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from the September 2018 issue

The Poetics of John Ashbery: Reflections from the Poet’s Uruguayan Translator

Uruguayan poet Roberto Echavarren, a personal friend of Ashbery and translator of his work into Spanish, considers Ashbery's poetics and his legacy vis-à-vis other poets in the US and internationally.

The Voice, the Voices

Unlike the Beat Poets (Allen Ginsberg in particular), poets of the New York School like James Schuyler and John Ashbery wrote to be read rather than heard. Frank O’Hara was a possible exception, and Schuyler also occasionally declaimed in public with tact and subtle authority, to notable effect. Ashbery, less accessible at the spoken level due to the length and complexity of his rhythmic sequences and the abruptness of his transitions, declaimed in a rather uniform tone, with soft, sometimes imperceptible emphasis, as if his voice were a supplement, an almost unnecessary accident in the process of the poem’s transmission. 

In this way, he underlined the fact that writing is a vehicle for effects unrelated to the mimesis of the voice. The poet’s voice is no longer a literal one. On the page, it splits into many “voices.” But there’s more: the lines become autonomous, though not completely independent from the voice’s dramatic effects. 

The poem has its “music,” the rhythms and pauses provided by line breaks and syntax. The “voices” lack neither substance nor emotion but aren’t thoroughly human. The poem is the voice of no one, the voice of things, not even a voice. It is a “[H]umorous landscape without music / Written by music,” “an almost inaudible piccolo,” “a visible soundtrack,” or a “quartet” in which the instruments take turns and their notes become intertwined. T.S. Eliot’s title, Four Quartets, similarly alludes to the prosopopeia—the personification—according to which the poem’s voice is composed of an instrumental chord. Each “voice” attaches itself to an abyssal body, lacking identity, in a state of becoming that embraces, accumulates, and combines turns of phrase, colloquialisms, and verbal strategies but also opens up a register different from conversation. 

While this may be said of nearly all poetry, it is particularly evident in Ashbery’s work, since he resorts neither to oral demagoguery nor to an immediate, straightforward transparency of interpersonal feelings nor to a “sincere” or flawless communication.

Forgetting, (Un)Recognition

Ashbery’s poetry is not confessional. While it may explore the impact of events and actions, it does not brandish biographical anecdotes (either in a veiled or explicit manner). Instead, ironic and serene, it skirts a mystery—the loss of any prior happiness. The witness to a previous situation “lands,” so to speak, in a new moment, but that which was contemplated and lived in the past has now been erased. The new moment has no memory, no sympathy for memory; it forces the witness to begin anew. Deprived of relics, he must embark on the next “chapter,” improvise new verbal actions in the void. His responsibility is to face the present moment, and he explains, in addition, why he can do nothing else. From the point of view of reading and writing, the verses do not represent a recovery in the face of forgetting; on the contrary, they expose forgetting and loss. 

The length of some of the poems challenges the possibility of self-representation, of being present to oneself, of knowing oneself. It is impossible to reconstruct the advances and setbacks of a thought process, a dream, or a romance. These different versions and evocations of selfhood mingle; they contradict each other; they distort and erase. Both poet and reader find that they do not control each and every intertextual allusion brought into play by the preceding lines, nor can they follow each twist and turn in the ensuing ones. The attention afforded a poem—particularly a longer one—will be dazzling but intermittent. Neither the poet nor his reader can avoid getting lost, forgetting the fragments they’ve just read momentarily or forever. They find themselves in medias res, not knowing where they are. They dwell in an interrupted fragment made of words and books. 

Each reading recontextualizes, equivocates, and burns poetic material in the daily sacrifice of other lives that respond to diverse circumstances and particularities. One does not read a poet, or even a poem. The poem can offer a “bite” of “pleasant intuition,” since in it we glimpse something unexpected that moves us, which we find interesting or beautiful due to a personal matter, or to experiences that prepare us for it. Aesthetic judgment, then, is subjective. The strength of our conviction makes it seem universal, but in fact it is singular. It is, then, an illogical universal. 


Outbursts of irony mock the absurdity, blindness, and partiality of the pretensions of a purported lyric self, which splits in an instant, laughing at its own folly. Despite this, it does not dismiss the validity of its attempts but acknowledges the limits of self-control, in a poetic confirmation that things do not go as planned. An unavoidable disturbance undermines the reasons that would seem to lead to this or that conclusion. The ruins of these pretensions trigger a renewal of hope, in landscapes invented to conceal an absence, “wasted with eternal desire and sadness.” The poem displays a crisis of self-knowledge and of the possibility of communication: “Will they finally see us as we are?”—a mixture of acute rage and disarming humor. 

