John Ashbery is 90
Here’s how his poetry has shaped my music
What is profound in Ashbery’s poetry is also unfixed. You can’t put it in your pocket. This resistant quality, unfortunately, lends itself to impoverished interpretations. Unable to stabilize the precise truth of his descriptions one can be tempted to applaud what seems like, ultimately, an elegant capitulation to artifice. As a first example, here is the poem “Crazy Weather,” from Ashbery’s 1977 collection Houseboat Days:
It’s this crazy weather we’ve been having:
Falling forward one minute, lying down the next
Among the loose grasses and soft, white, nameless flowers.
People have been making a garment out of it,
Stitching the white of lilacs together with lightning
At some anonymous crossroads. The sky calls
To the deaf earth. The proverbial disarray
Of morning corrects itself as you stand up.
You are wearing a text. The lines
Droop to your shoelaces and I shall never want or need
Any other literature than this poetry of mud
And ambitious reminiscences of times when it came easily
Through the then woods and ploughed fields and had
A simple unconscious dignity we can never hope to
Approximate now except in narrow ravines nobody
Will inspect where some late sample of the rare,
Uninteresting specimen might still be putting out shoots, for all we know.
Evidence for such a deflated interpretation can be found everywhere in this work: small-talk bookends — “crazy weather we’ve been having,” “for all we know” — act as quotation marks, flattening the poem into a mere textuality, while ‘deafness,’ ‘anonymity’ and ‘namelessness’ contribute to a sense of futility, a hopelessness, which pervades not just the written verse and its doomed expressive task, but the world — the “lilacs,” the “sky,” even the “you” — of the poem itself. Pressed flowers fall from between these pages.
So you find yourself lost in the poet’s gaze, he who has kept safe these moments of clear-eyed disbelief. You are there nodding along with him, looking out on the world as he does and as you might, noting cracks in the landscape. Yes, there is something strange. Yes, it does seem rather contrived.
But to come to such a conclusion about Ashbery’s work is to fool yourself twice, to forget yourself twice: Once in relation to that imagined landscape — which, the poet reminds us elsewhere, is “empty yet personal”¹— and again in relation to the poem itself. No matter how fractured, juxtaposed or artificial that landscape — or that bit of language — seems, it seems. To him and to us.
To forget this ‘seeming’ is, as Frank Farrell puts it, to forget the “phenomenological.” For Farrell, Ashbery’s poetry involves:
“a study not just of objects but of the background space of appearing that gives them a subtle and hard-to-grasp character as real…
To understand language as Ashbery does is to see how the synthesizing activity of the individual consciousness in relation to the world is not simply deconstructed, even if we are more aware of energies of fragmentation.
The space of poetry remains a space where the experiencing consciousness is bringing materials into a pattern that matters.”²
When the phenomenological is kept in view, those clichéd bookends transform into mumbled breaches above an ocean of “simple unconscious” into which you plunge, falling from the biblically wide-angled vision of a “deaf earth,” to the painfully present and external “you,” “shoelaces,” and “mud,” and finally to the opaque and inner — and ultimately hopeful — memorial to a possibility of growth, each of these focal shifts occurring to the reader with the same strange and disorienting motion of “the morning correct[ing] itself” around the “you” — and perhaps, therefore, around you. A phenomenological connective tissue binds the feeling of our active achievement of perception — manifest in the “background space,” as Farrell puts it, orienting itself around a person — with aesthetic appreciation.
Those of us who write music — that infuriatingly abstract medium — should be familiar with this kind of deflationary misinterpretation. It’s the same impulse that tempts us to misconstrue music as a ‘pure’ objectivity of frequencies or a ‘pure’ subjectivity of affect. It’s a searching for the nearest solid ground.
But Ashbery’s poetry provides a richer alternative to such inertia, one which maintains our interface with the world and articulates — however imperfectly — the tension of our embedment within it.
The first explicitly Ashbery-inspired work I wrote is titled Behind Glass, and was written for the Purchase College Orchestra in 2012. The poem on which it is partly based is “Pyrography” from the wonderful 1979 collection, Houseboat Days. Here is an excerpt from that poem:
The land wasn’t immediately appealing; we built it
Partly over with fake ruins, in the image of ourselves:
An arch that terminates in mid-keystone, a crumbling stone pier
For laundresses, an open-air theater, never completed
And only partially designed. How are we to inhabit
This space from which the fourth wall is invariably missing,
As in a stage-set or dollhouse, except by staying as we are,
In lost profile, facing the stars, with dozens of as yet
Unrealized projects, and a strict sense
Of time running out, of evening presenting
The tactfully folded-over bill? And we fit
Rather too easily into it, become transparent,
Almost ghosts. One day
The birds and animals in the pasture have absorbed
The color, the density of the surroundings,
The leaves are alive, and too heavy with life.
