Image by John Kazior

Dead Poet Anxiety | John Ashbery in the Age of Social Media

David Schurman Wallace

Sometimes the best thing for a poet’s reputation is to die. It is preferable to do this while still young — a brief life can acquire a powerful shape, in the way Keats’s “This Living Hand” is more charged for breaking off abruptly. We stand, as they say, on the shoulders of giants, and after they are interred in the pantheon, we draw from their mythos as well as their work. For the tragically brief, death burnishes the myth; for poets who were celebrated in life, however, there can be a period of uncertainty. Strong as they seemed, it’s often unclear if they will continue to be read. Fashions change; a future audience is hardly assured. Have you perused your collected Swinburne lately?

No one could deny that John Ashbery was a critical juggernaut for the majority of his long career: W.H. Auden tapped his first book, Some Trees, for the Yale Younger Poets series, and his 1975 volume Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror achieved the book prize trifecta (Pulitzer, National Book, and National Book Critics Circle), thereby securing his reputation. His champions included Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, arguably the two most famous critics of the age. Ashbery’s influence was once considered inescapable: one anthology of criticism from the 1990s, “The Tribe of John,” positions him as the definitive poetic force of the late twentieth century, accepted by a left avant-garde, yet simultaneously impossible for the mainstream to ignore. Periodicals were studded with arguments about Ashbery’s value and centrality. He was compared to a naked emperor, and some saw his influence as a kind of widespread contamination. His style was contagious —  numerous poets struggled not to sound like him and his abiding late-modernist concern with poetry about poetry, or about what could be considered “poetic,” asserted his centrality. Here was a major poet, fixed in the firmament. But even before Ashbery’s death in 2017, at the age of 90, one could plausibly wonder if his pull was diminishing, in the way an old favorite grows overfamiliar.     

The boundaries between “major” and “minor” are increasingly destabilized, both in the insular ecosystems of professional poetry and perhaps in the culture at large. Who has the authority to make such pronouncements? Is it even possible, or relevant, to speak of a “poetry world”? Online discussion, particularly now through Twitter and other social media, has created a new landscape for the consumption and production of poetry, unquestionably larger and more varied, but with fewer universal meeting places. To outsiders, there is either a swarm of names or a narrow row of critically-touted volumes; to insiders, as in any subculture, the little differences are everything. It’s possible to speak of certain material conditions that have broadly transformed the writing of verse in the last twenty-odd years. The poet Ken Chen, for instance, points to the proliferation of MFA programs (and the resulting surplus of degree-holders competing for adjunct teaching posts) and the emergence and critical acceptance of poets of color in an essay for the journal Lana Turner. Influence in the old sense, Chen suggests, is out: “when assessing poetry in the 21st Century, one should avoid identifying major events, new texts inducted into the canon, and leading figures, judgments that a significantly more bearded leftist might deride as bourgeois criticism.” Still, these old habits are hard to shake — the romantic image of the poet is powerful, and the dream of posthumous life is one of poetry’s oldest attractions.

If immortality is hard to come by lately, we might settle for its less-grandiose relative: fame in the present. Social media rewards acquisitive networking, and so the new writing life is conducted at least half in public, with writers in search of their collectives — or perhaps their fans. Without support systems, poets discover themselves to be lackluster hustlers, half-hearted entrepreneurs paying $20 over and over to enter the book contests that have become poetry’s major conduit for publication. For many aspiring authors, self-presentation as an aesthetic project feels necessary, particularly in the case of marginalized people who must be their own boosters — but it also means that success seems increasingly synonymous with the cultivation of a personal brand. For a poet, there is little hope of financial reward for one’s work itself, so public performance takes on a new urgency. It’s not uncommon to see an “emerging” poet with a website better manicured than that of a Silicon Valley startup; even the most “avant-garde” poets log onto their Twitter accounts and post as often as any careerist.

