ISSN 1409-6900 | UDK 82+7 Blesok no. 58 | volume XI | January-February, 2008
Blesok no. 58,
Master of the nonsensical
'The worse your art is,' John Ashbery once said, 'the easier it is to talk about.' He meant for the artist himself to talk about. But what if no one else could talk about it because they had no idea what it was about, even though, as is almost always the case with Ashbery's poetry, it was strangely enjoyable to read? Poets have made similar comments in the past - TS Eliot wrote that 'genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood' - but only once poetry became famous for being 'difficult'. People could read the great Victorians - Arnold, Tennyson and Browning - in the way they could never read the moderns like Pound and Eliot and Hart Crane; they might not have liked them, they might have disagreed with their views about politics, love and religion, but they could understand them.
And then being 'accessible' became the problem, not the solution. 'Make it new' was Pound's modernist injunction and the new became that which, by definition, couldn't be easily understood. Suddenly, there were nonsense poets and no-nonsense poets. John Ashbery, as you see if you open this edition of Selected Later Poems at any page, is a nonsense poet. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll are as much Ashbery's precursors as the great French and American modernists.
His poetry is not difficult in the sense that Eliot's and Pound's is. A good crib and a bit of intelligent literary criticism won't get you very far. Even though Ashbery is clearly a very literary and erudite poet, his poetry never makes you feel that you don't get it because you haven't read the right books, or had the same gossipy education, or are the wrong sex or age. Indeed, it makes you wonder whether 'getting it' is worth doing at all or what getting it might be. Poetry that is difficult to understand makes you believe that there is poetry that is easy to understand.
Ashbery's poetry makes you wonder what the wish to understand may protect you from; what the pleasures are of not understanding. The first poem, 'Vetiver', begins: 'Ages passed slowly like a load of hay/ As the
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