In Behind Glass, my Ashberian cliché of choice is a ‘romantic’ sweeping gesture, a longing, over-the-bar surge so familiar in this orchestral setting. But, just like the crumbling ancient architectures in the poem, the promise of this gesture will not be fulfilled. The title, Behind Glass, is meant to suggest both the museum-appropriateness of such an old-fashioned romantic gesture, as well as its inevitable failure to come in direct, satisying contact with the listener; any romantic promise of sublime communion will remain unconsummated.
The first half of the work consists of a series of unsuccessful attempts at such a climax, supplemented by an all-too-static progression of harmonies. At the midpoint of the work (2:46) there is a final, persistent chord which repeats several times. First seeming assured, this repeated harmony is gradually drained of its expressive potential, diminished to a whimpering anti-climax. (Thus reiterating the form of the work as a whole as an arch with no cornerstone.)
What can be heard for the first time in this most anemic and anti-climactic moment, however, are the wavering voices of the brass players singing through their instruments. It is true, the initial romantic expressive gesture is not the enchanted object it purported to be, but merely some culturally-contingent symbol. Expression, though, human expression, is real and valuable and as hard-won as those trembling voices suggest.
In the second half of Behind Glass the romantic gesture — now in the form of a simple klangfarbenmelodie — continues to be threatened by noisy, labored detritus (4:00–5:45). The ambiguity previously glimpsed during the anti-climax is thus extended: is it the inexhaustible, nostalgic melody which is truly expressive, or the tangible futility of the performers’ destructive efforts?
The work ends rather abruptly, with a second draining. Just as the above excerpt of “Pyrography” gradually recedes — akin to the ‘focal shifts’ of “Crazy Weather”— from the historical-temporal (“fake ruins”), to the social-personal (“tactfully folded over bill”), to the abstractly phenomenological (“the color, the density”), so too does Behind Glass dissolve into the wind.
I hesitate to call them styles, but Ashbery has several distinct and recurring approaches to his poetry. The somewhat minimal, oblique, and disconcertingly even-keeled voice one finds in “Pyrography” and “Crazy Weather” is perhaps his best-known, but I am especially fond of a more linear and less personable approach found in “Clepsydra,” a lengthy poem first published in Rivers and Mountains in 1966.
We’ve already observed in “Crazy Weather” how Ashbery’s work sometimes seems in danger of dissolving into small-talk. “Clepsydra” threatens a somewhat different collapse: into materiality rather than an empty sociality. These two extremes — the material and the asocial — present different, but related, versions of the interpretive pitfall I’m attempting to describe in this essay. Both are anti-humanist; they both fail to appreciate sufficiently the depth of the subject’s interrogative relationship with the world.
The small-talk and clichés in “Crazy Weather” present communication at its most culturally contingent and least expressive. Such phrases are cheap, thoughtless tokens passed around as niceties. I have tried to show that, far from representing his view of communication or language or art, these vapid, asocial phrases create a kind of outer layer in Ashbery’s poetry, a layer he proceeds to break through and excavate for deeper, humanistically-triangulated meanings. In such a view, humans are not empty, unreflective vessels through which language moves in some endless linguistic chain-reaction, but instead are phenomenological beings with an active and synthesizing relationship to the world.
The materialist threat evident in “Clepsydra” operates in much the same way as the asocial does in “Crazy Weather.” In the latter, a skepticism about the depth of our external, communicative lives points to a flattened picture of language and of the world, one that I believe Ashbery subsequently undermines. In “Clepsydra,” a similar skepticism is directed at what lies beneath or within objects in the world, and again this includes language, and the poem, itself. Isn’t it, the skeptic asks, just matter all the way down? All of it — cells, atoms, words, letters, musical notes — subject to the same inflexible, inevitable causality? Again, Ashbery undermines this reductionist, skeptical view in “Clepsydra,” even as he feels its force.
“Clepsydra” is a very long poem, but here is a short excerpt relevant to the current discussion:
But there was no statement
At the beginning.
There was only a breathless waste,
A dumb cry shaping everything in projected
After-effects orphaned by playing the part intended for them,
Though one must not forget that the nature of this
Emptiness, these previsions,
Was that it could only happen here, on this page held
Too close to be legible, sprouting erasures, except that they
Ended everything in the transparent sphere of what was
Intended only a moment ago, spiraling further out, its
Gesture finally dissolving in the weather.
