Given the chance, I leapt at reviewing Ashbery. It's useful to list
the poets you get pure pleasure from reading. Of the contemporary, Ashbery is
definitely one: I can relax, make no conscious effort at understanding, and
just thrill at the shifting registers, the hilariously dead-pan mix of
corniness, beauty, banality and (most effectively) nagging unease.
One is reading a master at what he does - someone who has seemingly cracked
the eternal riddle of making experimental writing enjoyable to read, and then
reread. Especially in his prose poems, he gets the mix of surreal and
hyperreal just right - by the perfectly timed undercutting of the poetic,
through a brilliantly restless use of phasing and trajectory:
They don't say please in
heaven. All business is carried out in the
pre-noon hours, leaving
time for naps and reflection. This is the kind
of life I was supposed to
lead. What happened? you ask. Cutie pie
went bye bye. Once the
hypnotic hour of twelve has struck you are
like any other
paying guest, waiting for that
intoxicating smell of
burgers to waft up the
Careful What You Wish For')
Here we have so many characteristic Ashbery 'tropes': the deft switch to
dialogue and clich; the pacy sentence structure; the delightful use of fast
food (pies seem to be another favourite of his) and the anxious sense of
checking out/moving home - but always in a languid world of unsatisfactory
luxury (undercut with the touchingly mundane 'smell of burgers'.
What does any of it mean? All of the above, I suppose.
But, sooner or later - not least in a review - there ought to be a reckoning
of that 'what he does'. Is it enough? Can it sustain the claims made for it?
Is it just an endless repetition of the same trick, with individual poems
increasingly difficult to distinguish, perhaps even boring?
Of course, that reckoning can never be conclusive - and can even be an
irrelevance. After all, Carol
Ann Duffy's entire body of work probably stands up to critical analysis far
more successfully than a Sherlock Holmes story (or the wonderful graphic
novel, The Road to Perdition). Yet only a maniac would honestly prefer reading her to
And in any case, better to repeat something wonderful than 'evolve and
exfoliate' (said of a certain Northern Irish Poyeeeeet) yet stay earnestly
But - to risk a shocking banality - it is possible to be brilliant at
something which is, whilst entertaining and perhaps even a joy - utterly
pointless. Fart lighting, dwarf throwing and Gloucestershire cheese rolling
are obvious examples. Haiku writing and poems about paintings aren't far
Certainly, Ashbery has to be at the absolute top of his game, for his work to
stay interesting. The
collections in the mid-2000s seemed to do this - especially my favourite Where
Shall I Wander, with its prose poem masterpiece 'Coma Berenices'.
So, it has to be said that Breezeway takes its time to get going.
The first few poems made very little impression on me. It wasn't until 'The
Pie District' (see what I mean about pies - is Ashbery a Wigan fan?) that
these lines lodged with me:
I saw the daughter of his
king and illustrator
Mrs. Walter H. Browne, streaking
past the hedges
sparkling with dew, just
as if it were another time.
Lizzie! Lizzie Browne!, I
stammered. But she took
no notice of me, or the
hundred or so other guests
gathered on the lawn to
This is ominous.
And yet, I managed to
I'll have more of it for
Two things that went up
came back. I don't
That must have been about
feline intrigue. Can I go
to my doctor now?
So much of the best Ashbery work is about being chased, or witnessing madcap
'scrapes'. He has a very English love of silly names, almost an Evelyn Waugh
type mastery for them. But here it's impossible to ignore the nagging worry,
allied with an almost nausea from the repetition of luxury. There is a
savagery, somewhere - it's coming, and he knows it.
And some of his poems have that sense of a decadent culture, awaiting its
denouement and half in love with what will destroy it. This one - my
favourite from the collection - gave me an odd recall, of Cavafy's famous
poem Waiting for the Barbarians):
Once in a while a message
from friends we haven't
seem in some time.
Family members try to
to ask about old
questions. Finally, each of us
has some concern or
I can hear the signs
To have half-lived in a
balloon to Fresno
solves it, at least for
at home. After we've been
in town a few days
and may have moved,
anywhere but within easy reach,
this is kissing's only
surface. Midday suction.
It's savoury - let's
or do something about it,
rusty at the bottom
before we came to this
It was a moment, what can
and the day after tomorrow)
All great poets are supposed to leave you with a haunting image, of
themselves. Supposedly, Shelley's is of him in a wonderful boat, sailing
downriver and out to sea.
Ashbery's would be of an urbane, quizzical East Coast American, surrounded by
luxury: chilled white wine; delicious sea food; polished wooden interiors;
gorgeous art on the walls. And vaguely disgusted by it all.
Perhaps he needs a trip to Wigan!
© Paul Sutton