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‘Planisphere’, begins with a poem of love in old age:

Is it possible that spring could be
once more approaching? We forget each time
what a mindless business it is ...


The intelligent, joyful wondering at spring’s resurgence isn’t unalloyed however: it ‘refus[es] to take sides ... / ... lest an agenda – horrors! – be imputed to it / and the whole point of its being spring collapse ...’ Ashbery’s poems are of course notoriously rich in whimsy, humour & sometimes plain wackiness, but they never flinch from reporting the world in all its terrible realities.

The realities addressed in ‘Planisphere’ are very much those of his most recent books: namely, human love, mortality and the vagaries of fate - which is not so surprising for a man well into his eighties. But he faces the tribulations of age & time with a kind of sagacious élan. In ‘River of the Canoefish’, for example, he confronts an image of abundance (of a lifetime’s poems, perhaps?) almost with a sense of revulsion. Once upon a time the canoefish were charming but ...

Today they are abundant as mackerel, as far as the eye can see,
tumbled, tumescent, tinted all the colours of the rainbow
though not in the same order,
a swelling, scumbled mass, rife with incident
and generally immune to sorrow.
Shall we gather at the river? On second thought, let’s not.
(‘River of the Canoefish’)

Ashbery does comic despair better than any other contemporary poet I know; his left-field wit remains sharp as ever. Often wry, sometimes surreal, & occasionally both at the same time, the opening lines of his poems continue to raise a chuckle. Here are a few at random:

‘I told them I was leaving and they were all thrilled.’

‘Is that a groin?’

‘There is a tremendous interest in dog-related items... ’

and my personal favourite

‘Ow. In fact ouch.’

Sometimes, it’s true, the playful whimsy wears a little thin. I’m thinking here of the collage of movie titles that make up ‘They Knew What they Wanted’, & ‘Default Mode’ (‘They were living in America for the pleasure of it all./ They were living in America as well as can be expected./ They were living in America as one grows passionately ...’ etc). But that’s four pages out of around a hundred & fifty & it would be churlish to quibble over that kind of strike-rate.

John Ashbery knows a lot about a lot of things, & ‘Planisphere’ is a characteristically unruly treasure-house of information, drawn from the poets’ lifetime of reading, looking, talking and watching. The poems are stuffed – maybe occasionally overstuffed – with references to mediaeval French, cartoons, metaphysical poetry (Sir Thomas Wyatt’s ‘They flee from me ...’ crops up, in fragments, in several places), Shakespeare’s sonnets (quotations – actual, morphed and mangled – are scattered amongst the poems), television advertising, camp lexicography, history, and, possibly his specialist subject, film. There is a wonderful and deceptively relaxed, conversational poem, ‘The Tower of London’, that conflates a partial and sped-up history of Richard III with the cast & incidental details of a movie about him from the 1930s. The detailing zips back and forth between received historical ‘fact’ & the actors who may or may not have played the various characters. It’s a poem about the arbitrariness of history and memory, about the roles we take on and the ones that posterity assigns to us; but it’s all done with the kind of deft humour and ease that belies the seriousness of its subject matter – ambition, torture, murder, the psychopathology of so-called ‘great men’.

Something of the protean multifariousness of Ashbery’s content is captured in the title of the book. A planisphere (for those of you, like me, who didn’t know) is a globe flattened into two dimensions, &, according to Helen Vendler in her review in The New York Times, is drawn from Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Definition of Love’ in which two lovers are forever kept apart by the goddess Fate:

And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have placed
(Though Love’s whole world on us doth wheel),
Not by themselves to be embraced,
Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear.
And us to join, the world should all
Be cramp’d into a planisphere.

The Ashberian world is one where the heavens can get a little ‘giddy’, where the poles do sometimes meet, and the teeming world is, indeed, ‘cramp’d’ onto the two dimensions of the page.

