John Ashbery, now 75, stands as one of America’s most inventive, prolific, and original poets. His beautiful new collection Chinese Whispers is absolutely unruly, utterly enjoyable, and a welcome installment in a career spanning over twenty volumes of verse.
A collection of mercurial prose poems, disembodied lyrics, and wayward narratives, the book demonstrates once again Ashbery’s singular range from dreamy reveries and all manner of philosophic spectacle to wistful, tender meditations, to name but a few of his recurrent modes.
Ever reticent in interviews and enigmatic in written statements about his own work, we may now begin to see that all along Ashbery has been quietly hinting to each reader how the poems might be read in their own terms.
In “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” there is a telling passage about how intentions often devolve into “caricature.” Ashbery writes:
Happens, as in the game where
A whispered phrase passed around the room
Ends up as something completely different.
It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has omitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place. Seduced by flowers,
Explicit pleasures, he blames himself (though
Secretly satisfied with the result), imagining
He had a say in the matter...
Chinese Whispers is the British name of a game called Telephone in America. In the game, as in Ashbery’s poetry, the reader quickly realizes that what appears to be a story never fully pans out narrative-wise; instead each line, each thought artfully takes on a various and intriguing life of its own. In the new prose poem “The Business of Falling Asleep (2)” he writes: “To brave the day turning outward like an ear, too polite to hear.”
While in one way Ashbery’s poetry is impersonal, in a more illuminating way the work is as intimate as a whisper. In the terrifically banal poem “On His Reluctance to Take Down the Christmas Ornaments,” the poem ends by addressing its readers, putting them in greater proximity to the poem than they may have been aware they were: “It’s great that you can be here too./Passivity rests its case.”
The experience of reading Ashbery also has similarities to experiencing Marcel Duchamp’s intriguing “Etant Donnes” (“Given”) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Duchamp piece is an old barn door with a dime-sized peephole through, one spectator at a time can experience the work on the other side: a reclining nude with a gas lantern in front of a waterfall (a description that depends largely upon whom you ask). Many pass “Given” by completely, thinking that the barn door is the piece itself, and that there is nothing more to see. Much of Ashbery’s most successful poetry operates in this one-on-one way, encouraging readers to have responses that are as highly personal as they are contradictory.
As with the art (and people) whom we are most engaged by, experiencing and enjoying the work is one thing, explaining it is an altogether other. At its best, the poetry encourages the reader to have a genuinely active role with the work. The poems are an enumeration of the insurmountable task of using words to say what words, in the end, cannot. In the book-length poem Flowchart (1991), Ashbery offers another relevant tidbit as to how the work may be experienced. He writes: “Our words are interpreted left/and right as they become speech, and so it is possible at the end that a judgment/maybe/ formed, and yet the intrepid/listener does no such thing, hypnotized by his reflection, and it is up/to us to file the final report on the decision in many cases.”
Ashbery is an inveterate agnostic; indeed one of his chief contributions has been his complete commitment to being noncommittal. In the wonderful new poem “Random Jottings of an Old Man,” Ashbery seems to be wryly poking fun at his own methods or his critics when he writes:
Like a fool, I let him into my house,
And he began dropping jotting everywhere.
Where once crepe-paper flower had been,
Jottings overflowed the basin into the water closet.
From Whitman to Stevens, Auden, and the French avant-garde, much has been correctly made of Ashbery’s literary influences by critics as different as Harold Bloom, David Lehman, and Geoff Ward. But Ashbery’s nonliterary influences are equally illuminating. Among the countless associations one has while reading Ashbery, there is the sense of a consciousness weaned on old crime movies, nutty romantic comedies and other animated media. In the poem “In the Time of Pussy Willows,” there are whiffs of the Marx Brothers when Ashbery writes:
This is going to take some time.
Nope, it’s almost over. For today anyway.
We’ll have a beautiful story, old story
to fish for as his gasps come undone.
As what is most savage and wonderful in the Marx Brothers movies of the thirties, ideas in Ashbery are often whisked away as soon as they are offered; encounters are relentless, and not everything always works, but the drive not to play it safe and to create your own world lay at the heart of the work’s vital instability. All is disrupted as you often find yourself quickly back at the front-of-the-line before you can think: beginning, middle, end—or fire, aim, ready. In “A Sweet Place,” he writes:
The torches are extinguished in marl.
I will live in a house in the middle of the road,
it says here. No shit!
What did I do to deserve this? Who controls
this anger management seminar? They’ve had their way with me;
I am as I was before. Thank heaven! If I could but
remember how that was. Always, it’s nightfall
in a wood, some paths are descended,
and looking out over the ropy landscape, one sees
a necessity that was at the beginning.
Further up there is fog. But it’s nice being standing;
We should be home soon,
dearest, a dry hearth awaits us, and the indulgence of sleep.
What if I really was a drifter,
would you still like me? Would you vote
for me in the straw polls of November, wait for me
in the anteroom of December, embrace the turbulent, glittering skies
the New Year brings? Lie down with me once and for all?
The radio is silent, fretful; it bides its time
and the world forgets to consider. There is room to tabulate
the wonders of its sesquicentennials,
but the aftermath’s unremarkable, picked
clean by a snarky wind.
Then I became as one who followed.
Or this, in “Her Cardboard Lover,” with its shades of Lorenz Hart:
The way you look tonight
is perishable, unphotographable, laughable. Sometimes
dyslexia strikes in late middle age. You are
the way I look tonight. At last
my love has come along.
And you are mine at last.
The nonliterary influences offer another hint to explain the wealth of Ashbery’s innovation, the economy of his means, and the gracious cinematic and musical overlay of the work.
All of this merely begins to touch upon what makes this new collection of sixty-five poems so worth our time and reading; the discontinuous continuity of the poems unfold with their intricate, magical, and matter-of-fact blend of humor, tragedy, poise, and wonderment. We are stirred by the poems’ modest beauty and savor their generous mental feeling, which is as close as a whisper in the ear, ready to reveal its secret.