Nov 30 2009

Planisphere by John Ashbery

Craig Morgan Teicher

web exclusive


How is it that a poet can do almost nothing new in a succession of books and yet still sound utterly awake to the fresh possibilities of language? This is the question that John Ashbery's work has posed for at least the last fifteen years. The criticisms one can make of Planisphere, his twenty-fifth collection of new poems, are obvious and hardly original: Ashbery is writing more of the same kinds of poems he has been at for decades—short, disjunctive lyrics, fragmentary voice-collages, quirky lists, abortive philosophical tirades, oblique meditations on mortality. He is no longer thinking vigorously—as he did in his groundbreaking books of the '50s, '60s and '70s—about what constitutes (and how to reinterpret) the contemporary lyric poem; he is simply repeating the results of those earlier experiments. But no matter. It remains deeply pleasurable to hear this older master musician play, even though the virtuosic discoveries of his youth now seem second nature.

Somehow, the habits of Ashbery's mind still tell us a great deal about the randomness, the loneliness, the sometimes emptiness, and the hopefulness of the English language. "True happiness / (which we can't have while we are still close to believing / in it)...depends on life that ends," he writes, demonstrating both a lifetime's accrued wisdom (Ashbery has been thinking about death, presumably his own, for a long time) and a continuing quest for an odd kind of joy.

Ashbery still has his ear to the ground, he's still listening, and the results are fun, funny, often wise, sometimes brilliant. He draws inspiration from movie titles—a series of them, all beginning with the word they compose an entire poem ("They came to a city. / They came to blow up America. / They came to rob Las Vegas"). He also looks to the work of poets he's influenced—in one poem, he uses a line from an obscure book by younger writers Jeff Clark and Geoffrey G. O'Brien as an epigraph. Whatever his influences, Ashbery consistently surprises.

Few poets make it this far with much worth saying. Fewer still know how to talk meaningfully about the state of their own art: "Nobody sticks a finger in an electric fan / to see what will happen," says the author, admitting some experiments are finished, the results now well-known, a source of both comfort and alarm. He goes on to explain: "Conversely, / we have all we can think about." At this point, Ashbery doesn't need to blaze new trails.

Craig Morgan Teicher is a Vice President of the National Book Critics Circle. His next book, a collection of fiction and fables called Cradle Book), will be published by BOA Editions in May.

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