Whatever it is

Freshman year, English 201, seminar, first class. Professor R.—a rather intimidating and authoritative figure—explains that if we really want to develop an appreciation for poetry, we should be grabbing the New Yorker each week to see what’s being written right now. To illustrate, she gives us all a copy of a page from the most recent edition. We read:

Not liking what life has in it,
“It’s probably dead, whatever it is,”
you said.…

That was my first introduction to John Ashbery, and perhaps my first introduction to real poetry by a real poet (as opposed to my fellow students) that just left me scratching my head. In the countless years since then, that line has stuck with me. It’s offhand, it’s ridiculous, it’s non sequitur. I’m sure that’s what many people love about Ashbery’s poetry, but it’s certainly what I like least—about anybody’s poetry. It’s disjointed, it’s solipsistic, it’s random, it’s simply words on a page. What does it tell us about the human condition at this particular point in time? What does it tell us about anything? A generous reading might suggest that the enormity of history, the calamity of humanity, has left us with nothing to say, but being human, we have to say something—even if it is meaningless outside a context that is so specific it excludes all but the smallest social circle. A less generous reading just says, don’t quit your day job—unless your day job is “poet.” There’s no denying that Ashbery exerted considerable influence on a generation (or two or three) of young poets, who apparently learned that obscurity and insularity were qualities to admire. I personally believe that poetry is not meant to be deciphered, any more than music or architecture is. A poem is not a puzzle—life is the puzzle. Even the title of the poem, “Wet are the Boards,” is an exercise in abstruseness. What is being emphasized by the inverse construction? Why do we even need “are the” in this case? How does it relate, if at all, to what comes next?

When people say, “I don’t get poetry,” I think a large share of the blame falls on Ashbery and his imitators. From a young age, we’re taught that poetry is special. So when we encounter a poem that does not reach out to us the way poems are supposed to, we’re less likely to think, “this poem is stupid because it makes no sense,” and more likely to think, “I am stupid because I can not make sense of this poem.” And who wants to feel like that?

Ashbery died this week; his legacy will no doubt endure, though we may hope that his influence will not.