Shimmer, shriek, sheer joy: John Ashbery, Selected Prose (Carcanet)

The digested review (in case you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing): this is a terrific book; buy it now from

I won this book in a Carcanet be-the-first-person-to-answer-this-simple-question competition. Not really knowing anything much about John Ashbery (to my shame), except that he writes ‘difficult’ and ‘obscure’ poetry, I didn’t actually look at the book for quite a while. Then at some point, mooching around looking for something to read, I happened to pick it up and start reading one of the pieces at random. I was immediately hooked. Ashbery writes with enormous verve, enthusiasm, erudition and generosity on a wide range of writers and their work. It was on his urging, as it were, that I went off to find Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems; his review of the book begins, engagingly, ‘One hopes that the title of Elizabeth Bishop’s new book is an error and that there will be more poems and at least another Complete Poems’ (p. 120).

This small example highlights two of the most enjoyable features of this book: Ashbery’s generosity towards other writers and artists, and the wry elegance of his prose style. Both of these contribute largely to the sheer joy of reading the pieces collected in the book. Here is Ashbery on Marianne Moore:

“And there are other cases in which I become aware before the end of a poem that Miss Moore and I have parted company somewhat further back. Sometimes, as in ‘The Jerboa’, the author has her say and retires, leaving you in the company of some curious little rodent. And her mode of direct address can be misleading: toward the end of ‘To Statecraft Embalmed’ you become aware that she is no longer addressing an ibis, or even you, the reader; for the last minute she has been gazing absently at something terribly important just over your left ear.” (p. 111)

The first sentence here is simply wonderful, conjuring (in my mind at least) an image of Ashbery and ‘Miss Moore’ (or her poem) sitting on little rafts, regarding each other with a kind of friendly bafflement as they float off in opposite directions. (It is also a very good example of the subtle generosity Ashbery shows towards the potential readers of the poets he writes about: well, you feel, if John Ashbery is struggling to understand what’s going on in this poem, then it’s surely OK for me to be struggling as well; and worth persisting despite the struggle.)

Ashbery also has some intriguing and thought-provoking things to say on the subject of poetry in general, what it might be and what we might do with it. At one point (you’ll have to buy the book to find out where, because I didn’t make a note of the page number) he memorably describes poetry as ‘three parts shimmer, one part shriek’. And in his Robert Frost Medal Address he talks about the way in which most questions put to poets in Q&A sessions are really versions of ‘Please explain your poetry to me’; a hopeless task, he says, because ‘the act of writing the poem was an explanation of something that had occurred to the poet, and demanded to be put into words which in turn formed a poem’ (p. 244). This is surely true, at least to some extent; and yet, with characteristic politeness and (again) generosity, Ashbery goes on to say that he will nonetheless go on making ‘repeated stabs’ at this ‘impossible feat’, ‘if only because people expect it, and it is normal and proper to give people what they expect’ (p. 244). He goes on to give a fascinating and in places very funny account of the development of his writing, beginning with his earliest tour-de-force (written when he was eight), ‘The Battle’ (‘about a battle between the snowflakes and the bunnies. I can remember only two lines of it, which I will inflict on you to show that my poetry did too rhyme once upon a time’ [p. 245]).

This book contains insightful and entertaining writing on Pierre Reverdy, Raymond Roussel, Frank O’Hara, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Jane Bowles, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Mark Ford, and other people, some of whom I had never heard of. Even if you know nothing whatsoever of the person or subject Ashbery is writing about, you are guaranteed to enjoy the company.

John Ashbery, Selected Prose, edited by Eugene Richie (Carcanet, 2004)