Those who dislike John Ashbery’s poetry often complain that they “don’t understand it.” As any Ashbery fan will explain, while secretly thinking you a retrogressive muggle, there is nothing to understand in the traditional (read: old-fashioned, outmoded) sense of “meaning.” This is a valid enough rejoinder; to approach this poet expecting a Robert-Frost-like followability from first line to last is not to approach this poet on his own terms.
So why do I find this poetry, ostensibly composed of logic-transcending “leaps” and demotic one-liners, supposedly an “advance in the transcription of consciousness” (to hear Helen Vendler shill it), so dull?
Ashbery writes a poetry that frequently hybridizes two well-known, but less frequently employed, techniques in poetry: nonsense and nonsequitur. Nonsense is usually used to comic effect in English, most famously by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. The grammatical structure of the English sentence will remain intact, and in many cases will be familiar or common, the expectation that allows for the switch-up. (“Jabberwocky” depends for its effect on a nonexistent but universally familiar Romantic ballad involving nature description and a knight-at-arms slaying a beast.) The frequent attempts at humor in Ashbery fail, for me, because of the other stylistic element, nonsequitur. Humor depends on set-up, the generation of expectation, and the subversion of expectation (the punchline). Nonsequitur strips the humorist of his set-up; Ashbery writes isolated punchlines to jokes he doesn’t have the will or skill to tell.
The nonsequitur is commonplace in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu poetry, which are home to the ghazal, a poem whose couplets are, traditionally, unrelated or only tangentially related. In English, we find nonsequitur’s most striking examples in those passages of Shakespeare where a character is mad or feigning madness. (It is largely absent from classical Western poetry, although you do find it in Pindar.) This is a technique of largely untapped potential in English. Ashbery has made a system out of a technique he never mastered the principle of. The poetry of nonsequitur, like good nonsense poetry, depends for its effects on a context of sense. The logic of the ghazal form sustains Ghalib’s nonsequiturs; whatever the appeal of Ashbery’s poetry is, the appeal of a well-modulated formal structure, I suspect, is not one of them. Nor is narrative flow. It’s the coherence of dramatic action that earns Shakespeare his highly judicious deployment of incoherence.
When I explore my reservations about this poet, I don’t write to convert anyone from his or her worship. That is quite likely impossible. I write to explain why I am not a fellow believer—why this particular idol of the tribe has left me cold.