Ange Mlinko’s poetry reviews are very much in the Vendlerian mode: straightforward but erudite, well illustrated with examples from works under discussion, and always incisive. As a result, even when I disagree with her I profit by reading her.
A good example is her latest essay on John Ashbery’s latest collection, Notes From the Air: Selected Later Poems. Her argument—in a nutshell, that Ashbery’s late work is brilliant and that for it, along with his groundbreaking early poetry, he deserves the Nobel Prize.
Among the qualities she values in Ashbery’s late work are its formal “dexterity”; its lack of confessional, therapeutic, sociological and overtly political content; its “demotic” idiom; and its presentation of what Mlinko calls “the dreamlife of modern American culture,” which is “collaged” by the poet in a way she compares — perhaps with a too little thought for the implications — to the visual style of MTV music videos. The last quality is the main hook she hangs her admiration on, and it’s the same hook that hangs me up when I attempt to read Ashbery’s work from April Galleons on.
In praising the access Ashbery offers to the American dreamlife, she provides a number of passages to illustrate what she means. I won’t duplicate her quotations here; readers can peruse them and draw their own conclusions. All I can say is that they do very little for me. In fact, Mlinko could easily have replaced these passages with any number of others from Ashbery’s late work, because it all sounds and feels alike. Ashbery’s late style is flat-voiced, imagistically sparse, discursive, parodic but only mildly humorous. In an interview (on “The Poet’s View” DVD produced by The Academy of American Poets), Ashbery claims that he composes as he types and never revises: this could be a joke, but based on my experience reading his later books, I doubt it.
The crux of my frustration with Ashbery lies in two qualities Mlinko singles out for praise. One is “Ashbery’s utter refusal to treat the self as a knowable entity with fixed psychological coordinates.” The second is his poetry’s lack of content. “The Ashbery poem isn’t grounded in reportage or fact,” she writes approvingly; he has discovered, she claims, that “the ideal poetry for the Information Age is a poetry of no information.”
On the question of the “self,” I’ve long found Buddhist thinking on the subject to be persuasive, and yet I live daily with the irony that when my name is called I answer, when a check made out to me arrives I cash it, and when my name appears in print the ghost of a thrill flits through my veins. There is no there there, perhaps, but we all behave as if there is—which is why we’re all afflicted with free-floating anxiety, that sense of what the Buddhist philosopher David Loy calls “lack.” (See his brilliant book Lack and Transcendence.) Ashbery’s early poetry was a powerfully inventive response to this sense of lack, but his later work seems to me a throwing-in of the towel—no longer a response to lack, but an attempt to overwhelm it somehow, to bury it with the trivia this lack seems to prove our lives are made of.
You can see that my thinking about the self in Ashbery’s poetry has bled over into the question of content—with good reason. In his effort to erase the anxiety of a self that lacks, Ashbery has replaced that self with an ever expanding grab-bag of ephemera, the ephemeral stuff of which the Information Age—at least in consumerist America—seems to be made. If one turns to poetry for nothing more than the vacuous overload one can more easily find on CNN—with its histrionic graphics, its hyperactive music beds, its bottom-screen crawl bristling with titillation and disaster—then Ashbery is indeed your poet.
My problem with late-style Ashbery is that he gives me nothing I need. I find myself in a nation adrift, sick with fear and the wars fear engenders, sick with hubris, sick with unreason—and in that context, Ashbery’s yak and mockery, his vaudevillian patter, are as good as worthless to me.
Having said all this, let me add that I don’t wish to attack Ashbery as a person, or even as a poet. All poets write what their historical moment and their talent and their psychological resilience — the “self,” perhaps? — allows them to write. Ashbery is not a dishonest writer, and he has written at least a dozen poems (most of them early ones) that are likely to be read in a hundred years. We owe him a debt of gratitude for those poems, and something more: we owe him continued attention….