" It's called deconstructionism," she says. "You know what deconstructionism is?"

"It's having a thought and sticking your finger in the wall socket--or setting off a smoke alarm."

Stalking the Wild Ashbery: 
Two Reviews 

Girls on the Run, by John Ashbery 
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Wakefulness, by John Ashbery  
Farrer, Straus and Giroux

by Robert Sward

John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run is a fifty-page poem ‘inspired by the work of  ‘outsider’ artist Henry Darger (1892-1972), a Chicago-based recluse with a history of mental illness, noted for his obsession with little girls.’  So says the publisher’s promo.

 “I don’t know about that ‘obsession with little girls,’” says a friend,“but I like the cover, Henry Darger’s ‘Storm Brewing.’  The art work suggests Girls is going to be a children’s story.  Let’s hear a sample,” she says. I open Girls on the Run to section three, and read (in their entirety) the opening lines of the first stanza:

Out in Michigan, or was it Minnesota, though time had stopped/ to see what it could see, which wasn’t much. A recent hooligan scare had/blighted the landscape,/lowering the temperature by several degrees. ‘Having/to pee ruins my crinoline relentlessly,/because it comes only ecstatically.’/But the wounded cow knew otherwise.

My friend blinks. “Harold Bloom likes it,” I say. “According to Bloom, Girls on the Run ‘will make readers happier and wiser.’  He calls John Ashbery ‘our universal poet, as Walt Whitman was before him.’  Funny, isn’t it?” “What do you mean?” she asks. “Here’s Harold Bloom, the critic most given to making lofty pronouncements, approving of Ashbery, the American poet most given to fence-sitting.”

“What do you mean by ‘fence-sitting’?” she asks. “The poems in Girls on the Run and Wakefulness are perpetually poised on the edge of meaning. Both books offer many delights, one tantalizing glimmer of sense after another, but hold back, line by line, teasing the reader, fence-sitting, never quite managing to communicate what the poet is thinking
about anything.”
“Don’t you know anything about the pleasures of foreplay?” she says.
“Maybe not, but I do know what it’s supposed to lead to. Tell me, what do you make of someone for whom foreplay is the whole game? There are all these superlative lines, each one of which can be read as a prelude to a poem that never quite happens. Ultimately, this is poetry as a form of coitus interruptus.  It leaves one feeling frustrated.”

“It’s called deconstructionism,” she says.  “You know what deconstructionism is?”
“It’s having a thought and sticking your finger in the wall socket--or setting off a smoke alarm.”  She punches me in the chest.  

“Be serious.” 

“Okay, it’s Roland Barthes in ‘The Death of the Author’ writing, ‘Succeeding the Author, the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt...’ I think that’s a fair description of John Ashbery’s work.” 

“Cut to the chase,” says my friend.
“For all its agility and sharpness (‘Our stalwart little band of angels got on it, and were taken for a ride/into the next chapter...’), the whole of Girls on the Run is less than the sum of its luminous parts. How can one sustain a book-length poem on preciosity, on atmospherics alone?” 

“Be fair,” she says.

“Look, I’d be hard put to describe the drama or story line in Girls, and the participants in this ‘surrealist adventure,’ Jenny Wren and Tidbit, Dimples and Mr. McPlaster, et al, are scarcely able to hold one’s attention for more than a page or two. And what is one to make of a narrative so arbitrary in its construction, so lacking in some underlying human feeling, that one line, image or character could be substituted for another?

“Then there are the Ashbery-ian echoes of Gertrude Stein:

Now he was the daughter or granddaughter of somebody famous,/folks for miles around knew that. But no one could say what she was up to, she was far too clever for that.

“Forgive me, but what’s the point?” I say. “Elsewhere Ashbery writes:

A horse wanders away/and is abruptly inducted into the carousel,/eyes flying, mane askew. There is no end to the dance./
“Enough,” I say. “Enough cleverness, enough urbanity.  Enough post-modernism.  Indeed, that’s the problem with both Girls on the Run and Wakefulness: an overabundance of ironic, masturbatory, carousel giddiness; too much forced cheeriness and, sadly, no end to the dance.”

“You just don’t get it, do you?” she says.

“Maybe not, but I’ve been visiting and re-visiting Girls on the Run and Wakefulness for several months. Today, re-reading Wakefulness, I recalled Frost’s words.  Poetry, he said, is ‘a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.’  

For all that there is to admire in Ashbery, what if a reader asks: What in Girls on the Run and Wakefulness would it impoverish us to forget?  Listen to these opening lines to "Moderately," a poem that appears early on in Wakefulness:  

The fox brooding and the old people smelling
and the tiebreaker--why did I not think of that?
Why have doubts upon me come?  Why this worldliness? And I remember no longer at the age of sixteen, and at the age of seventeen great rollers eating into night, I uncared for...

“Just look at the epigraph to the poem,” says my friend.  “See what Stepan Wolpe says, ‘...and as the last will come a sort of moderato part,(which some is of multiple motions, quick, slow, hampered, expressive, popular and peopled speech...’).  Isn’t that a clue to what the poet’s up to? Ashbery’s an acquired taste. You’re one of those stodgy academics who goes looking for content where there is none.”

“There is much that is gorgeous in Wakefulness, but how are aficionados to keep up their spirits in the face of all this self-imitation, the Ashbery-ian stylistic tic: the brilliant-but-brittle, momentarily engaging, fragmentary phrase; the arbitrarily unfinished line; the refusal to communicate feeling or emotion; the verbal collage; the allusions to Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound; the entertaining ‘high-end’ gibberish delivered with a wink; the persnickety squirreliness masquerading as ingenuity?”

“That’s enough,” she says, standing up to leave.  “That’s enough.”


Guggenheim award-winner Robert Sward teaches at UC Ext. Santa Cruz. Chosen by Lucille Clifton to receive a Villa Montalvo Literary Arts Award, he is the author of 16 books including Four Incarnations, New & Selected Poems (Coffee House Press) and Web Del Sol Chapbook Sex & TV with Aunt Em. Contributing Editor to eZine "Blue Moon Review," his newest book is Portrait of an L.A. Daughter & Other Poems.


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