Most of the news outlets I frequent have commented on the death, yesterday, of John Ashbery. The Guardian quoted Harold Bloom’s declaration from the mid 1970’s:
“No one now writing poems in the English language is likelier than Ashbery to survive the severe judgments of time.”
And now we get to find out. The Library of America, back in 2008 , impatiently decided to declare his canonical status while the canonball was still warm in the canon. (They’ll have to re-issue the second book to include whatever poems he’s written since.) But it’s never been for the poet’s own generation to immortalize a poet. They nearly always get it wrong.
History is replete with dozens and dozens of Ashbery’s crowned in their day and forgotten the next. For example: William Cowper. Cowper was one of the most popular poets of his time. Coleridge called him “the best modern poet”. Who reads Cowper these days? What about Robert Southey? He was widely read, more popular than Keats, Shelley and, arguably, Byron, and was poet laureate for 30 years, from 1813 until his death in 1843. There’s no doubt that Library of America would have published a two volume collection of his poetry in 1835. He would have been awarded a Pulitzer (though the Nobel would have gone to some singer). Who knows? My point is that contemporary fame is no guarantee. In fact, it’s very often a sure sign that the poet is a minor poet—anthologized at best and forgotten at worst. Why? Because any given generation tends to lionize the poets who speak most directly to their immediate concerns and aesthetic principles (almost always devalued and superseded by the next generation). They’re “of an age”. Jonson (who, in his day, was more highly regarded than Shakespeare) nevertheless recognized Shakespeare’s genius. He put it this way:
He was not of an age, but for all time!
Is Ashbery for all time? While every other eulogy rightfully notes his lists of awards, his reputation among contemporaries, and his influence (like Cowper’s), I remain skeptical. I don’t doubt that Ashbery, like Cowper and Southey, will always have his readers and fierce partisans, but I suspect his legacy will be that of a once highly regarded but minor poet. Being esteemed by professional colleagues simply isn’t enough once they follow the poet into the light.
I do think Ashbery deserves to be anthologized and it’s fair to call his poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror a masterpiece. I admire it too. Would that he had written more like it. Similarly, it’s fair to call Thomas Gray’s poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, his masterpiece. Minor poets do write masterpieces which deserve to be read and remembered.
Nearly all the friends and acquaintances with whom I’ve discussed Asbery read him for his reputation rather than the lure of his poetry. Few have read any more than a handful of his poems or more than a single book. And less can remember any. The problem is typified by the reviews, at Amazon, of Library of America’s first Ashbery. The problem isn’t that they’re mixed, the problem is that there are only six. Library of America’s second Asbery book has none. By way of comparison, Library of America’s Wallace Stevens has 29 reviews; their Robert Frost has 36 reviews; their Walt Whitman has 623.
The critic and poet Meghan O’Rourke once suggested it was better “not to try to understand [Ashbery’s] poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music”. And that’s because the semantic content of Ashbery’s poems is indecipherable. But for the rare exception, there simply isn’t any. But the comparison to music is a poor one. Music has its own recognizable syntax and grammar—chord progressions—no matter the era. When the music ignores those expectations, listeners generally ignore the music. A rough equivalent to Ashbery, for the music listener, might be Karlheinz Stockhausen or Edgard Varèse. Try their musique concrète. There’s also the Beatles’ Revolution 9 on the White Album. No one does covers of Revolution 9. Right?
Well. Long live John Ashbery. May he inspire many a future poet.