Absolute Beginners

John Ashbery
The Mooring of Starting Out

BEFORE WRAPPING YOUR brain around this vital reissue of John Ashbery's early poetry, you may prefer a more visceral introduction. Take yourself down to the silly-looking bridge that connects the Walker Sculpture Garden and Loring Park. Standing at either end, look up, and notice the words riveted to the top girder, the beginnings of a poem Ashbery was commissioned to write: "And now/I cannot remember/How I would have had it." Let the subsequent lines pull you slowly across the bridge while 16 lanes of traffic speed below. Sensory data swirls with the poem's elegant/dissonant language, and you're enveloped by a strange vertigo, translated by an eye-blink into astonishment. Wobbly but renewed, you arrive at the final line ("And then it got very cool"), whose factual flatness grounds your feet--moors you to this place that is also a point for starting out.

The Mooring of Starting Out is the title of a new compendium of John Ashbery's first five books, and this bridge-crossing can also serve as an introduction into a primary aim of this New York poet's life's work: to unify thought and experience. This is an old, noble goal, and certainly was a preoccupation for Ashbery's direct precursors, famous Moderns like Auden, Eliot, Moore, and Stevens. But while these folks tended to enter the problem through the front door, always retaining at least a sliver of seriousness, Ashbery climbs onto the roof and sings a song for the neighbors. His distinctly contemporary solution is to celebrate the lack of solution: The closest we come to fusing the speaker and what he speaks about is not only to acknowledge the impossibility of the endeavor, but to find joy in it too.

So it takes faith to read these poems, a spiritual belief that the world is irregular, unknowable--and a belief as well that giving praise to such confusion can constitute its own worthy mission. This praise often projects a double-edged voice: grand ambition laced with cool humor, a sometimes barely perceptible lightness that leads to playfulness with language. Here's the conclusion to a poem (from the fourth book) called "Song": "Backing into the old affair of not wanting to grow/Into the night, which becomes a house, a parting of the ways/Taking us far into sleep. A dumb love." The off-kilter logistics and the simultaneous beauty, frustration, and comedy of "dumb love" found here are all future Ashbery trademarks.

While these early titles (originally published from 1956 through 1972) might not reflect the giant that Ashbery would later become, they do contain many elements that would coalesce in 1975 into Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, winner of enough major prizes and acclaim to scare the (half dead) poetry community half to death. The Mooring of Starting Out is also important as a historical document of the New York School, a poetry clique, including Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch, that Ashbery was more closely affiliated with in those journeyman years.

The first book in this collection, Some Trees, shows the smooth sophistication of Ashbery's metaphysical rhetoric. The diction is like lyrics chiselled down to the bone, each taking a unique but necessary shape. Auden chose the book to win the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets award and no doubt appreciated its technical maturity; he must've also sniffed the buried humor and disorder poised to burst over the pages of Ashbery's second volume. This work, The Tennis Court Oath, is his most experimental: the least loyal to conventional meaning-makers like punctuation and transition, and perhaps the true mother of what's come to be called Language Poetry.

The next two books negotiate between the extremes of the first two. Both Rivers and Mountains and The Double Dream of Spring offer Ashbery's seamless lyricism, now manifest in more complex compositions. The latter title is especially powerful as a cohesive whole packed with terrifyingly gorgeous poems. The fifth volume may be the most idiosyncratic of Ashbery's career: three epic prose-poems (appropriately titled Three Poems) forging a verbal labyrinth, a dazzling philosophical vision that consistently questions itself. Atypical as they are, these prose-poems do foreshadow Ashbery's determination to speak prosaically in poems and to ignore no potential source material: from Orpheus and Eurydice to the day's school-lunch menu.

This determination to meld the high brow with the workaday also belonged to Walt Whitman, America's prototypical bard, and Ashbery might be the 20th century's heir to that throne. If Whitman can be criticized for occasional excess and carelessness, so can Ashbery, but not without admitting that no other American poets have created bodies of work that are so human, so inclusive, and simultaneously so strange and shockingly innovative. After 70 years, John Ashbery has chalked up 16 original books of poetry along with dabblings in other genres--all worth reading--and he shows no signs of slowing down. We stand back with our mouths agape, waiting for him to sing another song. Meanwhile, if you haven't done so already, there's a certain bridge you may want to cross, and a very good book on the other side.

 
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