It was the long way back out of sadness
Of that first meeting: a half-triumph, an imaginary feeling
Which still protected its events and pauses, the way
A telescope protects its view of distant mountains
And all they include, the coming and going,
Moving correctly up to other levels, preparing to spend the night
There where the tiny figures halt as darkness comes on,
Beside some loud torrent in an empty yet personal landscape.
There is such a beautiful ambiguity in this poem between landscape and page. Both seem to have some kind of hierarchical order: “levels,” things which “happen first,” their “after-effects,” and their “dissolving” ends. A skeptical materialism also pervades: foundations are “breathless” and primordial, texts are “too close to be legible,” and “weather” is no longer a clichéd conversation-starter, but a blindly destructive force.
Ashbery resists this mechanistic view. The landscape and the page are not just connected in their materiality, but in how indelibly tinged with humanity — our “view”, our “coming and going,” our “sadness” — they are. A rather opaque poem, “Clepsydra” is nonetheless saturated with the potential of legibility. Such an interpretive project won’t be easy, of course, and the poem sags under the weight of such a task, and this weight provides a depth and a tension which powers the endless march toward understanding.
The arch-shaped structures which permeate Behind Glass are also ubiquitous in my work titled Clepsydra. Again, these arches are for me a kind of stand-in for linguistic structure. In my Clepsydra, just as in Ashbery’s, these structures are put under the magnifying glass, and their architectural relationship to expression is scrutinized. (For those interested, there is some more detail on Clepsydra’s notation here.)
What comes of this increased scrutiny, however, is not a tidy appreciation of the syntactical mechanics of expression, but is instead exactly what Ashbery suggests: an illegible blur. Language — or music — in this view is not built on some clicking foundation of atomistic parts, but on gestural smudges and half-erased scribbles, written on pages bruised by human intentionality. Our microscope becomes a telescope, revealing and ‘protecting’ yet another distant, out-of-focus landscape, this one shaped and shadowed and bloodied by proto-linguistic bodily movements, gestures, and ‘dumb cries.’
In my Clepsydra, I emphasize this tension between page (which is projected for all to see) and the physical movement of the performers by using a musical notation, which, unlike traditional notation, gives moment-by-moment indications of exactly how each performer should move in relation to their instrument, instead of what pitches, rhythms or dynamics they should produce. Such a setup produces a familiar interpretive danger, the same one suggested at the beginning of this essay: that this rather opaque work will be seen as ‘pure,’ either purely notational, or purely physical, or purely sonic. Each of these readings are problematically flat, however, as each of them ignore, or forget, the human element — the phenomenological, as Farrell puts it — as crucial to any expressive, aesthetic or interpretive situation.
In my Clepsydra, I go out of my way to embrace this danger of forgetting-the-human: the performers, faced away from the audience and in darkness, are easy to ignore, and their interpretive agency stunted by a score which demands something much more like dictation than interpretation. But, like the springboard of empty sociality from which “Crazy Weather” leaps off and returns to, Clepsydra presents a cold foundation which calls out for and points towards the construction of richer, more humanistic architectures.
Finally, and briefly, a poem very dear to me: “The Young Son,” which was published in 1956 in John Ashbery’s first collection, Some Trees. This is one of Ashbery’s many unmetered ‘prose poems’ and the following is an excerpt from it which is spoken, almost imperceptibly, during my work of the same name:
Yet now a wonder would shoot up, all one color, and virtues would jostle each other to get a view of nothing–the crowded house, two faces glued fast to the mirror, corners and the bustling forest ever preparing, ever menacing its own shape with a shadow of the evil defenses gotten up and in fact already exhausted in some void of darkness, some kingdom he knew the earth could not even bother to avoid if the minutes arranged and divine lettermen with smiling cries were to come in the evening of administration and night which no cure, no bird ever more compulsory, no subject apparently intent on its heart’s own demon would forestall even if the truths she told of were now being seriously lit, one by one, in the hushed and fast darkening room.
My work, the young son, is perhaps not as explicitly tied to any specific John Ashbery work as Behind Glass or Clepsydra are, but it is, I hope, very much in the spirit of his poetry. In it one can find a temporal ambiguity, as well as a tension between the musical page and the literary page, between reading music and simply reading. There are clichés and quotations, an inside and an outside, and appropriately placed if somewhat defamiliarized clocks, mothers, readers, walls, practicers, bed-time stories, and wind.
 John Ashbery — “Clepsydra” in Rivers and Mountains (1966)
 Frank B. Farrell — Why does literature matter? (2004)