When I first started teaching at Brooklyn College, I had to teach a genre course for students who presumably had never read a poem before. I was puzzled about how to go about this. I started with an anthology of rock lyrics, because I thought this would be something they would probably be familiar with and we could get going and later become increasingly more serious. But they weren't really that interested in the rock lyrics…. I started to get very bored with this, as did the students. So I finally said, "Well, You have this other anthology, and next time I want you to read Wallace Stevens' 'Sunday Morning' and come and talk about it." And that went much better.
So said John Ashbery in an interview conducted by Christopher Hennessey for the American Poetry Review a few years ago. It’s an anecdote I’ve heard from a few of the people I’ve been talking to about Ashbery in the process of research for the Ashbery chapter of a book I’ve been writing. And I’d like to offer it here as a key to an important part of Ashbery’s sensibility: what we might call, following the sociologist David Riesman, Ashbery’s other-direction.
Riesman is best remembered for The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, a work of humanistic sociology from 1950 that he wrote with the help of Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. Riesman sees something new in the social character of the generation coming into adulthood in 1950 (when Ashbery turned 23), and attempts to get at it by contrasting it with earlier types of subjectivity. The book is subtle and complex and full of all of the qualifying statements and codicils one would expect from a responsible sociologist, but the short version of his analysis is this: there are three dominant types of social character, corresponding to three distinct historical phases. These are the tradition-directed, the inner-directed, and the other-directed (these ideal types are rarely encountered in isolation in an individual or a society, but they vary in which is dominant in any particular society or historical moment).
The tradition-directed individual internalizes his or her values early on from a relatively homogeneous group: a tribe or clan or village. The individual is small and counts for little; the group looms large and is everything. Little or no energy goes to the development of new solutions to problems, because life is precarious, and experimentation with the new constitutes too great a risk. “If we plant the crops in a new way,” the tradition-directed individual might think, “we could all starve: the old ways are best.” Individuals tend to be well adjusted to the values of the group, and to develop little autonomy, although tradition-directed societies usually have some way of accommodating, or containing, those who deviate from the norms. Shamanism and monasticism are two of Riesman’s examples of deviance accommodation in tradition-directed societies. Riesman doesn’t talk much about poetry, but if we wish to think of a poet coming from a tradition-directed context, we could think of the Beowulf poet: anonymous, and giving voice to the heroic values of a tribe, not to the lyric yearnings of an individual.
For Riesman, tradition-direction has been on the wane in the West since the Renaissance, but it is only in the nineteenth century that it is displaced as the dominant form of character formation. It is then that we see the triumph of the inner-directed character. While the term sounds like it might designate an independent, autonomous, or even existentially authentic sort of person, the inner-directed character isn’t quite that. Instead, it describes the type of character formed by the values inculcated by a small family, and internalized to the point where the person becomes largely immune to the siren-song of other values. This is a subjectivity for the era of social mobility, and perhaps the best way for a 21st century American to think about inner-direction is to think of the value system of many first-generation immigrants: parents will instill, early on and quite powerfully, a set of values and expectations (“you will be studious and dutiful and not wayward and you will be a medical doctor and marry within the ethnic group and excel!”). The society at large is not the dictator of values, here: instead, the inner-directed person is outfitted with what Reisman calls a “psychological gyroscope” early on, and this gyroscope (given to, not chosen by, the individual) governs his or her actions and choices and life-trajectory. The inner directed person is on a kind of mission, and rejects the pressure of the outside world. The stiff upper lip comes to mind as an emblem of this sort of character. If you want to think about poets who fit this mode, you’ll find them aplenty among the ranks of the reactionary modernists. T.S. Eliot was surely outfitted with a “psychological gyroscope” oriented toward his family’s values of spiritual rectitude and community leadership. He suffered terribly when he felt his own urges at odds with the directions of his inner gyroscope, and, when social changes in American society more-or-less dissolved the old paternalistic elite to which he belonged, he had to dream up a society into which his values would fit (you can find this in his illiberal social writings from the period between the two world wars).
The era of inner-direction, thought Riesman, was just starting to come to an end, at least in the United States, with the social transformations that came after the Second World War. Some of this had to do with the move from a society of deferred gratification to a society of abundance and consumption; some of it had to do with the ubiquity of mass media, but whatever the cause, the effect was this: character was decreasingly determined by parents and the internal gyroscope they installed in their children, and increasingly determined by shifting signals from peer groups and media outlets. Instead of unshakable values, we have malleable ones. Instead of an inner mission, we have both an anxiety about, and an empathy for, those around us. Father no longer knows best: in fact, if dad has some crusty old views that the media or our fellow sophomores tell us are no longer acceptable, we question and challenge him. He’s not the Godlike patriarch of old: he’s Archie Bunker, and we’re meant to shunt him aside. Compared to the inner-directed person, the other-directed person will be less militant, less rigid, more malleable, more open to change, more susceptible to public opinion. Is Ezra Pound other-directed? Not a chance. But in certain respects John Ashbery is very much the product of an other-directed generation.
