(New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2009)
(New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2009)
Well, there it was, Planisphere, surprising me during my lunch hour bookshop browse last Tuesday (which was, I now know, the day after the book’s November 30th official publication date). I bought it on the spot. I like Ashbery’s poems, and lots: whether written early (he began in the 1940s), late, or in between (this is his thirtieth or so collection), I love ‘em.
Planisphere has ninety-eight new (previously unpublished or uncollected) poems. That’s almost double the number that were in each of Ashbery’s last two collections of new poems, A Worldly Country (2007) and Where Shall I Wander (2005). The new book, at 143 pages, is also substantially longer than those previous two. Finally, Planisphere, unlike other Ashbery books, is designed and composed by Quemadura (a.k.a. Jeff Clark), in his typically smart and beautiful manner.
The qualities of Ashbery’s writing are well known. It’s “an abstract and evocative poetry,” to quote John Olson (writing in Talisman magazine) . It’s also poetry, to borrow again from Olson, that’s often difficult to say what it is about. As Olson writes, it “approaches and recedes from meaning.” Olson may be correct when he suggests, “[i]f John Ashbery’s poetry is about anything, it is about consciousness, the way we experience life at the moment it is being experienced.”
Some readers dismiss Ashbery’s poems as “garbage” (John Simon, on The Tennis Court Oath (1962) and “rubbish” (a pre-publication reviewer of Planisphere). If those descriptions are accepted, I suppose that makes me a pig, a happy one, fervently rooting around whatever Ashbery puts out. Oink, oink, please turn oink the page!
Planisphere is classic late-style Ashbery; the poems are in the same general style of at least a half-dozen previous collections. Probably some will therefore ho-hum the book. I, to the contrary, enjoy, and then enjoy some more. Nobody said Bruce Conner, who in the twenty years before his 2008 death made hundreds (thousands?) of intricate inkblot drawings, was just repeating himself to no good end. Every drawing was unique and a sight to behold, although technically and even visually similar to those that came before. Ditto Ashbery and his poems. His approach may be similar, they may in many ways seem “the same,” but each poem is fresh.
(October 23, 1993)
(October 23, 1993)
A “planisphere” in its primary definition is “a map of half or more of the celestial sphere with a device for indicating the part of a given location visible at a given time.” I like this as a kind of stand-in Ashbery’s work. The poems singly or together present matters and ideas – representative of the actual – in focus at that point, while much else always remains hidden. This of course is just how a planisphere works: it shows the stars and other celestial bodies visible that would be seen at a particular place and time if you were to look at the actual sky. Read a few more lines of an Ashbery poem, or turn the page to a new one (as one would rotate the “wheel” of the planisphere), and there’s, you might say, a whole new universe in view.
So what can be seen, if only momentarily and then shifting towards something else, in Ashbery’s Planisphere? Well, there are poems in which meaning materializes, or almost. Most explicitly there are every so often lines that can be lifted from the page and used to suggest a sort of Ashbery-ian philosophy. This has always been true in his poems, I think, but maybe these days, in this book, the outlines are a bit clearer within the purposeful or unavoidable ambiguity.
I mean, you can take some of the closing lines of some poems, and almost neatly frame them.
Ashbery’s insistence on tentativeness, or against settled thinking? Try the last line of his “Giraffe Headquarters” –
Try this, but only for a while.How about Ashbery’s seeming certainty that appearance is not all, or at least the questioning of surface (and his swipe at the pace at which we live), as indicated in the concluding couplet of “Poem” –
All these people are running around.Or his suggestion that our existence, at least sometimes, has a kind of step, twist, and/or waltz aspect to it, or rather something like a darkened room of projected images; consider please the final two lines of “Perplexing Ways” –
I wonder what they do in real time.
In the meantime living resolves itselfOr – and here the wheel is turning, and something else comes into view – is life not a dance or cinema, but something somewhat more ridiculous? As in what is expressed in the final lines of “Semi-Detached” –
into a dance. A cinema. More lights.
So it’s off to the circus for us, you and me.And lest you think those final two sentences represent some authoritative, succinct statement of belief, consider (the wheel turns again) a slightly, perhaps entirely different, take on whether things are cool, as found in the last line of “Stress Related” –
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.
It all failed. All failed somewhere.Oh yes, there it is again, shifting and tentative, or at least not precisely suggested(it all failed, but only “somewhere”). And also “it” and “all” are most emphatically not simple or clear, here or anywhere in these poems. In this regard, try the last line of the first stanza of the (ego compels me to note) charmingly titled “Idea of Steve”–
This is getting complicated, like always.So what’s it all, this getting complicated always tentative or momentary set of ideas and words amount to? What’s it all about, Alfie? Of course, that’s almost entirely up to Alfie, and you, and so it has been with Ashbery always. His is a lovely indwelling and radiating indeterminancy that allows – requires – readers to deeply engage within and about the poems, and he’s always seemed to champion that particular fact. In fact, I think he still does. Yes, indeed. Please enjoy here Ashbery’s underscoring of his acceptance of others’ ways of thinking and understanding, as embodied in the stand-alone couplet that ends the aptly titled, “Just How Cloudy Everything Gets” –
Make sense to you?
Makes sense to me.
