John Ashbery, now 82, has said that his goal is “to produce a poem that the critic can’t even talk about.” Planisphere proves that he keeps trying, even as the critics keep talking. Helen Vendler finds meaning in Planisphere‘s title. She notes that it comes from Marvell’s poem “The Definition of Love,” sees that the book is dedicated to Ashbery’s long-time partner, and claims that its two-dimensional suggestion somehow makes it so that “the distant poles at last can touch.” Call it Ashbery’s flat-earth theory, a bit of stretching that, we guess, would surely make Ashbery smile.
Stretching is what Ashbery’s poetry is all about. Never about one thing–though it’s been suggested that it’s about nothing–his poetry, crafted in many ways, is about many things. A single stanza can slip ideas, in the form of symbols stuffed with meaning, like a shoplifter past the checkout of the reader’s attention: “What are the flurries, faked orgasms,/the glass texture? The spa, corrupt,/dead like a geranium/in the crosshairs at the end of time…”
We don’t understand these 99, alphabetically ordered poems the way we usually understand poetry; no “aha” moments as Ashbery calls them. Instead, they resonate with something undefinable, their audible music supplanted by some form of abstraction that seeks an identity in what we can identify. Some of what we discover is familiar, phrases we’ve seen or heard. There’s parents “raising their voices,” “sticker shock” is suffered, “virtuous men…refusing to take sides” and times “Like old times”; the kinds of phraseology that would be damned as cliche used by other writers. But Ashbery puts platitude to unexpected use in unexpected places. Or he wrings something out of them, saying, for example, “There were two ways about it,” the missing “no” bringing “you and me” as well as sun and stars and hope and futility together. This is an old Ashbery trick, keeping his ear to the ground and hearing a stampede. He does the same thing with individual words, turning nouns into verbs, adjectives into nouns and pronouns into other pronouns.
What Ashbery’s done is invented a new use for language, a new way to communicate. Words sweat from working overtime. He pulls sound and symbol from them as well as layers of meaning, like onion skins, at a pace to leave us crying. The audible music of his phrasing often calls up visual images. In “Semi-Detached” we hear, “when I pause at the door,/pretending to stalk someone through the potted/palms, fizzle or peter or poop out.” The visible fizzle of those palm fronds, stalk and all, have been tied to the previous “popular” and “‘poise'” and “pause,” their vowels ringing against “I’m outta here.”
All this turning and twisting and cleverness for the sake of obscurity has its reason. The poems, even at their least understandable, resonant like new music and free jazz with something we can’t quite put our intellect on. It’s common to hear fans of the avant garde say the more they hear, say Cecil Taylor or Evan Parker or Muhal Richards Abrams, the more they understand their music, what they’re trying to say. It’s a bit different with Ashbery. The more I read these poems, the more I enjoy them. But understand them? No.
So what’s his message? Generally, something like a country song written by Bad Blake, the Jeff Bridges character in the movie Crazy Heart: “Everything is screwed up.” At end there’s futility, death and “trash.” In the meantime, there’s the musical “sweet communion of sun/and fun” and he’s not talking about a day at the beach… even though he is.
The second and last stanza of “Semi-Detached,” a poem in which he describes himself as “Sanctimonious fraud,” “Pharisee,” “mealymouth, poseur” and worse, seems to sum it up in typical Ashbery style:
When someone calls me by name it’s always
a case of mistaken identity, a ringer.
On the other hand would I have waited while
the contretemps was sorted out? Not likely.
So it’s off to the circus for us, you and me.
You’ll never be more agitated than you are now,
at this insurpassable moment. I, on the other hand
am cool for the time being. Such is my creed.
Where reviewer Vendler, probably correctly, sees a flat-earth theory in “Planisphere” where the opposite poles of Ashbery and his companion finally align, the title poem is about something more than love (but about love as well), a memoir of how the earth can move from something other than sex, how travel through one’s life can be interrupted. It’s set obscurely on a train in the Shinjuku section of Tokyo and recalls “that fatal day in 1861/when the walkways fell off the mountains…”What was launched from this, when “The land stretched away like jelly into a confused cleft” was something personal and larger, the rise of imperialistic Japan. In a personal sense, something else was flattened. But trying to make sense of it all is something like “herding fleas till the next shipment of analgesics arrived.” Ashbery might not stop us from talking. But he’s left us not knowing what to talk about.–Cabbage Rabbit