By Max Radwin, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 1, 2013
It’s hard to tell if John Ashbery is still writing everybody’s autobiography. He’s got to be done soon.
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“Quick Question,” a collection of 63 new poems, proves that America’s greatest living poet isn’t done just yet. Following its hardcover release nearly a year ago, Ashbery’s 26th book is now available in paperback.
Ashbery is a machine. He churns out poems as epic in proportion as they are in quality. … Maybe. Who knows? I certainly don’t. Ashbery’s work defies criticism. Not just mine, not just Harold Bloom’s. Everyone’s. That’s the point. Or at least it was when poets like Robert Lowell were whining about daddy issues in the 1960s.
But that time has passed. Poets like Carson and Collins have taken American literary tradition and fallen into place. Where is Ashbery? Stuck in time, I suppose, and still writing about the “experience of experience.” Or maybe, at this point, the experience of experience of experience, etc.
Ashbery’s poetry is unbearably paratactic in this volume. His poems are constructed in such a way that the reader gets a sensation or an emotion upon completion, an intangible understanding. But at times, in poems like “The Allegations,” the reader is left only with the experience of searching for that sensation in a way that is hardly intentional on the poet’s behalf anymore. “It’ll come true for you in Kansas City, Iowa,” the final sentence of that poem reads, a line that reminds of “Worsening Situation” (1975) for its want of self-improvement and obscurity of location (“Oslo, France, that is”), but which fails in a flood of ambiguity.
Is he talking to me? Is he talking to himself? The words don’t tell the story like they used to. They used to anchor the reader in the typhoon of white space between stanzas, so maybe you might survive from one to the next. Now Ashbery is too deep inside his own head, and the words don’t anchor you, they pull you under.
The book is not a flop by any means, though. It offers a moderate-sized selection of exceptional poetry. “Puff Piece,” “Laundry List” and “Quick Question” — the poem for which the book is named — jump out as writing grounded and concrete enough to leave a lasting impact on the reader, and which frustrates in a way that still satisfies after multiple reads.
It’s not a somber collection, either. There’s no shortage of snarky quips and colorful sarcasm, which readers have come to expect out of the 86-year-old. “In all my years as a pedestrian / serving juice to guests, it never occurred to me / thoughtfully to imagine how a radish feels,” Ashbery writes in “This Economy.” Lines like these pepper nicely across Ashbery’s collection.
And while that’s all well and good, they have little functionality or poetical weight. They aestheticize only, like a hobo hanging frilly drapes in a ramshackle house.
Poetry is supposed to be problematic. It is supposed to invite discussion. But most of these poems silence the room with answers to questions that nobody asked.
Or maybe they don’t. His poetry defies criticism, as I mentioned before, so it’s really up to the reader, and everything else is made tediously moot.
“Now that wasn’t so easy, was it?” Ashbery asks at the end of “More Reluctant.” You’ve got that right, buddy. And I’m more reluctant than ever.