At the risk of stating the obvious, “influence” has a different ordinary meaning than it did even five years ago. The most successful poet in the world right now, in terms of audience reached, is Amanda Gorman, who after her recitation at Joe Biden’s inauguration became the avatar of poetry in the mass media. Gorman supplements the banality of her verse (the “hill we climb,” the title of her inaugural poem and, now, her first book, is only another dilution of King’s “the arc of the moral universe is long,” a sentiment already pulverized by the Obama era) with an immaculately packaged social media persona. Increasingly, consumers are offered the image of art-making as a subgenre of celebrity, and the works of art themselves are allowed to remain laudable but forgettable byproducts. For the serious reader or writer, perhaps celebrity is beside the point, but most find the social orbit difficult to escape; the result is thousands of voices clamoring against the algorithm, riffing on the same jokes. Poetry — good or bad, distinct or homogenous — is somewhere else. 

Ashbery, with all his complexities, might seem like a figure capable of thriving in the new landscape’s polyphony. As he writes in his long poem “The System”: 

Yet so blind are we to the true nature of reality at any given moment that this chaos — bathed, it is true, in the iridescent hues of rainbow and clothed in an endless confusion of fair and variegated forms which did their best to stifle any burgeoning notions of the formlessness of the whole, the muddle really as ugly as sin, which at every moment shone through the colored masses… this chaos began to seem like the normal way of being… 

Confusion, Ashbery proposes, is the precondition of contemporary life. But there is an irony in accepting that chaos reigns while inducting Ashbery into the canon; he is an uncomfortable cog in the dead-poet industrial complex. His poetry told the story of a world where stories are always left unfinished; his arrival in June as a historical artifact, in the form of his first posthumous volume, titled Parallel Movement of the Hands, extends his legacy — but also reveals a writer likely too elusive to inspire passions today.

 

Ashbery is often called a difficult poet, whose poetry is “about nothing” — or, alternatively, about everything. In his work, narrative logic is scarce, pronouns toggle, registers shift abruptly. You stumble across phrases like “A yak is a prehistoric cabbage,” reach the end of the poem, and aren’t quite sure how you arrived. Ashbery’s reluctance to explain himself is well-known, and he resists the kinds of grand statements that a skeptical reader might find exhausted (or exhausting). Introducing his 1989-1990 lectures on so-called “minor poets,” later collected as Other Traditions, Ashbery seems bemused by the fuss over the meaning of his poems, and speculates that he may have been selected to speak in order to “spill the beans” or “let slip the key” to his work. “There seems to be a feeling in the academic world,” he says, “that there’s something interesting about my poetry, though little agreement as to its ultimate worth and considerable confusion about what, if anything, it means.”

Ashbery’s response to the idea of unpacking his own writing is, characteristically, close to a truism: “As I see it, my thought is both poetry and the attempt to explain this poetry; the two cannot be disentangled.” But perhaps something in this modesty belies a larger project. To say his own thought is poetry itself is a deceptively confident claim — under aw-shucks gestures like this one, Ashbery gave himself permission to pursue a project of trying to totalize language into his verse, to muster “the entire orchestral potential of the English language,” as Helen Vendler said of his longest poem, Flow Chart.

Still, when all the instruments play at once, the audience can lose the tune. Ashbery’s poetics is an internet poetics avant la lettre, invoking the absolute connectivity we wish its connections offered, but rarely have in practice. The “derangement of the senses,” a phrase of Rimbaud’s of which Ashbery was fond, no longer feels transgressive when the rapid juxtaposition of images and ideas, with little apparent connection, is a norm of any internet user’s life — social feeds reproduce this phenomenon every day for millions of people. Today’s reader is hungry for a poet with a message — maybe one who will tell us what to think, or confirm what we think we know. But if Ashbery’s poetry anticipated the constantly shifting registers that hum as online life’s baseline, it is no longer predictive of our experience. Poets shaped by the internet can’t help but speak from within Ashbery’s “convex mirror,” where “the soul is captive” inside its own image, looking back out at the world. But where Ashbery could see the sphere dispassionately, peeling back layers of subjectivity, they are trapped inside the glass, struggling to describe the curvature that bends their vision. 