I’m not the first to connect Riesman with Ashbery: Andrew Epstein, for example, mentions Riesman in connection with the 1950s culture of conformism from which the New York School poets sought escape. While I do see Ashbery sitting a little uneasily with the conformity inherent in other-direction, though, I also see many elements of Ashbery’s sensibility as congruent with other-direction. In contradistinction from many of the great modernist poets, for example, Ashbery is the least doctrinaire or agenda-driven of poets. No Celtic Mysteries in the manner of Yeats, no Christian society in the manner of Eliot, no Social Credit in the manner of Pound—none of that for Ashbery. And some of this comes from the other-directed impulse, the desire to avoid conflict with the world rather than to attack it at the direction of an inner gyroscope. “John is not a dogmatist,” an old friend of Ashbery’s once told me, “he says he’s bored in advance of all the trouble he’d create if he was.” This flexibility, this demurral of any strong desire to argue or convert or conquer, probably lies behind another of Ashbery’s qualities, described by the same friend as “his bewildering talent for not threatening people.” And one can certainly see the character forming influence of a peer-group (especially the poets, like Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, Ashbery encountered while a student at Harvard) as greater than the influence of Ashbery’s family back on the farm in upstate New York. The influence of the mass media comes into play, too: not just in the pop culture that was to inform so many of the poems, but in the way Ashbery initially encountered experimental art which he discovered through a 1936 issue of Life magazine with a feature on Surrealism. This was the sort of receipt of values from beyond the family circle unavailable in the childhood of T.S. Eliot. But it is the lack of a doctrinaire position, and the lack of interest in haranguing or cajoling an audience, that marks a real difference between Ashbery and the poets of the Pound era (it marks him off, too, from some of his contemporaries, like Allen Ginsberg—social character types, as Riesman notes, never cover everyone in a society or generation).
It is this desire not to be bothersome or pushy in one’s views that explains Ashbery’s initial reticence about bringing the poetry he most admired to his students at Brooklyn College. He wanted, instead, to meet them on what he imagined to be their own terms, and was surprised to find that they were more interested in being guided into his sensibilities—the love of Wallace Stevens, for example—than being left with their own.
Reisman describes the other-directed person as possessing not a gyroscope but a kind of radar that picks up signals from others and tries to accommodate them—and Ashbery was anticipating certain signals from his students. But what happens when some of those signals being sent don’t seem to be meant for you? This, for Riesman, is when we find ourselves imperfectly adjusted to the other-directed environment—and this, I think, is what happens with Ashbery. He is certainly made in the undogmatic, flexible style of the other-directed character, but not all of the peer-and-media signals coming his way in midcentury America were meant for him. There are a number of reasons for this, including precocious intelligence and aesthetic aptitude, but most prominent among them is his homosexuality, which placed him well outside the penumbra of general social acceptability.
What does one do if one is the conflict-averse product of an other-directed culture, but at odds with some of that culture’s norms? In Ashbery’s case, it seems that the answer is that one wanders away a little. One doesn’t pick up a megaphone or take to the streets: instead, one seeks escape. In many aspects of Ashbery’s life and work, this seems to be what takes place. There is an often ingenious school of interpretation, whose foremost figure is the poet and critic John Shoptaw, that sees Ashbery’s poetry as a kind of encrypted allegory of gay identity. At times I find this convincing, but I think if one really wants to see the function of homosexuality in Ashbery’s poetry, one needs to consider Ashbery’s comment, from the interview with Hennessy, that “I think if there is an evasion it comes from having to conceal one's feelings from an early age. Maybe that plays a more important role in my poetry than I'm aware of.” The evasion here is, I take it, an evasion of statement or narrative completion—and inasmuch as this is a way of neither embracing dominant values nor directly challenging them, it can be said to be the product of a wandering away from doctrine and conflict. This can be seen as the product of other-directed sensibilities (“I don’t want to give anyone a hard time”) running up against the social prohibition of one’s identity (“but I can’t embrace the values of the society around me”).
We can see this wandering away at work in Ashbery’s life: a flight from his family background first to the artistic bohemia of New York in the 50s, and then to Paris, which Ashbery often praises for the opportunity it offers the expatriate for solitude and shelter from fashionable opinion. We can see it, too, in a number of aspects of the poetry. There is, for example, the escapism of poems like “The Instruction Manual,” in which dissatisfaction with the ordinary workaday world leads not to any kind of programmatic rebellion, but to a dream of wandering away to the exotic aesthetics of Guadalajara. There is, at a more profound level, the evasion of completion or coherence in the poems: they digress away from anything like a thesis, sometimes in their large structures and sometimes in the syntactic incompletion or ambiguity of the individual sentences.
The escapism, or wandering away, that accompanies Ashbery’s ill-fitting other-direction, comes at a price: isolation. Ashbery’s poetry is among the loneliest bodies of work of any major American poet, and the Crusoe-like isolation of the shipwrecked figure in “The Skaters” is as poignant a picture of isolation as I have found in any poem in English. Indeed, for a longer time than most of us realize, Ashbery was a rather isolated figure in American literature, unsure of his reputation, without critical champions, and convinced that fame would elude him. But like those students at Brooklyn College, a surprising number of readers have come around to admiring Ashbery’s sensibility. Maybe this is a sign that we’re as uneasy with our other-direction as he is.