last week I was out in the tall pines of northern California talking with a friend about how her child–her year-and-a-half old child–likes poetry. That sounded pretty good to me. I asked whether the child likes John Ashbery, but apparently they haven’t made it to the contemporary Americans yet, working as they are through the Renaissance and 19th Century. When one reads Ashbery, the urge is first to say nonsense. I’m not sure he’d have a big problem with that, but I’ll defend him from it nonetheless. It’s not so much that Ashbery’s poems lack meaning, it’s that meaning is beside the point. What is the point? It is that, and other things. Long-time readers will recall that an Ashbery poem–probably still in my top 5 all-time–was one of the very first MV selections. It’s one we’ve returned to again and again. How pleasant, then, on my flight home, to realize that I’d swiped another friend’s copy of the New Yorker during my trip west, and that there, on p. 57, was a new poem by our court jester supreme. I’m not the best at recognizing contemporary poets, but I wager that just from the number of question marks and the word “pince-nez” I’d have pegged this as an Ashbery. Something about his approach strikes me as side-splitting, and plenty serious enough. -ed.
THE SHORT ANSWER
I am forced to sleepwalk much of the time.
We hold on to these old ways, are troubled
sometimes and then the geyser goes away,
time gutted. In and of itself there is
no great roar, force pitted against force that
makes up in time what it loses in speed.
The waterfalls, the canyon, the royal I-told-you-so
comes back to greet us at the beginning.
How was your trip? Oh I didn’t last
you see, folded like the margin
of a dream of the thing-in-itself. Well, and
what have we come to? A paper-thin past,
just so, and more’s the pity. We regurgitate
old anthems and what has come to pass, and why
dwell on these. Why make things more difficult
than they already are? Because if it’s boring
in a different way, that’ll be interesting too.
That’s what I say.
That rascal jumped over the fence.
I’m wiping my pince-nez now. Did you ever hear from
the one who said he’d be back once it was over,
who eluded me even in my sleep? That was a particularly
promising time, we thought. Now the sun’s out
and it’s raining again. Just like a day from
the compendium. I’ll vouch for you,
and we can go on scrolling as though nothing had risen,
the horizon forest looks back at us. The preacher
shook his head, the evangelist balanced two spools
at the end of his little makeshift rope. We’d gone too far.
We’d have to come back in a day or so.