 

Parallel Movement of the Hands is a collection of five unpublished long poems, the very format that most baffled Ashbery’s readers. It is a curious artifact, at once enlightening and presaging a cottage industry in formation. The introduction by the poet Emily Skillings, Ashbery’s final assistant, is both astute and lengthy, laden with personal remembrances of the late poet — it has a bit of the feeling of lowering a slab of marble onto the sarcophagus. Likewise, the volume’s extensive endnotes will be welcome to scholars (did Ashbery mean “splits” or “splats the diapered sky”? For few poets would either alternative be so plausible), but there is also the feeling of apparatus swallowing text — all told, there’s nearly more commentary than poetry. Something of Ashbery’s cryptic mystique comes undone with such dissections, but the insights into his process are nonetheless fascinating. One of the strangest, most compelling details that Skillings recounts is Ashbery’s practice of assigning grades to his poems: while assembling a manuscript, he would work through his stack of recent drafts and give them As, Bs, and Cs. “I never saw any D or F poems, though they may exist,” Skillings remarks. She explains that for a book to be well balanced in Ashbery’s view, he might add in a few Bs and Cs in order to create the spice of variety. The gesture feels distinctly Ashberian, both scholastic and full of a schoolboy’s mischief.

Ashbery has described his writing as the dipping of a bucket into a flowing underground source — with 26 full-length books of poetry, it’s a marvel that any liquid remained below. For the loyal reader, there will be few great revelations in Parallel Movement. Projects like “The History of Photography,” a ’90s outtake peppered with cameos of the first image-makers (“Eakins, skunked by depression, opted for cheese rinds…”) will seem familiar to those accustomed to Ashbery’s rhythms. Two sequences of the five are worthwhile additions to the poet’s body of work. The longest fragment, titled “The Kane Richmond Project,” is a labyrinth of prose and verse ideas, drawing from the B-movie actor’s filmography and children’s mysteries like the Hardy Boys in a manner that recalls Ashbery’s early long-form masterpiece “The Skaters.” Strongest, though, is the sequence for which the book is named, “The Art of Finger Dexterity” (Skillings’s chosen title — there is some uncertainty about Ashbery’s intentions). These short, quicksilver poems are named after Carl Czerny’s technical piano exercises, the bane of many a piano student, which, according to Ashbery, were written “to torture the fingers.” Imbued with the sense of speed and efficiency required of such exercises, the poems have an austerity that is uncommon in the later Ashbery’s jocular approach. Take “Clarity in Velocity”:

What sadness knows, knowledge knows
   only
in it passing, like a large bell
passing fidgeting others who only signal
to the past when it is gone
or waiting there forever.

What I did I did already.
There is no one to make plain
particular ivy and so on.

Grief is panoptic and segments every
past questioning until we come out and
   admit
to our day as it won us,
and make it more interesting than it
   possibly could have been.
I love you, school.
Trespass in shade.

The piano exercise is an apt metaphor here: a marginal form only useful for the acquisition of technique, something to be endured by the pupil in order to execute the masterpieces. By making the study into the main event, the pressure of “greatness” is sidestepped — “What I did I did already” confesses contentment with a minor role for the poem. Instead, pleasure comes from observing things fleeting and “fidgeting,” in recognizing the smallness of our labors. The final two lines are disarming, combining innocence with experience in a way only Ashbery can. There’s a melancholy in feeling like you might know him by his contradictions, but also that you never can.

 

Despite the periodic elegies for poetry’s decline that arise like weeds in prestige magazines every few years, poetry readership is booming in America — a 2017 NEA report found a significant increase over a five-year period. And the MFA system, for all its flaws, at least has the virtue of producing an engaged, if niche, audience, equipped with sophisticated methods of reading. Despite critical adulation, Ashbery was not all that widely read — he never made a living from his poetry, surviving instead on teaching and art criticism. I’d guess the number of people who have forged all the way through the massive text blocks of “Three Poems,” one of his most difficult collections, is small. It would be an exaggeration to say the tribe is extinct, and Ashbery’s direct influence can be observed among certain (mostly male, mostly white) poets, like Josh Bell and Adam Fitzgerald, who carry on his linguistic and imaginative acrobatics. But these poets, while established, are somewhat peripheral; one simple way to explain Ashbery’s waning is the emergence of a new populist front: a generation of younger, more diverse poets, with more pressing political commitments and larger followings. Ashbery’s style permanently altered poetry’s fabric, but the period in which everyone sounded like him has clearly passed.

