John Ashbery, the Gift of Quiet Moments

That isn’t what happened. Instead, seven years later, Ashbery produced “The Tennis Court Oath,” a wildly disjunctive collection that has inspired half a century of busy speculation from scholars and exhausted surrender from readers. (A sample: “filthy or into backward drenched flung heaviness/ lemons asleep pattern crying.”) You don’t read the book so much as outlast it.

From this foray into the remotest tundra of the avant-garde, he soon developed a style that preserved the strangeness he prized while making that strangeness enticing, even welcoming. That style has become immediately recognizable and often unfortunately contagious. An Ashbery poem shifts from “I” to “we” to “he” without warning; unspecified “it”s appear and vanish; the language may seem to stabilize in a typically poetic register only to shift within lines into another mode entirely. The opening of “Soonest Mended” strikes many of the familiar Ashberian notes:

Barely tolerated, living on the margin
In our technological society, we were always having to be rescued
On the brink of destruction, like heroines in “Orlando Furioso”
Before it was time to start all over again.
There would be thunder in the bushes, a rustling of coils,
And Angelica, in the Ingres painting, was considering
The colorful but small monster near her toe, as though wondering whether forgetting
The whole thing might not, in the end, be the only solution.
And then there always came a time when
Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile
Came plowing down the course, just to make sure everything was O.K.,
Only by that time we were in another chapter and confused
About how to receive this latest piece of information.

Who are “we”? What is Happy Hooligan doing in an Ingres painting? Is he in an Ingres painting? Or a book? Or what? Any of these questions could be fatal, but they aren’t; instead we consent to go along, to find out not necessarily what will happen, but what will happen in the next line. There is no simple explanation for the way in which Ashbery solicits our assent, of course. But the exchange with Koch points to at least two curious aspects of his relationship with his readers.

The first is what you might call a question of posture. While Ashbery is often described as “difficult,” “enigmatic” and so on, even his most peculiar lines are tempered by the self-amused humor that is evident in his reply to Koch, and that seems to suggest a kind of country…

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