The provisional lyric self laughs at its own inability to calculate, and at its forgetfulness. But this lack of memory is what makes writing possible, forces mistakes and conjectures to be made, hurried along by urgency and expectation. The poem comes to substitute that which does not become present, invokes an empty moment outside time, a rebellious moment outside speech. The poem is the symbolic sequence that implicates and betrays that moment, translates it while allowing it to escape, passes through it to leave it intact. 

The humor directed at the self, the irony, the splitting of the lyric subject reveal the poem to be an ambiguous blessing, an opportunity for both sadness and happiness for receiving both bad and good news. The poem is a “tragic euphoria.” 

Somehow, things work out, and fall into place. The “meditation” is testament to these unpredictable arrangements. The subject has no prior knowledge of who he is; according to the poem’s lines, he is one and many and nobody, a bundle of surprises and contradictions, and, furthermore, a mystery at risk of oblivion. Each signifier represents and at the same time obliterates him. In Ashbery, lines are sustained not by an but by a “sigh.” The pronoun representing the subject can be an I but also and thereafter, especially in the longer poems, a youheshewe, or they. The poem is a colossus that speaks, a soliloquy that ousts the unambiguous I. Each pronoun serves as a provisional stepping stone for an obliterated subject. 

The poem streaks by, like a “bad comet” or a vehicle with uneven wheels, spurred on by a “dream.” It streaks by without fulfilling its meaning, depriving us, in the end, of a satisfactory explanation. The poem, and the poet along with it, slips away, taking refuge in darkness.

The Tour de Force

The Ashbery poem is a succession of states, of atmospheres. Its course is established between vigorous blows, a flapping of wings, a “rowing towards you,” metaphors of diverse actions, isotopes that, overlapping, stay open a crack to let in the light. The act of maintaining that valve open entails a tour de force

The muted background of sounds and repetitions, the insistences and pauses, the acceleration or elongation, speculate about a region of darkness. But the poem follows a  blazing trail of light, always at a speed that renders its effort pathetic; it inhabits and homes in on the “back of the mind,” remaining there for a few moments. 

This isn’t to say that the Ashbery poem is abstract. On the contrary, it consists of a set of verbal performances and panoramas for the spectator to behold. Although the meaning of the moment is stolen, the process is not “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” While it does indeed have fury and sound, it also contains a plethora of successive and accumulated partial meanings, always susceptible to suspended revisions, never complete. 

Each phrase leads, through resemblance or conjecture, to a referent, to a state of things that in itself remains misunderstood. Each picture is inaccurate but not in the sense of any lack of artistry. It is precisely due to this artistry that the picture’s incompleteness can be exposed. 

Somebody notes, scribbles down, and concludes each occurrence without achieving a distinct result, passing through it, carrying it out, as if crossing the street. The intentions are equivocal, availability is all that matters. 

To “sing” is all that is left, all that can be done to precariously bore through the “back of the mind,” but it isn’t enough. It makes us neither transparent nor immortal. The poem is an occasional lookout tower, from which the imminent surrender of the self can be glimpsed.

The poet dreams while waking, through “a sail of some afternoon,” drifting between islands on a houseboat; he disembarks on one of them, holding onto the lines’ texture to avoid being crushed too soon against the shoal. 

But in the end, words carry an “evil burden” that destroys anyone who utters them. Posterity or “stellification” is “for the few,” and consists, in any case, of a misunderstanding: readers believe they recognize an experience unrelated to that which led to the poem’s writing. It is a different experience, responding to different circumstances unique to the reader. The poem seduces precisely because of its lack of transparency.  

The Messenger, the Message

Someone moves incessantly to remain in the same place, in life, in the backyard, at the back of the mind. The mind has two spaces and two doors, a house and a backyard, a front door and a back door. The furnishings in the house are conventional, the front door opens to guests, but the garden is rough, formless, a specter of fragrances and semi-deserted stillness.  

From a daily privation, from an absence, from a “slamming door,” sounds a murmur that was always there but which before was impossible to hear. Otherness, the Other, a message, a self-sufficient messenger who is the message, a courier, an Indian runner, an angel is near, growing because no one takes possession of him, nor should they do so. That phrase, that angel-message, is “a breeze that’s pointed from beyond the tomb,” the speech of the dead, which is resurrected with them. It momentarily occupies a cave, a crypt—or the backyard—profaned by its conjectures. That phrase is the only way to achieve a half-presence; it participates ironically in the flirtation, invokes and maintains the Other, or otherness, at arm’s length, in a foreign skin. It seduces because it is beyond reach.

