Friday Book: The poet as frustrated composer

WAKEFULNESS BY JOHN ASHBERY, CARCANET PRESS, pounds 7.95
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HAROLD BLOOM regards him as something akin to a genius; James Fenton, Oxford professor of poetry, calls him a bore and a phoney. Few other poets of John Ashbery's age and eminence - he is in his seventies now, and this is his 18th collection - can have so divided the critics. Why is this? I asked him once. "Well, it is disappointing," he replied with a characteristically self-deprecating sigh, "since I write hoping that people will read and like what I've written, and I don't want to antagonise people. It turns out that I'm much stranger than I thought I was."

That is quite true. Ashbery is very strange indeed. And he has spawned a pack of equally strange imitators, which includes the companionable Manchester-born poet John Ash. But where did all this strangeness come from? To get a clue to the answer, you need to know a little about his background and interests. It would also be useful to consult an early book or two - the recently published omnibus edition of his first five collections of poetry, called The Mooring of Starting Out (Carcanet, pounds 25) for example, or his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of the middle Seventies, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

When Ashbery started writing, in the late Forties, American poetry was dominated by a kind of poker-faced academic formalism. He and other poets who have been loosely grouped together as the New York School (Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch) set sail in a different direction altogether. Encouraged by the liberating influence of French Surrealism, they moved towards poetry that was more intellectually fanciful and flighty, more colloquial, more playful and humorous, more flexible in its approach to metrics.

Ashbery spent 10 years in Paris, and it was there that he first began to write art criticism for the International Herald Tribune. One of his most self-revelatory critical pieces was an interview with Henri Michaux, the Belgian neo-surrealist. Michaux said in the course of that interview that Surrealism had given him "la grande permission" to write as he pleased. Ashbery was pleased to do likewise.

And how exactly is Ashbery pleased to write? What is interesting about his writing manner is the extraordinary consistency and continuity that exists between then - his first book, chosen by WH Auden for the Yale Younger Poets series, was published in 1952 - and now. Reading an Ashbery poem is rather like walking beside a stranger and eavesdropping on a conversation that he seems to be having with an invisible companion. The conversation is a pretty intimate one, and it spills all over the place, depending upon the responses of the absentee - which, of course, you are never fortunate enough to hear.

The manner can shift, within the space of a line or even a phrase, from the urbane and polished to something disarmingly ridiculous, from Faure to Comic Cuts - as real conversations often do. No sooner do you think that you are hearing about one particular area of interest than you are somewhere else altogether.

Ashbery generally writes while listening to music, and the musical accompaniment to any day's writing depends on his enthusiasms of the moment. Fairly recently he has been enjoying the music of Dominic Muldowney (the composer who regularly collaborates with the poet Tony Harrison) and the extravagantly named, but in fact Glasgow-born, late-19th-century pianist-composer Eugene d'Albert.

Music itself appeals to Ashbery because it is an art form that can mean important things without having to explain itself. And so Ashbery the poet, in this reading, is best enjoyed if viewed as Ashbery the frustrated composer, who is trying to do with words what musicians are lucky enough to be able to do with notes. Hell's bells: who gives a cowpat about the mediation of some tiresome paraphrase?

One of the best poems in this new collection is a kind of collage of quotations from other poets - Milton, Marvell, Lear and others - called "The Dong with the Luminous Nose", which are juxtaposed in such a way as to bring out their full comic potential when wrenched from their native habitats. The form, as the headnote informs us, is a cento, and it dates from the Byzantine era. Ashbery discovered this curiously interesting fact in a curiously interesting piece of writing by Borges.

Ashbery's characteristic tone of voice, with its deadpan humour and abrupt shifts of attention, is difficult to locate at first, and can even seem wilfully bewildering.

One way of relaxing into it is to hear Ashbery read. He sometimes speaks his lines with a kind of deliberately woebegone and world-weary flatness. It is a manner which I once described as the sort of vocal delivery that might encourage a dog to leave home. Some time later, I dropped him a card. By return came a note from his dog, telling me that John was unable to reply because he had just left home.

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