Why Ashbery is So Dull

Amit Majmudar
December 17, 2012
Comments 3

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.

3 thoughts on “Why Ashbery is So Dull

  1. Dear Mr. Fuller—Thanks for your comment. I quite agree with you on a few points!
    –For example, when parsing my own reaction to this writer, I do indeed impose my own ways of thinking about poetry onto the “reality” of the work. I do not know if anything else is humanly possible, when it comes to a reader response! Note that Bacon sets up the term idola tribus in the Novum Organum in reference to the sciences and the study of the universe—not to the subjective response to poetry. I believe you are shifting this term onto a kind of experience where it does not apply.
    You are also correct in stating that Ashbery is not “summed up” by two techniques—I doubt that any poet, even the simplest, is no more than the sum of two techniques, much less a poet with a career as long and varied as Ashbery’s. However, if you are asserting that these aren’t two dominant techniques of his, or that his poetry is somehow rational and closely argued at some “meta” level, Ashbery himself, according to his Paris Review interview, would disagree. To deny or minimize his reliance on these techniques is like saying the odd sestina (“Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape”) proves his command of traditional form. One can concede his variety—and yet flag, and analyze, his dominant stylistic tendencies.
    Please note also that I don’t attach negative value judgements to nonsense and nonsequitur; I specifically mention instances in which I think they have been done well. I explain, rather, why I think Ashbery doesn’t do them well.

  2. While your analysis may account for your boredom, I don’t think it accounts for Ashbery, whose work can hardly be summed up as a combination of nonsense and non sequitur (“The Instruction Manual”? “The Skaters?” “Flowchart”?). Rather your approach itself illustrates the “idols of the tribe,” which according to Bacon involves imposing a pattern of one’s own making on to reality, thereby obscuring it.

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