In an essay earlier this year in Lit Hub, the poet and critic Wayne Miller attempted to capture something of poetry’s online life by suggesting, against the image of the infinite scroll, the metaphor of the “small back room,” a disappearing space of intimacy, privacy, and gathering among friends. Idiosyncrasies and individualities are nurtured, Miller argues, when exposure is not universal. He gives the example of a disagreement on Instagram between the poets Ocean Vuong and Matthew Zapruder — the former a thirty-two-year-old with a New York Times bestselling novel under his belt, the latter a well-respected member of an older generation — in which Zapruder implied that Vuong’s work was clichéd. Miller suggests that the public nature of the exchange reduced it to caricature. “For some, Zapruder’s critique represented a sort of literary revanchism of the straight white male poet trying to claw back territory from the queer poet of color,” he writes. “For others, Vuong’s assertions represented a sort of younger-generation simplicity, a lack of understanding… [of] the legacy of the avant-garde.” Diplomatically, Miller argues that the dispute might be reconciled over a friendly drink. Whether or not this is true, the friction of online conversations and clashes produces energy, and the institutions of poetry take such debates seriously, having never been accountable to public opinion before.

In a hothouse of rapid response, the kind of long poem pioneered by Eliot and Pound — a tradition continued all the way to Parallel Movement — finds itself in unfavorable conditions. A long, loosely associative poem is difficult to screenshot, and a poem’s brevity is essential to compatibility with the feed. The lyrical quick hit of a Linda Gregg epiphany or O’Hara’s “Having a Coke With You” can easily be assimilated next to an ironic meme account and an AP story about Afghanistan. Many poetry fans follow an account or two that’s built a following by beaming choice cuts to their phones. Or consider the chronic meme-ability of William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say,” tortured in its too-transmissible afterlife. Ashbery’s longer projects are an extension of the modernist tradition, which was invested in the pursuit of grand synthesis, even if it couldn’t be realized. There are always poets with expansive ambitions — Nathaniel Mackey’s colossal Double Trio is a contemporary example of a work aiming for at least the cosmic, if not the universal — but, by and large, the private garden of “post-confessional” writing remains the most popular mode today. This is again at odds with Ashbery’s influence, as his work was a reaction to the high-strung disclosures that dominated the American poetry of the midcentury, the self-purgations of poets like Berryman and Lowell. Ashbery’s natural shyness provided a corrective — the aesthete’s eye took over, and the collaging and curation of language became an original way of writing.

A few of Ashbery’s poems may hold up as “sharable,” thanks to their surprising declarations and oddball sense of humor, but his work largely resists easy digestion and the canned variations of the viral. Studded with abstractions, Ashbery’s poems are difficult to “tag” with signature themes that could be fed back into the algorithm. His self-reflexive concerns align his work with an earlier, less than minor tradition, that of “art for art’s sake.” The magpie approach in Ashbery’s longer poems is in the lineage of Mallarmé’s universal text, the view of art-making for which “Everything in the world exists to end up in a book.” They also call to mind Sianne Ngai’s concept of “stuplimity,” an affect she characterizes as a mixture of astonishment and boredom, which “points to the limits of our representational capabilities, not through the limitlessness or infinity of concepts, but through a no less exhaustive confrontation with the discrete and finite in repetition.” The internet’s immense inventory invites this aesthetic, though we’re also reluctant to indulge it: while we’re fascinated by the sheer volume of information, we also hate to be bored online. The result is a search for shortcuts through the clutter: narratives, memes, icons. The modernist technique of heaping fragments together to make something, even if the meaning remains unclear, is at ever-greater odds with an increasingly ravenous mode of information consumption.

