John Ashbery and the Problem of Late Style

J.T. Welsch (York St John University)

  • A version of this paper was delivered at the conference Contemporary Literature and Its Contexts, at the University of Manchester, July 2010.

John Ashbery is old. On that point, at least, reviewers of his work over the last few years are in agreement. Eighty-three years old, as a matter of fact. An issue where they seem more conflicted, however, is the extent to which Ashbery’s age ought to figure into their discussion of the poetry itself. Of course, the supposed conflict between biographical versus formalistic interpretations hinges on big, open-ended questions common to the interpretation of all art: What does the work tell us about the artist? And conversely: What does knowledge of the artist’s life tell us about the art? Nevertheless, related questions somehow seem to grow more pressing in the context of the artist’s old age: Is this a new phase, stylistically? Is there an manifest alertness to death? Is the work self-elegiac? Nostalgic? How does this new work respond not only to the broader traditions of art but, like a particular tradition of great late works, how does this recent poetry respond or relate to Ashbery’s own back catalogue? Again, on these points, no critic seems clear.

Aside from mentioning Ashbery’s age and rehashing his long list of awards alongside platitudes about “America’s most important living poet”, a frequent means to avoid answering the questions above is to refer to the poet’s “late style”. In both academic and public spheres, it is a phrase which has become, some might say, suspiciously fashionable in light of Edward Said’s essay collection, On Late Style, published posthumously in 2006. And with regards to the concept’s biological or formalistic foundations, Said himself seems deeply conflicted. Throughout his essays on various artists and performers, Said fails to offer a definition of “late style” which is specific enough to extend to other artists and works, or with which we might easily compare uses by Ashbery’s reviewers. The question remains, whether Said’s conception of “lateness” is a quality assumed in relation to the author’s age (or even, retrospectively, in relation to their early death, as with a young late stylist like Keats) or whether “lateness” is a quality which inheres to particular texts, or perhaps to texts of a certain period, in relation to historical-economic circumstances, as with the lateness of Frederic Jameson’s “Late Capitalism”, for example.

For Ashbery’s reviewers, the criteria for lateness is either unspoken or taken to be a matter of common sense. On one hand, this would appear a healthy and practical response to the rise and fall of theoretical dogma like Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author, which some still take as a wholesale disavowal of what remain important and difficult questions about the relationship between works and their authors. On the other hand, with a poet like John Ashbery, whose formal and stylistic play has challenged straightforward notions of lyrical voice throughout his career, the invocation of some romantic figure of an aging author seems particularly unsuitable. Therefore, without involving my own unresolved opinion of Ashbery’s recent work, it seems helpful to chart out briefly some of the trends in recent criticism between these “sentimental” and “theoretical” poles. From there, I would like to be a bit more critical about the complex role played by the aging author character in discussions surrounding Ashbery’s recent work, before I conclude with a slightly more radical interpretation of Said’s notion of late style, which I suggest will be more productive in thinking about Ashbery’s late period.

Before examining the ways in which this “late period” has been established in recent discussions, it seems important to highlight the different ways in which Ashbery’s work has been “periodized”, in relation to both style and biography, since the very start of his career. After having his first full-length collection, Some Trees, selected by W.H. Auden for the prestigious Yale Younger Poets series in 1956 (a prize which defines “younger” as “under forty”), Ashbery spent most of a decade in Paris, initially under the auspices of a pair of Fulbright scholarships, and later writing criticism for Art News, Art International, and the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune. Following another ten years back in the States, during which time he continued as art critic for New York and Newsweek magazines, Ashbery moved out of what has been retrospectively viewed as his perhaps more radical “early period” with the publication of his sixth collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror in 1975. This book – the first in any genre to take the American triple crown of Pulitzer, National Book Award, and National Critics’ Circle Award – sets the high water mark of Ashbery’s illustrious middle period, which various commentators have regarded as lasting another tidy ten years. It was at this point, in 1985, Ashbery’s tenth volume of verse, A Wave, received both the Lenore Marshall and Bollingen prizes. In addition to these, a first Selected Poems was published that same year; and, just as importantly, in terms of retrospective period-marking, Ashbery’s was awarded a $375,000 “Genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation – partly in recognition of his contribution to American letters, but also with the intention of funding the following five years of his work.

By various measures, this five-year period between 1985 and 1990 has been taken to mark the shift from Ashbery’s middle period to what we have no choice but to call his late one. Despite Marjorie Perloff’s claim in 2001 that It is probably too soon to assess the overall trajectory of Ashbery’s poetic career,”  (Thumbscrew, Spring 2001) the ongoing periodization of his work seems inevitable if only for the practical reason of being able to summarise, when necessary, his long and prolific career as briefly as I have above. Slicing up his oeuvre into these more manageable periods is also quite useful for packaging; and various recent retrospective collections, like the initial Selected Poems from 1985, have followed and helped reinforce the trend: 1997’s The Mooring of Starting Out made available the relatively difficult-to-find first five books of poetry – in other words, the Early Period, everything up until Self-Portrait. Then, in 2007, Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems was published and awarded the Griffin International prize. In this case, “later” meant 1987-2005, or in other words, the Late Period, including everything since the first Selected and the MacArthur grant. Rather conveniently, 2007 also saw the publication of John Emil Vincent’s book-length critical study, John Ashbery and You: His Later Poetry (University of Georgia). Finally, the following year, the Selected Later Poems was backwardly complemented by the Library of American’s publication of a first volume of Ashbery’s Collected Poems, covering the years up till 1987. This last volume is particularly impressive, considering the Library of America’s express commitment to “preserving America’s best and most significant writing in handsome, enduring volumes,” and considering Ashbery’s position as the only living poet among the 204-volume series.

Although, as I have said, such periodization of a writer of Ashbery’s esteem is likely unavoidable, it does leave the poet himself in the not unprecedented, but still somewhat awkward position of producing new work within this chronology. In some sense, with each new book, we are actually watching him fill the planned second Library of America volume. (Not only that, but because his 1,000-page volume is meant to be the first of two, and covers only the the years 1956-1987, at some point, there must have been a slightly morbid discussion in which the editors had to work out the likelihood of Ashbery’s output ending by 2018.) Over the past two decades, Ashbery has continued to publish a new collection every two or three years, but each new book may now be readily filed under this the header “late style”, regardless of the reviewer’s opinion of the later work generally or its specific volumes. In this way, the lateness of these recent books is assumed before the fact, and as a conceit, such an aspect thus remains separate to whatever features are said to define that late style. 

Roger Gilbert acknowledges the compulsion to contrast Ashbery’s early and later (post-1987?) work in a 2007 article in the journal Contemporary Literature, where he admits that ‘Few critics would claim that Ashbery’s recent poetry rises to the impossibly high mark set by his three masterpieces of the early 1970s’. Yet, Gilbert adds, ‘it would be a mistake to assume, as some critics have, that Ashbery’s poetry of the last decade and a half is simply an inferior version of his earlier work.’ Others remain less convinced. Where Adam Kirsch, in 2008’s The Modern Element argues that Ashbery ‘gives the reader a sense of exhaustion – as though, after him, there were nowhere fruitful for poetry to turn,’ Clive James, writing in 2005, articulates the sense that this exhaustion and loss of direction might apply to Ashbery’s poetry itself:

“John Ashbery would have given us dozens more poems as thrilling as his jeu d’esprit about Daffy Duck if he had never been raised to the combined status of totem pole and wind tunnel, in which configuration he produces one interminable outpouring that deals with everything in general, with nothing in particular, can be cut off at any length from six inches to a mile, and will be printed by editors who feel that the presence in their publication of an isotropic rigmarole signed with Ashbery’s name is a guarantee of seriousness precisely because they don’t enjoy a line of it.” (NYT, 2005)

For others, it is simply enough that Ashbery is still producing books at all. Reviewing 2005’s Where Shall I Wander, the committed Ashbery scholar Andrew DuBois concludes that the new book is as ‘Rich as ever, as ever worth our attention – just more Ashbery, after all, and thank goodness.’ (Harvard Review, Dec 2005) In a similar vein, Charles Bainbridge, in a very brief review of last year’s Planisphere in the Guardian’s ‘poetry roundup’, suggests that ‘the fact that, in his early 80s, [Ashbery] is so clearly enjoying [his typical] captivating manoeuvres is a delight to experience.’ (30/01/2010) Aside from possibly damning the recent books with such faint praise, to me these comments implicitly endorse a sense of continuity between these new and earlier books. Stephen Ross is more explicit about this continuity, suggesting that, in the Library of America volume, ‘Ashbery’s craft and stylistics, protean as they are, emerge in the first stanza of the first poem’. (Oxonian Review, 9/2/09) At any rate, this emphasis clearly runs contrary to the prescription of distinct periods by other reviewers and by the ‘early’ and ‘later’ collected editions. On the other hand, such reticence might also be in line with Marjorie Perloff’s claim that ‘It is probably too soon to assess the overall trajectory of Ashbery’s poetic career.’ (Thumbscrew, Spring 2001)

