John Ashbery has died. He was my favourite American poet for a long time, challenging to read, but the kind of poet that completely draws you in to a poem, into a little universe of wordplay and image and sense. You don’t read Ashbery so much as you taste his work. He took the legacies of modernity placed them beside the lessons of post-modernity and produced beauty, which tells you something of his genius.
The Poetry Foundation has a number of his poems online. Like all poets who cared so deeply about their words and how they were presented, I think he’s still best experienced in his books, whether the long form poems of the 1990s or the shorter works of his earlier years.
I am astounded at the breadth of his inspiration and the way he was able to draw meaning from disparate images and weave them together in a way that presented a musical, rhythmic poem that had what the Irish fiddler Martin Hayes has called “The Lonesome Note.” In his work you can feel the pining for the meaning that is his alone, privately held, implied, offered to you to discover or, in the absence of your ability to relate to what he is saying, to leave you with a sensation, an in-breath, sometimes an uneasy feeling, sometimes a feeling of delight.
He was prolific and left a huge legacy of work and a massive imprint on American and world poetry. Here’s one, sort of randomly picked, that talks about the sanitization of American life and reveals something of his poetics as well.
The One Thing That Can Save AmericaIs anything central?Orchards flung out on the land,Urban forests, rustic plantations, knee-high hills?Are place names central?Elm Grove, Adcock Corner, Story Book Farm?As they concur with a rush at eye levelBeating themselves into eyes which have had enoughThank you, no more thank you.And they come on like scenery mingled with darknessThe damp plains, overgrown suburbs,Places of known civic pride, of civil obscurity.These are connected to my version of AmericaBut the juice is elsewhere.This morning as I walked out of your roomAfter breakfast crosshatched withBackward and forward glances, backward into light,Forward into unfamiliar light,Was it our doing, and was itThe material, the lumber of life, or of livesWe were measuring, counting?A mood soon to be forgottenIn crossed girders of light, cool downtown shadowIn this morning that has seized us again?I know that I braid too much on my ownSnapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.They are private and always will be.Where then are the private turns of eventDestined to bloom later like golden chimesReleased over a city from a highest tower?The quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you,And you know instantly what I mean?What remote orchard reached by winding roadsHides them? Where are these roots?It is the lumps and trialsThat tell us whether we shall be knownAnd whether our fate can be exemplary, like a star.All the rest is waitingFor a letter that never arrives,Day after day, the exasperationUntil finally you have ripped it open not knowing what it is,The two envelope halves lying on a plate.The message was wise, and seeminglyDictated a long time ago, but its time has stillNot arrived, telling of danger, and the mostly limitedSteps that can be taken against dangerNow and in the future, in cool yards,In quiet small houses in the country,Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets.