13 January 2010


I've got a copy of John Ashbery's Selected Prose for my birthday - thanks, Marion - which had been on my wishlist for a while. Ashbery, as I've written before, fascinates me; his poetry seems to me to require a new way of reading, and maybe his writing about others will elucidate it.

Sadly not, on the basis of the few pieces I've read so far. His criticism is warm and heart-felt, but unspecific. There's little examination of how his favoured poets achieve their effects.

His taste is very good (by which I mean it coincides with mine in many respects), and there are essays here on Jacques Rivette, Michel Butor and lots of other writers I really don't know. But I want to take as an example his writing about Marianne Moore in a review from 1967 of her Complete Poems.

He adores her work: "I am tempted simply to call her our greatest modern poet". Why? He begins by stating that there is a purported message of restraint underlying the work, and wondering whether restraint has ever been a characteristic of memorable poetry. But he shrinks back from recognising ambiguity in a curious, and curiously long-winded, hesitation:
Without, however, suggesting that there is in Miss Moore's work a strain counter to the sentiments she seems to be expressing here (and of course, we should not assume that they are hers merely because she uses the form of direct address), that the swarming details, each one crystal clear, often add up not merely to complexity but to a "darkness" which gives contours to her "truth" - without going this far, one can still note that all here is not so modest, cheerful and brightly lit as the lines I have quoted seem to imply.
There's a strange contamination there of presumed authorial intention, which leads Ashbery halfway to criticising Moore for losing control of what she's trying to express. This seems to be why he won't completely acknowledge the complexity of meaning, while to me that kind of complexity is exactly what makes the poetry interesting.

He goes on:
When we explore any of the poems that comprise the Moore canon [...] we are brought up against a mastery which defies attempts to analyze it, an intelligence which plays just beyond our reach.
Which is really not good enough. But Ashbery is a better poet than he is a critic, and he notes that "though Marianne Moore's mind moves in a straight line, it does so over a terrain that is far from level". That's a sharp image, and unsurprisingly it yielded the title of the review, "Straight Lines over Rough Terrain".

I'm sure the general argument of the article is correct: Moore's work gains its strength from the contrast between the strict forms she uses and the richness of allusion she employs (Ashbery refers to her translations of La Fontaine - works I don't know - where there's an additional formal restriction). But he doesn't look at how that happens. Surprising, perhaps, that a poet should not look more closely into the detailed craft of another.

The concluding paragraph begins "In short, one can never be sure precisely what she is up to" and the review doesn't really go beyond an account of Ashbery's reasons for liking the poems so much, which is based at the level of meaning rather than method.

In Ashbery's preface to the collection he quite wittily says that the Poets on Poetry series in which this collection was first published
is aimed at readers who like poetry, want to learn more about the poets in question, and think that prose is usually easier to understand than poetry. Mary McCarthy once complimented me on my art criticism and was about to add something like, "Why can't your poetry be like that?" but stopped herself at the last minute.
We could analyse infinitely the play of vanity and self-deprecation in that quotation, but let's just note how it dodges the question of whether poetry and prose are "understood" in different ways. Ashbery's own poetry refuses to be understood in any simple sense; but he doesn't seem to apply that paradigm to other writers' work.

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