Among reviewers who do make a distinction between period, but who also, like Roger Gilbert or John Emil Vincent, look favourably on a prospective ‘late period’, there emerges a different kind of division between those who manage to avoid sounding patronizing about ‘the grand old man of American poetry’, and those – such as Charles McGrath in the NYT – who don’t. Stephen Matterson, reviewing 1998’s Wakefulness, is presumably trying to play off the title of that book, but its difficult not to hear a slight tinge of condescension in his suggestion that ‘In his seventies’ Ashbery remains ‘sprightly’ and ‘energetic’, as well as ‘Alert, vigilant, attentive’. (Poetry Ireland Review, 62, 114More troubling, perhaps, is the notion that Ashbery has entered an ‘unmistakably posthumous mode’, as Stephen Burt suggests in his review of 2007’s A Worldly Country and Selected Later Poems in the TLS. According to Burt, Ashbery’s books of the last two decades, ‘portray a sad decline – but not,’ by any means, a decline in Ashbery’s imaginative powers,’ he assures us. Rather, the late work portrays ‘the decline to which all of us are subject, the fact – realized over and over in any life – that we will lose all the people and things we love, that they must, as we must, grow old and die.’ (TLS 26/03/2008) As I suggested at the start though, it’s precisely this sort of awkwardly or too easily biographical reading which interests me. We find a similar biographical interpretation in Daniel Pritchard’s review of 2009’s Planisphere: ‘Of late,’ Pritchard writes, ‘we find [Ashbery] looking back, or rather looking at “looking back,” considering experiences of memory and loneliness alongside themes of generational transition and nostalgia.’†

This biographized, mortal figure not only appears more teachable, but also more accessible for the narcissitic reader-figure, who can find, among Ashbery’s difficulty, Burt’s review told us, the narrative ‘to which we all of us are subject.’ I want to be clear here though, because I don’t wish to underestimate the crucial role of the author character in review discourse or the implicit dialogue between reviewers and publishers – not because I disagree with the cynical post-structuralist sense of the economic or bourgeois capitalist currency of this figure, about which Foucault, et al. have long warned us, but because I am actually in favor of selling and buying poetry books. But before I get to my aloof, theoretical conclusion and my willful misreading of Said as well as Ashbery, I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at another seemingly innocuous invocation of the silly, romantic, bourgeois Author-function, in his most unashamedly consumerist context: the blurb. ‘Even after half a century of amazing readers,’ the sales pitch on Carcanet’s edition of Planisphere reads,

John Ashbery continues to delight and challenge with his inventiveness. Planisphere takes the reader on a dizzying journey in the company of a virtuoso and sorcerer who makes the common-place magical, disorientates and teases, and conjures glimpses of ‘horizons…bright and anxious’: ‘a space like a dream’. Planisphere restores to us a sense of joy and unease at the untried possibility of language and of the world we take for granted. (Planisphere, Carcanet, 2009)

Here, that imagined recognition between author and reader is absolutely central; and the reflexive benefit of our identification with this authorative figure is made perfectly clear in the play on ‘amazing readers’, in which John Ashbery’s amazement becomes our own. In this rather Ashberyan double-take,  the ‘dizzying’ but  nonetheless prescribed journey is sold to us as the chance to learn by easy osmosis the sorcerer’s ability to amaze – and literally, to stupefy or make others who haven’t made the ‘delightful’ but ‘challenging’ trip seem stupid. In a further, sneaky appeal to our narcisscism (like Burt’s), we are promised that this John Ashbery’s holiday will ‘restore to us a sense of joy and [presumably, joyful] unease at the untried possibility of language and of the world we take for granted.’ So, all at once, shame at us for taking it for granted, but the restoration of your entitlement and your place at Ashbery’s priviledged vantage point is assured.

