"Quanta...like spit in the dust of a baseball field" - Cody

April 10, 2003

John Ashbery

Note: This entry is the second in a series about contemporary poets whose work I find inspirational.

There are many resources for introducing you to John Ashbery's poetry. Here are a couple:

John Ashbery is so prolific that any generalization I could make based on one poem would be contradicted by another. April Galleons led me to the conclusion that John Ashbery prefers to employ simple and recognizable language. But then I read "A Day at the Gate," the opening poem of Can You Hear, Bird, which includes these words: "ocarina," "zithers," "ondes martenot," and "glozes." They feel, at least, unfamiliar, and perhaps a bit intimidating. (Note: I'm not knowledgeable about music or French. John Ashbery spent years in France. I don't know about his relationship to music.)

The feeling I just mentioned pretty much sums up my relationship to most of the poets that I will be writing about in this blog. How many readings, poems, books, moments, etc. does it take to feel at home in a poet's world? When do you learn how to read his or her works, and receive the gifts that are offered? For each of the new poets whose poems I am reading, I am making an awkward and hesitant introduction.

This passage is from "No I Don't," a poem found in April Galleons:

To find some vine that has licked out over an eave
Like an unruly eyebrow, something that wasn't there
Moments ago, can stop you in your tracks. I mean the way
Things have of just happening once the principle
Of happening has been laid down for them can be alarming

What I like about this passage is the rushing effect of the long lines, the comparison of a house to a face, and the idea of action hastily following principle. The last idea reminded me of the way the American people were prepared for the current war with months of propaganda, and the feeling that, inevitably, once the powers that be determined that we would fight, we have all been along for the ride. Life as a journey in a vehicle over which we have no control. Except to define. There is always resistance in words. WAR=the worst in human nature.

Posted by cbsisco at April 10, 2003 01:36 AM

"life as a journey in a vehicle over which we have no control."

reminds me of the poem you quoted below, "mostly, we cross bridges we did not see being built" which, by the way, is a beautiful sentence.

also i would like to take this time to say that your giving us poetry is great. i am loving these posts. keep it up! =)

Posted by: michele at April 10, 2003 08:16 AM

"...once the principle/Of happening has been laid down for them..." This idea about causation is really interesting to me... as if there is some sort of agent out there making principles of action that allow for action to take place, but how the poem doesn't actually acknowledge the suggestion of the agent that is made by the passive tense attributed to the "principle." Could it be God or is it just spontaneous, free-form happening that follows some sort of pattern... like the patterns in sea shells and leaf veins?

Posted by: Kristina at April 11, 2003 04:59 PM

I happened upon your blog while searching for Myung Mi Kim's address...
Anyhow, I just read an Ashbery poem entitled "Our Leader Is Dreaming" from Your Name Here, FSG 2000, and it was eerily prescient, as well as funny in light of GW Bush's latest state of the union...it showed me how Ashbery's work is so open, odd, and tender that it connects with much of the matter in language out there. Thanks.

Posted by: Scott at September 11, 2003 07:49 PM