So I've been editing down the manuscript of my book-in-progress Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself, and have decided to remove this passage—not because I have a problem with it on its own terms, but because it is redundant in the context of the chapter. Consider it the litcrit equivalent of one of those music tracks that shows up on a bootleg album of the sort completists used to hunt down in grimy subterranean record shops...
In his famously lukewarm foreword to Ashbery’s Some Trees, W.H. Auden tells the reader that poets like Ashbery have succumbed to the temptation “to manufacture calculated oddities.” One way in which the diagnosis holds true is in Ashbery’s drawing attention away from denotative meaning and toward form—a foregrounding of the art of the poem over its statement every bit as indicative of Ashbery’s aestheticism as his prioritizing of imagination over the utilitarian world of work. Ashbery’s inventiveness is such that this foregrounding occurs in a staggering variety of ways, some involving the intensification of old poetic devices, and others involving a subversion of those devices.
One example of the foregrounding of form through the intensification of traditional poetic form comes in “Canzone.” The traditional Provençal canzone was a poem of 5-7 stanzas of some 7-20 hendecasyllabic lines each, with the same rhyme scheme occurring in each stanza—a challenging enough form in its own right. In “Canzone,” though, which consists of five 12 line stanzas plus a five line envoi, Ashbery has given himself a more challenging task. Instead of rhyming, he concludes lines with repeated words, in the manner of a sestina. He then uses the same words, in different places, in succeeding stanzas. The first stanza gives the general idea:
Until the first chill
No door sat on the clay.
When Billy brought on the chill
He began to chill. No hand can
Point to the chill
It brought. Where a chill
Was, the grass grows.
See how it grows.
Acts punish the chill
Showing summers in the grass.
The acts are grass.
The lines of the second stanza ends in the same set of words, and follows the same pattern of rhyme, but with the line-ending words repositioned so that they come in this order: grass/chill/grass/grass/clay/grass/can/can/grass/grows/grows. The third, fourth, and fifth stanzas similarly re-use the words in shifting positions, still following the pattern ABAACAADDAEE, with the shorter envoi also using the five repeated words. The brevity of the lines as compared to the traditional hendecasyllabics, combined with the substitution for the traditional rhyme, of repleted of words within and between stanzas, combine to highlight the formal qualities of the poem. What is more, the abstract and elliptical nature of the narrative downplays any sense of statement or extra-musical meaning. Traditional form is ramped up, even as content is pushed to the margin. When John Yau wrote that “Ashbery is an heir to Walter Pater, who proposed that ‘all art aspires to the condition of music,’“ he could well have had this poem in mind.
“A Snowball in Hell” takes a different approach in emphasizing form over content. Consider the opening stanza:
In the beginning there are those who don’t quite fit in
But are somehow okay. And then some morning
There are places that suddenly seem wonderful:
Weather and the water seem wonderful,
And the peaceful night sky that arrives
In time to protect us, like a sword
Cutting the blue cloak of a prince.
There is a recognizable narrative here, to be sure: indeed, it seems almost like a group biography for Ashbery and his circle of poet-friends. Misfits whose lives are difficult but not tragic find a kind of haven where they can flourish. But what are we to make of the simile for the arrival of night? We’re given both parts of what could have been a perfectly functional traditional simile—the night sky and a blue cloak. It’s an apt enough comparison visually, and since the night sky is meant to protect the protagonists (perhaps they are lovers, meeting in secret), the protective connotation of “cloak” is apt enough. But we are not told that the peaceful, protective night sky is like a blue cloak: we are told that it is like a sword cutting a prince’s blue cloak. This is startling, and original, and quite hard to reconcile with the sentiment it seems intended to express. The sword neither looks like a night sky, nor does it function defensively: it is a bright object of aggression. Ashbery has drawn attention to a very traditional kind of poetic simile, putting the night-as-cloak figure into our minds even as he subverts it. In the end, the destruction of the cloak is the destruction of traditional simile itself. And perhaps, given the presence of that prince, it is the destruction of the aristocratic world from which traditional poetry comes down to us. The real action of the stanza lies less in the presentation of the alienated group finding a haven than in a formal matter, the unmasking of old poetic figures as hackneyed expressions.
One is reminded, by passages like these, of a remark made by Pierre Bourdieu in his examination of the rise of autonomous art. In the absence of pressures to conform to religious, political, or market forces, or to otherwise conform to the norms of a public, artists find themselves “in a position to rebuff every external constraint or demand, are able to affirm their mastery over that which defines them and which properly belongs to them, that is, the form…” Forged in the bohemian New York art world of the 1950s, John Ashbery’s imagination embraces formal concerns, sometimes almost exclusively.