaks of Ashbery’s later work becoming “rather frantic and trippy,” he recalls studying old movies on TCM prior to a visit with the poet, known as an “ardent cinephile.” The film Chiasson chose to talk about was The Beast with Five Fingers, a horror movie involving a disembodied hand. Although he has Ashbery telling him about “dozens of other films with disembodied hands,” it seems odd that he fails to mention the hand in the painting by Parmigianino that inspired “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the title poem of the 1975 collection that won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

It’s “the right hand/Bigger than the head” that brought the poet into that fortuitous 16th-century moment. “Francesco,” the poet tells the painter, “your hand is big enough/To wreck the sphere, and too big,/One would think, to weave delicate meshes.” The hand’s magnitude also suggests a nod to Melville, “a dozing whale on the sea bottom/In relation to the tiny, self-important ship/On the surface.”

The next time Ashbery addresses the painter by name, it’s in reference to “Whose curved hand controls,/Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts/That peel off and fly away at breathless speeds.” In effect, it’s the hand that sets “the carousel starting slowly/And going faster and faster: desk, papers, books,/Photographs of friends, the window and the trees/Merging in one neutral band that surrounds/Me on all sides, everywhere I look.” In the last long concluding stanza, the poet calls the painter by name, once more with the hand in the foreground: “Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand,/Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,/The shield of a greeting, Francesco.” Suddenly he’s out of the room, out of the painting, falling back “at a speed/Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately/Among the features of the room,” wherein Ashbery plays with the old “it was all a dream” Hollywood cop-out. It’s as if the hand has taken us into the painting through the other side into the “disguising radiance” of the poet’s room. At the end, the hand “holds no chalk/And each part of the whole falls off/And cannot know it knew, except/Here and there, in cold pockets/Of remembrance, whispers out of time.”

“This Living Hand”

What happens in “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” seems a protracted variation on the poet at the door saying “something about life and death,” only now it’s the painter reaching out to bring the poet into his room, with its “few leaded panes, old beams,/Fur, pleated muslin.”

Finally, all this talk about a hand conjures up a young man who is never a stranger, always welcome no matter how late the hour, because no one else has John Keats’s knack for delivering one-liners like “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” before vanishing into the night. Here he is, reaching out to us, “This living hand, now warm and capable/Of earnest grasping … — see here it is — I hold it towards you.”

“It’s a Secret”

As one who shares Ashbery’s passion for vintage film, I found some solid ground in Notes from the Air with “Her Cardboard Lover” which shares the title of an old M-G-M Norma Shearer movie. The first line is “The way you look tonight,” the title of the song Fred Astaire sings to Ginger Rogers in Swing Time. The next line’s threesome (“perishable, unphotographable, laughable”) channels “My Funny Valentine,” another standard from the Great American Songbook. But look out, a reference to the way “dyslexia strikes in late middle age” tells you to tread warily among the pop song cliches (“At last my love has come along/And you are mine at last”) and as the poem spins to a stop, just when you thought it was safe to open the door, the poet dons his mask: “So it’s all right,/he thinks. He thinks it’s a secret.”

So who is he and what is it? These are the questions prompted time and again by the “weird and baffling” state of affairs Ashbery is “often asked to account for.”

“The Songs We Know Best”

This column began with some songs on the car stereo during a drive to Doylestown with my son. While I was thinking of ways to approach Ashbery, whose poetry seemed so elusive, we were listening to “The Living Years,” a worldwide hit by Mike and the Mechanics released a few years after Ashbery’s Selected Poems (Viking 1985). Here was a form of popular poetry about life and death and fathers and sons delivered with music of inspirational intensity that turned around a difficult morning. The song about how “every generation blames the one before” was composed by a son whose father died before he could tell him “all the things he had to say in the living years.” It’s a song my son and I have listened to on drives to Montreal and Philadelphia, and all over the state of New Jersey, shyly alert to the way it resonates with our personal history, not to mention that of Mike Rutherford, who wrote the music, and B.A. Robertson, who wrote the lyrics, and the singer Paul Carrack who was eleven when his father died in an industrial accident.

My son knows the lyric by heart, with its reference to “crumpled bits of paper filled with imperfect thought/Stilted conversations, I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got.” After lines like “You say you just don’t see it, he says it’s perfect sense/You just can’t get agreement in this present tense/We all talk a different language, talking in defense” comes the soaring chorus: “Say it loud, say it clear, you can listen as well as you hear; it’s too late when we die to admit we don’t see eye to eye.”

Afraid to Knock

Karin Roffman’s biography, The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2017), takes its title from a poem in the 1984 collection A Wave, in which Ashbery plays with the pop song vernacular in a metre not unlike that of “The Living Years.” The lines that bookend the poem are “Or didja ever really think I was somebody else?” and “Or do ya still think that I’m somebody else?” As usual in Ashbery, it’s not clear who is being asked the question. At least, perhaps, not until the line, “Yet you pause before your father’s door afraid to knock.”

Reviewing The Songs We Know Best in The Guardian, Mark Ford quotes Ashbery on his father: “He used to wallop me a great deal, so I felt always as though I were living on the edge of a live volcano.” Ford wonders “if the evasiveness of Ashbery’s poetry, its habit of tiptoeing or sliding around a crisis in states ranging from mild apprehension to ominous foreboding, reflects the simmering domestic tensions of these early years.”

I wonder about the stranger at the door who says “Nobody understands me,” and in the same Paris Review interview: “I am a believer in fortuitous accidents …. The pathos and liveliness of ordinary human communication is poetry to me.”