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John Ashbery: The Syntax of Time

Billy Mills writes: I first came across the late John Ashbery’s (1927-2017) poetry almost forty years ago in a new bookshop in Dublin’s South King Street called Books Upstairs, oddly enough. They had the most interesting poetry section in town, and there I came across a copy of the Penguin edition of Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror. A brief browse was enough to convince me to buy it on the spot.

The title poem is an extraordinary piece of work, the emergence of the mature Ashbery as one of the major English-language poets of his time. Self-Portrait starts from the painting of the same name by Parmigianino and takes the ekphrastic impulse to places other poets fear to go. Ashbery is content neither to merely describe nor analyse the picture (although there are elements of both); he finds in it a fulcrum from which he can prise open a meditation on time, memory and art, which is life itself.

A peculiar slant
Of memory that intrudes on the dreaming model
In the silence of the studio as he considers
Lifting the pencil to the self-portrait.
How many people came and stayed a certain time,
Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you
Like light behind windblown fog and sand,
Filtered and influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you.

What marks Ashbery out from most of his contemporaries is his extraordinary immersion in syntax as the prime organising force of his verse. Many readers have noted the parallels between his mature writings and the late novels of Henry James; as with James, expandedly serpentine sentence structures enable the elaboration of a kind of constructive ambiguity, a faithfulness to the indeterminate nature of experience in the round. However, where James had the exigencies of character and plot to ground even his most convoluted utterances, Ashbery’s complex sentences float free, lead nowhere and everywhere, build apparently logical structures that, in the end, undermine themselves carefully, with a “so” or a “that is” leading to conclusions that do not follow but make perfect sense, if you let them:

The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.

A good deal of Ashbery’s reputation for difficulty stems from this focus on surface. Too many readers are seduced by the somewhat Romantic notion of poetry as a kind of language game in which everything stands for something else, where the “real” meaning has to be exhumed from the depths beneath the linguistic surface. His ambition was “to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about”, and he achieved it. His work is considered obscure precisely because everything you need to know is right there, in the words on the page, requiring the entire attention of the reader to be focused on the act of reading them without the distraction of explication:

But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.

What binds the surfaces together is time, not the linear time of the clock but the interwoven time of memory and syntax turning and returning on itself, time as the basis of empathy, which is love, the knowledge “that others felt this way / Years ago.” His great achievement is to have built a body of work whose core is this sense of continuity through memory, a poetry that does justice to the complexity of life by not being any less complex than it needs to be. Or, to quote the closing lines of this great, important poem:

The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.

Photograph: David Shankbone