I’ve decided that a pandemic is an interesting time to be reading poetry. It’s an interesting time in other ways, too, but I think (as primarily a prose writer, prose reader) poetry provides an interesting portrait in relief. Naively, short poems are much more manageable than a story or a novel; long poems feel insurmountable, impossible. Ashbury, whose poems, even the short ones, can in some moods feel entirely like the latter, is therefore particularly interesting to read in this environment. Blame (the poet) Nick Snow. He picked who I’d be reading.[1]

I’d read Ashbery’s Some Trees[2] sometime in late February or early March, before the news clippings, the stay-at-home orders, the masks. I remember enjoying it but I also don’t remember it so well. Perhaps it’s because so much has happened since (and I have read so many other intervening things), or else because, even then, I didn’t know how to read him. I’m convinced this is, at least in part, the case. It’s been a long time since I was a regular reader of poetry. I consider myself more of a casual reader: I pick up a familiar book every now and again, I read a lot of poems that my friends either send me or have published. The poetry I tend to like is sonically adventurous, short- to medium-length, and preferably digestible. I am not in a particularly good habit of ‘sitting in’ a poem, or really much prose for that matter: I think that’s why I tend to prefer short novels, which sort of force your hand in that respect.

In any case, Some Trees was returned to the library and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror[3] was checked out in its place (an accident of what my local happened to have at the time). Of Some Trees briefly I can say that a few poems sick out in memory, “Popular Songs” with the girl in the car, “A Long Novel” (HA!), and generally the breadth and variety of form on display in the book. The poems in Self-Portrait felt a little more settled; there was less in the way of obvious changes (e.g., no poems like “He” quickly followed by “Sonnet”), though the quick movements within the lines and the poems themselves, of course, remain.

Were I to give up the search for meaning[4] (as, it seems, I may as well), the sounds of the poems appeal to me immensely, as do many of the individual lines: Ashbery writes a damn good line, one after the other. What struck me most, perhaps, about “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (a poem I’ll return to shortly), was the consistency of excellence in the lines themselves: many, if not most, of the lines themselves, in isolation, are fascinating, if not good, or extraordinary. I don’t mean to be blowing smoke so much as expressing my genuine awe, given everything else going on in that long, long poem.

I’ve the benefit of an incomplete set of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, which tells us that

Ashbery’s poems show an awareness of the various linguistic codes (including clichés and conventional public speech) by which we live and through which we define ourselves. This awareness includes an interest in what he has called "prose voices," and he has often written in a way that challenges the boundaries between poetry and prose.[5]

It is perhaps these “voices” that strikes me, as someone interested in prose and voice and sound. It’s the multiple registers that Ashbery floats between that intrigues me most: I am both comforted, humored, by familiar clichés or even — gasp! — conversational dialogue, and in the next line I am sent to the dictionary (even me, with my overeducated, self-satisfied vocabulary). There’s a sort of jauntiness to the poems which I find extremely attractive.

Still, along with Auden, who “famously confessed [after picking Some Trees for the Yale Younger Poets Prize] that he hadn’t understood a word of the winning manuscript,” [6] I don’t always catch certain kinds of expected meaning (meaning one expects, say, when reading some didact John Donne). This is fine: I can live without meaning. I admit to enjoying abstract and experimental art, after all. But it does go against certain aspects of my training. It was recommended that I read Ashbery therefore as “an experience.” Fine.


Returning to the big poem, I can’t help but notice certain things that I am not, in this moment, able to properly attend to. For example, “Self-Portrait” in many ways is reminiscent of the long (what I’ll call) "essay" poems of the Romantics and their close contemporaries (I’m thinking about certain of Tennyson’s work, or Pope,[7] for example). It is in many ways a piece of art criticism. (Citations and all!) But the fluidity of Ashbery’s line and attention brings us there and back, digressing and returning to the painting at hand in really a rather marvelous way. It’s enjoyable, if in some ways taxing.

(And here I return to my original complaint.)

In order to read much of the work in Self-Portrait, no less the titular poem, requires a ‘sitting in.’ The poems cannot be read casually (or at least I cannot read them casually). They demand things (minimally, attention) from the reader. This is something I tend to enjoy. It requires a certain kind of shutting off and sinking in to Ashbery’s mind — for that’s all I can really deduce about these poems, that they straddle the public/private performance so, but are ultimately interior — which can be wonderful. But it does require effort.

We’ve been talking a lot about effort in the pandemic,[8] and perhaps it’s because Alia and I read a little bit of How to Do Nothing[9] and that’s been on the brain, but the requirement to keep the phone in the other room, shut the door, ignore the news, and pay attention made by what of Ashbery’s work I’ve been able to read and re-read over the past few months has been welcome, if absolutely nothing else.

1. This was originally the final paper for my last class of graduate school. It was a mixed undergrad/grad poetry workshop, and there were some good things about it and some things I found painfully lacking in rigor, but hey: poetry (among other things) doesn’t have to be about rigor, I suppose.
2. Yale University Press (1956).
3. Penguin Books (2009).
4. At least, a certain kind of approved meaning, the kinds of which you look for in literature classes and unfamiliar hieroglyphics.
5. (2003): 2984.
6. “John Ashbery,” The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 14 May 2020. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/john-ashbery.
7. Whom I should admit I have not read very much of.
8. Culturally, what with think-pieces and articles on the internet about why we can’t read anymore and why we should not beat ourselves up so much about not being productive; locally, over beers on Zoom.
9. Jenny Odell, Melville House (2009).