Friday, September 8, 2017

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

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 drop 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 like 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 all 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 stood in line for things, and the soiled 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 caf├ęs, and outside the great ashen bird
streamed from lettered display windows, and waited
a little way off. Another chance. It never became a gesture.

John Ashbery (1927-2017)

The great John Ashbery has died age 90 ('of natural causes' says his husband, quoted in the media). As a community of poets, probably many reading this will already know of his passing. I'm not American, which is perhaps why I have somehow missed most of his work until now. I didn't think I had, but I now realise that, due to a slight similarity of names, I was mixing him up with another US poet, John Berryman. (Shame on me! Both wonderful, but quite distinct.) 

I have been enjoying catching up with more of Ashbery's poetry now – finding it interesting, rich, and often dense; both cerebral and moving. Many read as if he lets us inside his head in a stream of consciousness, but the poems are far too well crafted for that to be the case. 

I like the one I've chosen here because (as well as being a beautiful poem) it seems to me to indicate his take on both life and death. Another that particularly struck me among the collection of his work at PoemHunter was the best cento I've ever seen, using very famous lines by other poets (albeit some few I didn't recognise). Even the title is from another poet – Edward Lear, keeping company with the likes of Shakespeare, Hopkins, Kipling.... Click here to enjoy it too, and to get access to a number of others.

Wikipedia tells us: 

He published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won nearly every major American award for poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror 

and adds:

Renowned for its postmodern complexity and opacity, Ashbery's work still proves controversial. 

Further, Wikipedia states: 

Stephen Burt, a poet and Harvard professor of English, has compared Ashbery to T. S. Eliot, calling Ashbery "the last figure whom half the English-language poets alive thought a great model, and the other half thought incomprehensible". 

The poet himself is on record as saying he wanted his work to be accessible! But he also once said that his goal was 'to produce a poem that the critics cannot even talk about'. (Ah, but they keep on trying.) He is often experimental, both with form and language. 

You can judge for yourself at the PoemHunter link or in a selection in the New York Times; also his works run into several pages on Amazon (though no ebooks, unfortunately).

Though he began writing poetry as a schoolboy, he originally wanted to be an artist. Over the course of his long life, he worked in and out of academia, in both literary and artistic fields. It was clearly a rich life in many ways. He lived for a time in Paris, and one of the ways he supported himself was by translating French murder mysteries. He also translated French poets. He became a friend and admirer of Andy Warhol and was associated with The Factory.

His former student, Tania Ketenjian, writing in The Guardian, says:

For Ashbery, poetry is not about definitions or pronouns or intentions or genres. It’s not about telling a story that has a proper conclusion. It’s about what it is to experience – experience anything. His work says you don’t need to decipher the words, just experience them. ... He taught me that poetry can be anything and with that comes great freedom.... 

How wondrously brilliant ... to create work that allows for the incessant contradictions of life and all that it beholds and to remind the reader, in the way in which you write, to not try to figure it all out, it’s life, moment by moment, experience by experience. It’s just life, it’s just poetry, everything and nothing.

Her whole article is well worth reading; also there are other detailed and comprehensive obituaries being posted online. Check Google.

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright). The photo of John Ashbery above is licensed as Creative Commons 2.0 and is by David Shankbone.


  1. Actually the only familiarity I had with John Ashbery was his name. I never read anything by him. I do see the richness and denseness (qualities you mentioned) of the poem of his that you shared. And, ha, I probably could understand it if I spend some amount of time analyzing his complex phrases. He seems to me to be an academic's poet, one to be studied in university literature classes rather than to be read by the average person on the street. I enjoyed your summation of his life. Interesting that though he was a prolific and prize-winning poet he supported himself in other ways. Thank you for this interesting feature, Rosemary.

    1. Yes, I'm sure you're right that he is not for the average person in the street. With poetry like this, I don't try too hard to understand intellectually; I just let the images wash over me to give a kind of emotional understanding.

      I realised all my links had dropped out of the post when you read it; have now restored them.

    2. Rosemary, I think your mention of not trying to try to hard intellectually is a good thing. I do get an 'emotional understanding' when I read the poem you shared. THAT makes sense to me. (Still, I doubt I would buy a book of his poetry. I can appreciate his talent, but still realize I can identify with down-to-earth poems better. Sigh.)

    3. Oh, don't sigh. :) There is a place for all kinds; I love the variety of ways there are to make poems, as this community continually demonstrates. And I do think we must, above all, read and write it according to our own personal pleasure.

  2. "I wonder about Australia. Is it anything like Canada?
    Do pigeons flutter? Is there a strangeness there, to complete
    the one in me?"
    I'm not sure I understand this poem, but I am intrigued by it. The Narrator is stillness in time's flow, but can move too. Like the wind and the bird, it "never becomes a gesture." The chore seems to be adaptation and wonder.

  3. I liked the same lines Susan noted. Yes, Canada is much like Australia in many places, I suspect. This is a very erudite poet. I had not come across him. Am glad he had 90 wonderful years and was well recognized for his work. Thank you, Rosemary, for bringing us these gems.

    1. Ha, my reaction to those lines was to doubt that Australia is much like Canada. I always think of Canada as mountainous and COLD, essentially a winter country. Whereas, though we do have mountains, few of them are snowy, and although we do have winters, we are basically a summer country with inhabitants who can't wait to throw ourselves in the ocean at every opportunity. (Stereotyping, of course. :) )

  4. Thanks, Rosemary. My former poetry group in Portland, was led by a huge John Ashbery fan, and would bring in his poems to read every so often. I learned to choose words or phrases that appealed to me purely for their sound.

  5. Thank you for this Rosemary....always sad to hear that a great voice is silenced....I love how you describe his work....

    'It’s about what it is to experience – experience anything. His work says you don’t need to decipher the words, just experience them. ... He taught me that poetry can be anything and with that comes great freedom....'.

    As a poet I can only aspire to this....that people experience my words/our words.

  6. Thank you for this, Rosemary. Wonderful tribute.

  7. Another edifying and interesting post. Thanks so much, Rosemary.

  8. I visited 3 of Ashbery's poems, totally befuddled by all, but admiring certain phrases and images that were brilliant. Thank you for introducing us to a variety of poetic talents, Rosemary. There's something to be learned from them all!

  9. A wonderful tribute - I could hear his voice in the poem you chose

  10. He's a bit obscure, isn't he? Yet much of it spoke crystal clear to me.

  11. A wonderful post! Thank you so much RoseMary. xoxo


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