Chinese Whispers, by John Ashbery, 2002

American Whispers
John Tranter reviews «Chinese Whispers» by John Ashbery
Carcanet,£9.95, ISBN 1857546180 First published in Poetry Review (London UK), Vol 92, No 4, Winter 2002/2003, p.66.

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John Ashbery is of course a person, an individual with distinctive characteristics. As he says in the poem ‘Too Much Sleep is Bad’’, ‘I don’t have a chronic cough. / Cats don’t drool over me.’


But there’s also a product out there with the same brand-name, usually presented as just the surname, like ‘Ford’, ‘Hoover’, ‘macadam’ or ‘silhouette’ [1].

John Ashbery, New York City, 1998, photo by John Tranter
John Ashbery, New York City, 1998, photo by John Tranter


‘Ashbery’ has been put together gradually over half a century in a largely unconscious collaborative project by a construction team of hundreds of magazine editors, publishers, reviewers, fellow-poets and cultural and literary critics, as well as the person at the centre of it all. By now the brand-name ‘Ashbery’ (a fortuitously unique misspelling) represents (as well as the person) both a career and its reification, a ‘body of work’: some twenty-four books and countless interviews, articles, reviews and photographs.


‘Ashbery’ gradually emerged into the glare of public attention in the early 1970s, assisted by the publication of An Anthology of New York Poets. This collection, edited by the younger poets Ron Padgett and David Shapiro and published in June of 1970, mounted ‘Ashbery’ at the prow of the ‘senior’ ‘New York School’ along with Edwin Denby, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara.


The brand had earlier undergone various modifications. In the years of the McCarthy witch-hunts, of J. Edgar Hoover’s secret frocks (a myth, unfortunately) and Eisenhower (US President from 1953 to 1961), it had spent a decade of redevelopment in France, where its early styling underwent an overhaul — originally a gentle, gawky kid producing sweet-natured and slightly wacky lyrics, it remodelled itself into a fierce intellectual with a vaguely European lineage, an un-American creature who would tear a living poem to shreds and reassemble the body parts into a cruel collage.

The young John Ashbery, with a Hamptons garden in the background.
The young John Ashbery, with a Hamptons garden in the background.


Eventually, after a sequence of stylistic shifts, the brand mutated into ‘The Readable Ashbery’ during the northern fall of 1975, when the collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the Big Three Prizes available to American poets: The Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award.


John Ashbery (the person) has always maintained a discreet distance from the hoo-ha surrounding new product development, but he did admit that he doesn’t think too much of the title poem in that book: in a 1985 interview with the present author he admitted ‘I’ve never really cared for “Self-Portrait” very much, and I must say I didn’t like it any more when I reread it. But I obviously had to put it in [to his 1985 Selected Poems] because people would expect it to be there.’



Carcanet’s list is large and varied. There are, as with any list, earnest dullards aplenty, but also flashes of brilliance and rogue wit, often transatlantic: Kenneth Koch, Harry Mathews, Barbara Guest, and of course Ashbery. This book is the twenty-fourth release in the overall Ashbery poetry series (Carcanet has British retail rights for nineteen items) which, all-up, makes an average of one every two years since he began publishing nearly half a century ago.


These poems are somewhat like the poems in the admittedly difficult The Tennis Court Oath, from Ashbery’s ‘Paris decade’ (1955 to 1965). Of the poems in that book he says ‘I did write them during a period when I didn’t know what I wanted to do, when I began living in France and I was unused to the foreign environment and language and everything. They were really experiments which I didn’t think would ever be published…’ (Jacket magazine, No 2, January 1998)

I think Mr Ashbery is at the door, sir.
I think Mr Ashbery is at the door, sir.


But the poems in Chinese Whispers are more readable, and by a wider audience, with the disparate fragments lashed together in a net of rambling discourse rather than left adrift as flotsam to broach and wreck the reader, as in the early book.


The tone of voice can easily accommodate a smart-guy wisecrack from the forties, and often swerves into Loony Tunes territory — Daffy Duck and Popeye both feature in earlier Ashbery poems. But the language can veer equally well from the scrappy to the scholarly. Here are a few of the plums that bedizen this lexical pudding: bedizened, slough, tetched, tisanes, trottoirs, ichor, hobson-jobson, codicil, columbarium, persiflating, inspissated, soffits, chancel, tesserae, wedgies, colibri, o’ersprent, voyante, clotused, and so on.


The dictionary is not likely to be much help. Does the title give us a pointer to the poet’s concerns? Carcanet’s blurb-writer seems to think so, but he or she is wrong. The parlour game called ‘Chinese Whispers’ in England (and ‘English Whispers’ in China?) is usually called ‘Telephone’ in the US, which is perhaps why the oft-contrary author chose the more esoteric phrase, but even so these poems are not step-by-step narrative distortions of an originally simple story. The title in fact is borrowed from one of the poems in the book, and is as obstinately oblique as any of the other titles. ‘Little Sick Poem’ is a robust piece of work, for example; ‘Portrait With a Goat’ is entirely lacking in goats, though the doves which briefly appear remind one of the columbarium mentioned above, but then only etymologically. ‘From the Diary of a Mole’ is a far cry from the usual mole-diary routine (we find three polar bears, a curlew’s nest, a runt and some sleeping pagans, but no moles). And ‘Ornery Fish’ is an amiable and un-piscine excursus involving salad dressings, tea at twilight, and a wave ‘from which protrudes a tiny fist / clutching orange or yellow flowers.’ (Note: why so many animals?)