As if to give us something to hang on to, the poems in ‘Planisphere’ are arranged in alphabetical order, from ‘Alcove’ to ‘Zymurgy’. This is a tactic Ashbery has employed before – in the collection ‘Can You Hear, Bird’ – & we remain uncertain as to whether this is the poet is being wilfully prosaic, teasingly playful or simply side-stepping the practical difficulties of how the poems should be organised. Uncertainty is, of course, part of the deal struck between Ashbery & his readers, & it’s also what unsettles some & has them feeling that they are being taken for something of a ride. But even if it is a ride (& maybe,
sometimes, it is) it’s an intoxicating & dizzying trip.

Ashbery made his poetic reputation with ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ &, in particular, the long title poem from that collection. The extended lyric has featured a lot in his work, but lately not so much – nothing in ‘Planisphere’ extends beyond three pages & the majority of poems are no longer than a page. But fans of the long Ashbery poem, the meandering meditation, need not feel short-changed. Taken as a whole, the collection is still infused with a strong sense of that expansive lyrical gift & many of the poems ‘connect-up’, if you know what I mean, rather in the manner of loosely affiliated suite. The themes of memory & looking back, or even looking back on the act of ‘looking back’, recur throughout.

In a hundred years,
when today’s modern buildings look inviting
again, like abstract bric-a-brac, we’ll look back
at how we were cheated, pull up our socks, zip
our pants, then smile for the camera, watch
the birdie as he watches us all day.

(‘Attabled with the Spinning Years’)

There’s something unyieldingly clear-eyed & suddenly & icily bleak about us watching the birdie watching us, isn’t there? And it’s an effect achieved in part by sound as well as sense; consider all those short, sharp ‘a’s in line three, the peppy popping ‘p’s in lines four & five, & the way the passage is slowed down to its mini-dénouement by the drag of longer, flatter, fuzzier vowel sounds. There is so much in John Ashbery’s poetry that relies on evocation or so-called musical effects, so much that attempts to find another way into our sense of the world, its time, its truth & the place of the self inside it, that when he says things plainly it comes off as all the more arresting for its abrupt, stripped-back clarity. ‘The Winemakers’, one of ‘Planisphere’’s longer poems, swerves through these techniques of abstract, musical language, through what I recall one critic referring to as ‘interior impressionism’ before it finds a plainer resolution.

So it is with the things that were more or less
dear to us and are now enfolded in the dream
of their happening. A man comes to the end of the drive,
looks around. No-one sees him. He putters
and in the end is the last to leave. We may write about him,
or how his walk affected us. There he goes
again. If tact is a mortal sin
we shall not miss.

Somehow this simplified image of a man who ‘putters’ (the colloquial American for ‘potters’) in his driveway unseen, captures where Ashbery’s work has made landfall. He seems to be saying that our quiet, careful attention, our tact, like the tact of the poet, is a tiny, modest, but unbreakable link in the chain, in the larger narrative that post-modernism seemed to dismiss.

© C. J. Allen 2010

C.J. Allen

Cramp’d & Expansive

‘Planisphere’ – by John Ashbery. Carcanet Press £12. 95

Some would say that we shouldn’t take up the reviews pages of a webzine like Litter writing about another new book by an internationally renowned poet. After all, the internationally renowned get their column inches in the Times Literary Supplement & the London Review of Books, the New York Times & Poetry Review, don’t they? Shouldn’t we be dedicating this precious, limited literary space to the service of the more marginalised, the smaller fish in the smallish pond that is (capital P) Poetry?

Well, no, actually. John Ashbery’s work has amused, amazed, outraged, appalled, delighted & divided readers of poetry for over fifty years. And the debate about his books still rages; some condemning him as an obscure joker, others praising him as a magical genius. That his work should provoke such passionate oppositions seems of itself sufficient reason for considering it here. Furthermore, critical explications &/or de-codings of John Ashbery’s poetry are themselves contentious. Stephen Burt observed in an article in the Times Literary Supplement that anyone critiquing Ashbery ‘risk[s] having sceptics tell you that you made it all up: that the poems demonstrate ingenuity not from the poet but from his interpreters.’ If we add to this even the slenderest possibility that it might also be pretty extraordinary poetry, then the consideration of a new book by John Ashbery becomes nothing short of a necessity.