One thing I enjoy with a new Ashbery book o’ poems is spotting the lines or phrases borrowed from everyday speech. These phrases and words are familiar as familiar can be. But as bits and pieces of particular poems, energized in the wild mix of Ashbery’s what-have-you, this tired and stale language can become vitalized, such that it’s no longer “heard” in the same-old same-old ways.
In any event, it’s just fun, book-to-book and poem-to-poem, to see what Ashbery’s heard. Here’s a collage, made from some of the here-and-now, well-used on-the-street phrases found in Planisphere. These are pulled from approximately one-third of its poems, and presented more-or-less in the order they appear. All the words are Ashbery’s. However, I present his phrases or short sentences as prose, and have thus disregarded line breaks and often changed capitalization and punctuation compared to what’s seen in the poems. The point here is to dig, and quick, what Ashbery took this time around from our general lingual discourse:
I guess I must be going. Not by a long shot. And sure enough, in good faith, that’s the whole point, as I understand it. I was dead wrong about that. Who the heck? There you go. You know something? As luck would have it. You can’t make these things up.You hear – see – lots of familiar stuff in there, yes? I especially love the tip o’ the phrase (it’s in the fourth sentence in my second-to-last paragraph) to Walter Cronkite’s tag line (in the book, the sentence comprises the final two lines of “The Seventh Chihuahua”).
Seriously, the same old same old. So be it. I told you so. Who am I kidding. Sticker shock. Seriously, let’s face it. The good news is, the bad news is, No Can Do. Off and running, you know, I was saying that too.
But wait there’s more: They grow up too fast these days. Other than that. Don’t forget to write! Look, easy does it, you old so-and-so. We love you! What kind of nuthouse is this, the party of the second part, you tell them, on second thought.
Well, that does it, I’m outta here. “I knew you were going to say that.” Now get lost. I know it sounds funny, but that’s the way it is. An “aha” moment. What have you, we’re good with that. Oh forget it. I’ll be on my way. Nothing doing. I bet you do. I have to go.
You’re telling me. What may we do for you today? People are funny. Put up or shut up. There he goes again. One can’t be too careful. And you know what, what it boils down to.
A similar collage, of a half-dozen or so sentences, could be made of quasi-familiar phrases and, shall we say, phrases familiar but slightly tweaked. “That’s for you to know and me to find out,” and “What you see will be used against you,” for example. The latter phrase will surely please devotees of the Miranda warning.
I’ve book-marked a large number of pages in Planisphere during my first few readings, to make it easy to go back to those poems that especially excited or intrigued. However, bookmarks aren’t really needed, if you can remember a poem’s name. That’s because the poems are presented alphabetically by title (with definite articles –“The”– disregarded). This strictly by-the-letter(s) presentation echoes the look of planispheres themselves, which have the hours of the day, and months (and dates within each month) arrayed in their respective orders along the outer edges of the movable wheel.
One of the poems that strikes my fancy is titled “FX.” That term is commonly used to denote special effects, of the kind used in entertainment and films (think lights, pyrotechnics, explosions, and the like, simulated or real). Something a little extra, in other words, intended to give a particular shine or bump to a film scene or theatrical or concert moment.
The special effects in Ashbery’s “FX” are goofy-great. Unlike the other poems in the book, it makes heavy use of archaic words or word forms, particularly single-word contractions, of the kind sometimes (often) found in poetry that hews to a strict meter (think Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter), in which a syllable must be dropped to keep the count or pattern intact.
In the course of his 38 line poem, Ashbery uses o’erlook, ne’er, ’twixt, ‘twere, o’er and o’erweening. The last two are used one right after the other – “o’er o’erweening” – after many lines without any single-word contractions at all (the others mentioned appear mostly near the poem’s start). The back-to-back apostrophied words thus resolve the suspense, begun early on, of whether more such contractions would be used in the poem (they confirm too that it’s an effect Ashbery is in fact using). At the same time, seeing “o’er o’erweening” is funny, verging on or better yet sliding all the way through ridiculously (sorry here) o’erdone.
In addition to the single-word contractions, Ashbery in “FX” also uses the arch-poetic interjection “O”: it’s the poem’s first word and then appears twice more in subsequent lines. There’s also the chiefly British “bedsit,” the archaic “marge” (for margin), the unusual (at least outside of psycho-analytics and the novel by George MacDonald) “phantasy,” the unusual these days (it dates to medieval times) “fie,” and, to end the poem, a one-word sentence, the nautical “Ahoy.”
There are of course plenty of other words in “FX,” both common (“nexus,” “garage,” and “air conditioning,” for example) and a bit different (for instance, the somewhat twee interjection “gee” and the uncommon appellation “Buonarotti” (most would just go with Michelangelo)). But the above-described vocabularic effects, including the half-dozen single-word contractions, while obviously o’erdetermined (you were waiting for that apostrophe, weren’t you?!), are winning. Ashbery in this way gives the poem some seriously, mock-and-at-the-same-time-truly spectacular, and fun, poetic vividness.
You can browse Planisphere at its publisher’s website (click here to go, if you please). I suggest you get your own copy. Either way, turn Ashbery’s poem-wheel this way and that. See if what the poems suggest can be seen in the sky – the sky of your mind, natch – seems right to you. Happy gazing!
End note: The John Olson quotations are from his essay, “The Haunted Stanzas of John Ashbery,” in The World in Time and Space, published as Talisman #23-#26 (2002), edited by Edward Foster and Joseph Donahue.