Saturday, December 5, 2009

John Ashbery
(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Planisphere has ninety-eight new (previously unpublished or uncollected) poems.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.

Bruce Conner
(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.
I wonder what they do in real time.

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” –
In the meantime living resolves itself
into a dance. A cinema. More lights.
Or – 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” –
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.
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” –
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.

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.
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”).

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!


John Ashbery

(back cover)

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.



Cy Mathews said...

Fantastic! Can't wait to read it.

Some linguistic trivia: In the Czech language, people say "ahoy" for "hello." My Czech informants claimed that this usage derives from the nautical one, but I honestly don't know if they weren't pulling my leg.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Cy!

Here's hoping your Planisphere is at this very moment winging its way towards Dunedin, and that in a matter of hours or days you'll have it, such that you can then head to The Octagon, where you'll declaim Ashbery's poems to any and all fellow New Zealanders who happen to be there.

And thanks for the Czech language tidbit. It's spelled "ahoi" there but as you indicate it's pronounced exactly as is the English "ahoy." There's stuff on the web suggesting the Czech term has the same nautical "roots" as "ahoy," an odd circumstance given the landlocked-ness. To go a bit further off-point here, "ahoi" is custom and habit for Czechs, but apparently somewhat informal; the guidebooks etc teach a more formal "hello" (it also means "good morning"): "Dobry den."

Anonymous said...


I'd like to send you (via post) an item (if you don't already have it) related to Bruce Conner. Email me at, thanks, m

Cy Mathews said...

You know, that's really weird: I've lived here for six years, but until reading that Wikipedia page I didn't know that there was a "walk along the central carriageway of The Octagon features plaques dedicated to Dunedin-born or based Olympic medallists."

We are planning to have some kind of open-air poetry performance in the Octagon next year. Maybe I'll sneak some Ashbery in.

Jacob Russell said...

Nice review, Steven.

David Grove said...

Now I know what Ashbery meant when he wrote, in "Grand Galop," "Ask a hog what is happening. Go on. Ask him." He meant that I should read your exegesis of his oeuvre. Oink oink oink..

Steven Fama said...

Hi David Grove,

Ha-ha! Great line, from a classic Ashbery poem too -- thanks for stopping in, and for remembering that line!

Curtis Faville said...

I've come to think that Ashbery's career is like an ever-expanding cornucopia, each book expanding (atomizing) the field of vision (coverage) to include more detail, more data, but also more dilution of intent and purpose.

Start with his first 8 books or so, each of which seems to mark out an area of concern--each is a step, a plateau or mesa of surmise (overview), but by the time you get to Houseboat Days (approx.), it begins to seem random and gratuitously indulgent. What IS SAID becomes less and less important, he no longer cares much for WHAT is being set up, just going through the motions of (the pleasure in) building sand castles only to tear them down again. Camp prestidigitation.

Tennis Court and River & Mountains and Self-Portrait seem like felt books, real problems, worries, ambitions. Almost everything, since about 1980, seems trite and light-weight to me.

There's a real danger in trying to stay uncommitted all your career (life) in order not to be pinned down and corny. It take some risk.

Listen to Ashbery try to talk about his poems. It's all "well, I don't really know what I was trying to do there...I can't remember what I was feeling...there should be a way of letting yourself be free of any commitment in a poem..." etc. There hasn't been any necessity in his poems, for a very long time. I'm afraid that will become more evident as time passes. He seems to have stopped growing after House Boat Days.

Steven Fama said...

Hi Curtis,

Thanks for putting in with your views, well-argued as usual. And you've previously, I know, said very similar things over at Silliman's and your own blog too.

Here's where I think I have to disagree -- when you ask that I listen to Ashbery talk about his poems. I have, and what I remember (from an interview a couple years ago) is:

"My aim is simply to express whatever thoughts come to my mind at the time I write the poem."

You and I take that different. You see sand-castle nothingness (I know, that's my characterization of what you say, but I think it's close).

I see an open-minded free-chance approach to poem-making. The concerns of Ashbery's, wrapped in or coming from the thoughts in mind at any particular time, do come through. No, there's no pedagogic purpose, no aesthetic grasping or epic sculpting. Just sitting down when the time comes and writing the poem. In doing so, What is Said isn't less important -- it's what thoughts are in his mind -- but whether that becomes WHAT IS SAID - -some talismanic poem for the ages, is really up to time, and the readers.

I mean, fergoodness sakes, you just edited the collected works of a poet who wrote close to 4,000 poems. I'm taking a flyer here, since I've really only deeply read a couple of Eigner's books, but I'll guess it wasn't always for him about "felt books, real problems, worries, ambitions."
Surely, it was about sitting down and writing a poem. And then another. And now we are about to have this phenomenal showcase of Eigner's mind, via language (poems). Ditto with Ashbery, except praise praise praise, the showcase ain't done yet.

Think about Conner and the inkblots.

David Grove said...

Your quotation from that recent interview sounds like a statement Ashbery made many years ago: "The poem is my thoughts at any particular moment," or something to that effect. Ashbery also said many years ago that he tends to begin a poem by gleaning language from everywhere. He's attracted to the beauty of that "open-minded free-chance approach," that reckless risk-taking. (Perhaps the poetry you've been flailing at for years is gibberish; perhaps Pollock wasted his life flinging out vertiginous farragoes of paint; perhaps the ascetic suffered decades of privation for a God who doesn't exist.) Ashbery's aleatory approach is "random," to use Curtis's word; however, Ashbery seems to think that randomness and meaning ("what IS SAID") are obverse and verso of the same coin. (Like faith and doubt?) He admits the random in order to engender meaning. But maybe, by Curtis's lights, after Houseboat Ashbery's randomness gradually turned barren and eventually ceased to yield meaning. I think that Ashbery isn't as good as he used to be, but when I'm looking at a shelf of contemporary poetry, my fingers still scuttle past spine after spine until they reach the latest Ashbery. That's the book I pluck out.

Charles said...

Going to get it now.