The long poem has not gone away, necessarily, but has instead migrated towards more organized forms. Take, for instance, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, arguably the most popular poetry book of the 2010s. Rankine’s work opts for essayism, the privileged mode of text online (what flourishes better in our online ecosystems than the thinkpiece?), and launches an argument about the pervasiveness of racial injustice. An inventory of microaggressions has an immediately understood purpose, even if we’re unsure how the argument will be developed. The case of Ben Lerner, who wrote the foreword to Parallel Movement, and who is likely today’s most famous Ashbery acolyte, is also instructive. Lerner has largely turned away from the kind of practice of infinite possibility that he praises in Ashbery, instead choosing the form of the autofictional (and, often, essayistic) novel, which has made his work legible and accessible to a wider audience. Whenever the pressure to popularize is felt, authors tend to be drawn toward narrative, which provides a common framework for incorporating potentially divergent information. All of Lerner’s observations and ideations can be unified under the avatar of “Adam Gordon,” his fictional surrogate; comparatively, nearly all of Ashbery’s work remains anarchic, leaving the reader to wander in a soup of images.

 

The most enduring story about aesthetics in our time is a political one. Even while poetry communities flourish, the idea that there is no literary autonomy outside of politics is increasingly pervasive, and poets wrestle with the anxiety that their vocation is ultimately subsidiary to the news. Poems of guilty conscience in the tradition of Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During the War” meet a polarized response on social media, praised by liberals as honest introspection and excoriated by leftists as navel-gazing. To borrow a term from the poet and critic Mark Nowak, the possibility of a “social poetics” — a practice of poetry based in the possibility and power of communal creation — exerts a gravitational pull over poets everywhere, though for many it means telegraphing political allegiances, not organizing face-to-face, as Nowak imagined. In the twenty-first century, political expression in poetry, long present in twentieth century groups like the Beats or the Black Arts Movement, broke through into the mainstream. Books like Solmaz Sharif’s Look and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, which critiqued the U.S. government’s violence, respectively, in the Middle East and against indigenous people, received award nominations. Meanwhile, a nascent communist poetry scene began circulating on Twitter, responding to the emergence of new magazines and presses like the now-defunct Commune Editions. The most genuinely transgressive new poem I read in the last couple of years, in the upstart magazine Paintbucket and by the artist and writer sung, was titled “I Want to Drop Out of Grad School and Suicide Bomb a Federal Building,” and its first lines read, “I want to bomb the Department of Homeland Security and the FDA. / I want to shoot up the Capitol Building and strangle the Clintons.” Whatever one thinks of the politics expressed, the poem is a reminder of how hollowed out our sense of the “avant-garde” has become, prone to weak repetitions of “novelty” and lacking the spark a revolutionary commitment can provide.

At points in Ashbery’s career, his peers criticized his political commitments as weak and insufficient. His rejoinder, offered during the Vietnam War, that “All poetry is against war and in favor of life, or else it isn’t poetry, and it stops being poetry when it is forced into the mold of a particular program” would be greeted skeptically if it were issued today. To not be explicit is to risk being complicit. Ashbery’s political consciousness, of course, is bound up in another historical moment. In his excellent book The Matter of Capital, Christopher Nealon reads Ashbery as reacting to the crises of twentieth century capitalism, situating him within the history of New York City’s emergent financialization in the 1970s. Nealon imputes some guilt onto Ashbery, suggesting that his poetry’s power lies exactly in its ability to “wander away from” a crisis. After all, if you are a minor poet, and “poetry makes nothing happen,” to trot out Auden’s old line, you can’t be expected to answer for politics. In some sense Ashbery was the avant-garde’s middle-class standard-bearer, shaped by the “bounty” of postwar America and envisioning no alternative to that abundance.