Some things, gestures, reveal themselves, but against an undefined aura or horizon; from the curve of a lens, a visible half, a hyperbola, is projected onto the still unseen other half, a complete vision of which is never attained. The backyard is an atmosphere, an available experience, a yet imprecise idea. 

The poem is not ahistorical; it becomes a history as it is written, in that very moment. It therefore lacks the exemplary nature of a completed cycle, nor does it merely repeat the repertoire of formulas catalogued by an antiquarian, nor is it only critical of that history. It demonstrates a historical enthusiasm. It is a flow chart, a measure of the tide. 

One should gain access through “hunches” to a position that is nevertheless impregnable, which cannot be conquered at a glance. It is necessary to focus on every minor detail because each one is eloquent, not for what it is but for what it implies. It betrays the circumstances of a feeling, neither foreign nor intimate, that can be glimpsed. The poem culminates neither in positive knowledge nor in any kind of moral. It is playful and rejects hierarches; anything can be worthy of consideration. It trains its attention on each detail through which feeling passes. 


Ezra Pound identified three “kinds of poetry,” three ways in which poetry can be pushed beyond its meaning: 1) melopoeia, the charging of the words with musical, rhythmic, phonetic qualities; 2) phanopoeia, the use of visual images; 3) logopoeia, “the dance of the intellect among words,” the play of the mind upon all facets of verbal expression. Of course, all three of these aspects may be present in the same poem. The role and relevance of each is a question of emphasis, of stylistic inflection. Unlike Brazilian concrete poetry, for instance, Ashbery’s poetry is not essentially based on melopoeia. Unlike that of Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams, Ashbery’s poetry does not rely on image, even though it traverses many landscapes. His is a syntactic poetry, anti-logocentric in the sense that it regards its verbal materials—the figures and tropes that make up the poem as a whole—with irony.

For Pound, the work of Uruguayan poet Jules Laforgue is a notable example of logopoeia. Perhaps something similar can be said of the painter Giorgio de Chirico’s novel Hebdomeros (which Ashbery translated from the Italian), or of Wallace Stevens’ long poems. It seems to me that this is the tradition in which the poetry of John Ashbery is inscribed. 

Ashbery writes, “the object of all this meditation will not/ Infrequently turn out to be a mere footnote to the great chain / That manages only with difficulty to connect earth and sky.” Poetry thus becomes “notes towards a supreme fiction” (in accordance with Stevens’ title) that “with difficulty” brings together the dimensions of “earth” and “sky.” The poem does not connect things already there, like the banks of a river. Edges emerge as edges only in the confluence effected “with difficulty” by the poem; dimensions that exist only when united, when brought into play through a precarious feat. The poem does not symbolize things that exist previously, that are not the poem itself. The poem is a thing, an allegorical artifact, the tunnel through which an occurrence passes. 

One dimension, the sky, falls upon a deserted garden, and all that reveals itself in that space (also called “the back of the mind”), all that corresponds to the earth, acquires a hallucinatory being, of true and clear-eyed affect. The poet and the reader no longer seek in reality the illusion of love with which desire deceives them. The poem is the place where the real acquires the full range of its possible dimensions, even though their meeting is neither a known totality nor a final result nor a lasting object but rather a precarious alliance. 

The poem makes use of its syntax while also questioning it. The subject is represented by alternative pronouns that transgress the rules of gender, number, and identity; the verbs, predicates, subordinates, and adverbial locutions function as pawns and tokens that displace and are displaced by the poem. Not even principles such as the logic of non-contradiction reign supreme. The poem’s being is autonomous though not independent from these principles, and it makes use of them for as long as they are of use, but its “thought” moves beyond contradiction through paradox or “conceit.” Ashbery considered giving his book Shadow Train the title “Paradoxes and Oxymorons.”           

The poem recognizes no obstacle in itself; it is an excess, but it should, in its irony, recognize a pre-existing if unknown limit. At some point, the poem will pause, triumphant though defeated by fatigue; what matters is the road traveled, the precarious meeting between “earth” and “sky,” the space opened up, the occurrence identified by the poem, rather than the end product itself. 

© Roberto Echavarren. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 Charlotte Whittle. All rights reserved.

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