Again though, I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m coming down too hard on Carcanet’s copywriters for being so clever and good at their job here. The other thing that really interests me about this particular blurb is precisely that emphasis on that open-ended journey ‘in the company of a virtuoso’ – which seems to me a particular kind of author and a notion that might help to reconcile the biographical figure with the uneasily ‘anti-authorial’ sensibility at the centre of Ashbery’s late and early style.

To this end, I want to finish by very tentatively proposing a relationship between a very specific aspects of Edward Said’s notion of ‘lateness’ and Ashbery’s style. On one hand, Ashbery’s career, seems remarkably incompatible with Said’s consideration of distinct late periods marked by a turn towards ‘intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction,’ (in the manner that he and Adorno discuss Beethoven’s final works, for instance), since these qualities are so central to Ashbery’s style from the start and throughout his career thus far. (I suppose we can’t rule out the possibility of his final book inverting that trajectory.) Rather, the fairly subtle point which I find a helpful in regards to Ashbery’s ‘lateness’ pertains to a more general approach to the creative act. Said seems most clear about this aspect of ‘lateness’ in his essay ‘The Virtuoso as Intellectual,’ dealing with the pianist Glenn Gould’s approach to performance:

“The tension in Gould’s virtuosity remains unresolved: that is, by virtue of their eccentricity his performances make no attempt to ingratiate themselves with his listeners or reduce the distance between their lonely ecstatic brilliance and the confusions of the everyday world.” (132-133)

Through these creative interpretations, Said suggests, Gould ‘[tries] to present, however, is a critical model for a type of art that is rational and pleasurable at the same time, an art that tries to show us its composition as an activity still being undertaken in its performance.’ (132-133) In this way, the ‘lateness’ of Gould’s style, as I understand it, emerges in relation to the text re-interpreted through performance. In Gould’s case, this means the re-interpretation of Bach especially. However, Said also emphasizes Bach’s own ‘capacity for invention, creating a new aesthetic structure out of a preexisting set of notes and an ars combinatoria that no one else had the skill to use so outstandingly.’ (129) Thus, even in the case of the ‘original’ compositions which Gould re-interprets through performance, the very act of composition involves an essential belatedness in relation to these preexisting structures. I would argue that this is precisely the sense of ‘lateness’ operating throughout Ashbery’s performances – and the ‘virtuosity’ so well characterized by the blurb – in his rather musical collages that emanate at all turns the distinct sense of being other people’s words.

To me, this conception of performative and compositional lateness also suggests a notion of the author’s own belatedness in relation to the alien structures of this text. And in this regard, we might say that John Ashbery’s quintessentially deconstructive poems (I so wish I had time to provide examples) – with their endless deferral of meaning, their false narrative and narrational gestures, the constant sliding of pronouns without antecedents, shifting registers, subverted idioms, figures of speech, and all manner of unresolved reference – expose the anachronistic nature of the authorial figure ‘behind’ these re-constituted structures, as well as our own delayed absence as readerly subjects as we re-open, re-assemble, and perform these pieces.

The ever-aging author – which is to say, the one who did the writing of the text which christened them ‘author’ – is necessarily a backward projection, leaving any figure surviving under that copyrighted name ‘late’ in a quite radical sense. The sense of loss and ‘looking backward’ some critics have ascribed to John Ashbery’s recent work is nothing new. Rather, a sense of lateness runs back towards us from his earliest books – of the poet subsequent to his poem; of the poem subsequent its language; and of our reader subsequent to each of these. And this lateness or delay, I would argue, is the essential ‘loss’ or sense of ‘looking back’ throughout Ashbery’s work. In this respect, I actually agree with Stephen Burt’s characterization of Ashbery’s ‘unmistakably posthumous mode’. I just think it’s been there all along.


† We might contrast these more straightforwardly biographical (or autobiographical) conceptions of Ashbery’s ‘late style’ with Marjorie Perloff’s identification of a similar but more objective and de-personalized nostalgia, when she suggests that “Memory has become increasingly obsessive, playfulness and camp more acceptable, and dialogue with a ‘you’ who is a close friend or lover becomes the normal lyric mode as does the telling of tales that invokes a shared past.” (Thumbscrew, Spring 2001) Perloff’s subtle refusal of biographical interpretations is evident in this sense of Ashbery exploring ‘memory’ itself and ‘a shared past’, rather than his own of either.

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