Though the title ‘Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland’ is perhaps a clue. Most of these poems have a narrative, and the stories they tell are indeed like dreams:


‘Someone brought in a tray of cakes which were distributed to the guests according to a fixed plan. “Here, this one’s for you. Take it.” I looked and saw only a small cat rolling in the snow of a darkened gutter. “If this is mine, then I don’t want it.” Abruptly the chords of a string quartet finished. I was on a shallow porch. The village movie palaces were letting out….’ (‘Disagreeable Glimpses’)


But why a ‘small’ cat? Why is there snow in the gutter? Why is the gutter ‘darkened’?


On the other hand, would anyone think of asking Jackson Pollock why a particular splash of paint had been placed just so in a painting like Blue Poles, or Lavender Mist? It’s the overall dynamic effect that seems to matter with Ashbery, as with Pollock, and the reader is encouraged to focus on large and tessellated networks of meaning, rather than on single phrases or linear sentences.


The Romantics (see below) introduced the idea of mood as the salient and crucial aspect of a painting. Perhaps it’s a matter of mood with Ashbery, rather than individual brush-strokes. From near the concluding lines of some of the poems in this book:


Not long ago I was in a quandary about this but now it’s too late. The evening comes on and the aspens leaven its stars. (‘A Nice Presentation’, p.3)

Our lives ebbing always towards the center,
the unframed portrait. (‘The Variorum Edition’, p.4)

Night, the sleeping animals  —
it all gets carted away,
sooner or later… (‘The Sleeping Animals’, p.5

…it’s all right, because it’s all over. (‘Disclaimer’, p.6)


But the elegiac note only tells us what we already know, if we’re paying attention to fleeting time. A T-shirt motto from the late twentieth century puts it succinctly: ‘Life’s a bitch: first you grow old, then you die.’



Here is John Ashbery reflecting on his role as artist in his poem ‘The Art of Speeding’ (from Hotel Lautréamont, 1992): ‘I’m the cap and bells that don’t belong. / A free-lance artist. The last and first of the romantics.’


Romantics? The two most widely taken up inventions of the Industrial Revolution were steam engines and bottled scotch, but Romantic Poets come a close third. They were invented to soothe the bourgeoisie’s anxiety at the sudden absence of God from the blasted landscapes they created in their pursuit of mass production and profit.


Ashbery is an inheritor of the Romantic project; a kind of nonchalant and unobtrusively productive Wordsworth to O’Hara’s nervous, intense and addicted Coleridge figure. His landscapes are large, sketchy structures — variegated, compacted, and full of a strange variety of animals, moody weather, and talking heads.

John Ashbery New York City, 1985, photo by John Tranter
John Ashbery New York City, 1985, photo by John Tranter


He may hint that they are ‘The Random Jottings of an Old Man’, but this is another misleading title. The jottings are a topic in the poem, not its substance. Though some of his assemblages may seem random, their settings and backdrops frame a flow of natural and social energies (weather, passions, travel, music, cracker-barrel sayings, snippets of talk) all felted helter-skelter into a mass of overlapping insights.


Then the language that carries these insights is put through a compacter. This tightening-up of the link between layers of identification is a version of the process whereby a simile is compressed into a metaphor, from ‘is like’ to ‘is’: ‘the waves on the surface of the sea far below a high vantage point look like wrinkles on an old person’s skin, and their rushing movement seen from such a distance is like a mere crawling motion’ becomes in the compression-chamber of Tennyson’s magisterial technique ‘the wrinkled sea beneath him crawls’.


So a lesser poet might have written ‘The foam at the edges of the waves lapping on the shore looked like embroidery’. With Ashbery there’s an extra metaphorical twist, borrowed from the mid-twentieth-century French surrealists: ‘The embroidered hems of waves annoyed the shoreline…’ (‘Disagreeable Glimpses’)


The surprising mundanity of the surreal world is perhaps its most uncanny aspect. Yes, Ashbery takes that mundanity further, too, until it’s really weird.



Some patients cannot tolerate even small doses of this medication. There is a problem: the problem of meaning. For a hundred thousand years, words have been used to communicate meanings and messages. We might as well admit that the two-page prose poem ‘Truth Gleams’ on pages 40 to 41 is incomprehensible, as well as being entirely in quotation marks (so perhaps someone else wrote or spoke it) : ‘“Nor will I know what to eat, when she rounds the curve of bananas. The altar offered little but idle chitchat. How far you’ve come if it’s autumn, and the plagues will surround you nervously, waiting for an opening. It could be anything, or just about anything, it seems…”’


So it seems.


Other readers have suggested that Ashbery’s poems sometimes comment on themselves as they unfold — and indeed this piece could be doing just that, admitting that it ‘could be… just about anything, it seems.’


I don’t know what to say about that. Perhaps Archibald MacLeish was right way back in 1926, in his ‘Ars Poetica’: ‘A poem should not mean / But be.’ John Ashbery was born the following year; and the product cycle began.


[1]  For those who care, the word “silhouette” derives from the name of Étienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister who, in 1759, was forced by France’s credit crisis during the Seven Years War [The Seven Years’ War was a war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763 Wikipedia] to impose severe economic demands upon the French people, particularly the wealthy. Because of de Silhouette’s austere economies, his name became eponymous with anything done or made cheaply and so with these outline portraits. Prior to the advent of photography, silhouette profiles cut from black card were the cheapest way of recording a person’s appearance. (Wikipedia)


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