It’s been heartening to see the many tributes online to John Ashbery, who died on Sunday at the age of ninety. Has anyone given to the our language what Ashbery gave in the last sixty years? He’s been on speaking terms with the zeitgeist for these many decades, and how lucky we are to overhear their conversations. I’ve long thought of him as our era’s Wordsworth, but of course he’s never been that; he’s been John Ashbery all along, our one-and-only and one-of-a-kind. Switching channels constantly, changing registers with alacrity, walking at ease among the high and the low, the new and the old, he’s been a poet for our era as no one else has. I think of the lines from “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat,” which opens Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975): “So this was all, but obscurely / I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages / Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue. / New sentences were starting up.” One easily gets the impression that even in the midst of the mustiest of artifacts, new language somehow just happened to him.
But it’s not that it always came easily. In his book-length interview with Mark Ford (London: Between the Lines, 2003), he recalled a time, beginning in June 1950 as the Korean War was starting, when he was unable to write for a year and a half. Then, as he recalls, he “went to hear a concert of John Cage on New Year’s Day, 1952,” and he “suddenly saw a potential for writing in a new way.” Well, we can thank John Cage for that. Nor has my own appreciation of Ashbery been a smooth road. Some of my earlier training turned me away from his work as frivolous and too easy; but all one has to do is try to write as Ashbery without coming off as a cheap and obvious imitation, and one is likely to begin understanding the miracle of what he did. It helps also—as it helped me—to encounter others who can talk about how his lines range all over the planet and even wander back and forth between dream states and wakefulness, and how it all uncannily works together; his disjunctions disjoin in just the right way.
As it happens, the opening poem of his most recent book, Commotion of the Birds (2016), which is also the title poem, makes thematic the difficulty of staying present to the present moment; understandably enough, he begins with a meditation on the past:
We’re moving right along through the seventeenth century.
The latter part is fine, much more modern
than the earlier part. Now we have Restoration Comedy.
Webster and Shakespeare and Corneille were fine
for their time but not modern enough…
The survey cascades on and on—we need a sense of the past to make sense of the present, but the danger—of course—is getting stuck in a sensibility and framework of a preceding era; so the list goes on: Orlande de Lassus, Petrus Christus, William Tyndale Marc Antoine Charpentier—composers, painters, scholars, all these many figures who helped us get to the present moment, where it is challenging but necessary to be; for
It’s good to be modern if you can stand it.
It’s like being left out in the rain, and coming
to understand that you were always this way: modern,
wet, abandoned, though with that special intuition
that makes you realize you weren’t meant to be
somebody else, for whom the makers
of modernism will stand inspection
even as they wither and fade in today’s glare.
We call this modern now—some call it postmodern—but it’s always been the human situation to face into an uncertain and open-ended future. We might take certain cues from the past, but there isn’t really a script to go by. Each person on the planet is a new experiment in what it means to be human, a fresh opportunity to discover who and what we are—and I believe this is the case as much for those of us who believe in the divine as for anyone else. To live in the present moment is to improvise; Ashbery’s work puts us in touch with how the improvisational energies move.