Almost any poet now is more likely to know precariousness — spiritually as much as materially — than luxury taken for granted. Although increasingly prominent, a rigorously anticapitalist poetry remains on the fringe of the conversation. The farthest-reaching political shift in the field is not concentrated in doctrinaire leftism; it’s something more widespread and fundamental, namely an assertion of identity and difference as a poetic subject and a more frank discussion about race and social justice. Particularly notable is the wide range of poetry that arrived as a response to police violence and the emergence of Black Lives Matter. A book like Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, the 2020 Pulitzer winner, is a prominent example. Full of a heartfelt lyricism about black pain and the possibility of its overcoming, its title is an odd echo of Ashbery’s “Other Tradition”: instead of a “major” poet claiming its marginality, there is a sense of a previously marginal position claiming its new, conversation-setting status. The Tradition’s title poem makes this movement as explicit as possible, beginning with the classical abundance of flowers (“Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium.”) and transforming them by the end of the poem into the black victims of police violence: “John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.” The flower, for many black poets, became a symbol of poetry unsullied by hard realities — a dream of something “immortal and free” (to borrow a famous Ashbery phrase) that had never been possible for them. Today, poets like Fred Moten and Douglas Kearney are creating boundary-pushing, “difficult” poetry, but it is most often grounded in their experience of blackness, another element of the sea change correcting a long reign of an insular, white poetry community.

Ashbery himself always discounted the importance of his own autobiography in his poetry. (“It never interested me very much,” he said.) Of course, he was one of the major gay poets of the twentieth century — that this fact barely registers in his poems themselves is either avoidance or something doubly subversive, depending on how you look at it. To contemporary eyes, it takes privilege to be able to withdraw from self-presentation, to say one’s own life and position are irrelevant. In a French interview, Ashbery gave a rare glimpse into his poetic project: “My goal is to democratize all forms of expression, an idea that comes to me from afar, perhaps from Whitman’s Democratic Vistas — the idea that both the most demotic and most elegant forms of expression deserve to be taken equally into account.” Just as with Whitman, the desire to be universal carries with it the danger that no individual is or can be. To think first in terms of available expressions and not by experiences lived is a kind of luxury. For many poets, particularly those of color or other marginalized identities, questions of what language they can claim, and how they will be seen for claiming it, are imperative simply because they are unavoidable.

Out of step with any trend toward self-definition, Ashbery prefers to be read in a way that is being lost: a hovering in uncertainty, surprise, delight. He asks to live outside the political, to live and let live — to have fun. As Larissa MacFarquar wrote of Ashbery’s poetics in The New Yorker, “since the world seeps into everybody’s mind, he believes that his poems depict the privateness of everybody.” This privacy is a rare and valuable thing: when personal disclosure is increasingly stressed as a source of social capital, there is good reason to re-examine concealment as an artistic practice. From one vantage, Ashbery’s indirections are a vestige of a less tolerant society that dissuaded him from more boldly claiming his sexual orientation. But maybe there is more to it than avoidance: there is a realization of the worth of experience not made too easily available for consumption. In a time when “the right to be forgotten” — the ability to have one’s internet trail removed from search — feels increasingly difficult to secure, there is something prescient in Ashbery’s inwardness. So much of the beauty of the New York School relied on its essentially non-public interiority — the sense that there was a secret between friends you weren’t quite in on, but might glimpse for a moment. That we are moving away from Ashbery’s aesthetics makes it all the more important to remember the link between the creation of small, informal communities and a curiosity about new language.

One reason to continue reading Ashbery is to observe his understated dignity. Seeing all the exploded information of “The System” in advance, Ashbery chose a quiet life and an impersonal poetics that freed his verse to be unpredictable. Every day, our information is being bought and sold by the platforms we haunt, and writing that operates by revealing more and more, building a profile for the consumer to sample, has to be considered as part of that commercial logic. Ashbery’s elusiveness survives as a reminder, despite its privileged position, that there is still a certain power in opacity, in remaining unknown. Whether or not his particular methods are preserved, the verse that will surprise in years to come won’t arrive through an algorithm’s filter, advertising itself “For fans of John Ashbery.” But in certain pockets, in different languages, all across the uneven field of poetry, there are still poets who, because of their very resistance to easy categorization, will escape their own branding. The boundaries of what access we can and cannot allow, what we freely give and what we choose to keep to ourselves — these are the new stakes of poetry in the networked age.

David Schurman Wallace is a writer living in New York City.

Copyright © The Drift 2021