Contributing Editor: David Bergman
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students should be encouraged to explore the connections between seemingly
unrelated passages. These connections are probably best found if the student
is encouraged to move freely through the poem at first, finding whatever
connection he or she can spot. Richard Howard convincingly argues that
each Ashbery poem contains an emblem for its entire meaning. If allowed
time, students usually find such emblems. Second, drawing connections between
Ashbery's method and such graphic methods as collage and assemblage often
helps. Students, of course, should be reminded to read the notes.
I have found it useful to present Ashbery in relation to the visual
arts, in particular the shifting perspective of comic strips, the surprising
juxtapositions of collage and assemblage, the vitality of abstract impressionism,
and the metaphysical imagery of de Chirico.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The selection highlights three major themes or questions running through
Ashbery's work: (1) the problem of subjective identity--Whose consciousness
informs the poem? (2) the relationship between language and subjectivity--Whose
language do I speak or does the language have a mind of its own? (3) the
connection between subjectivity, language, and place--What does it mean
to be an American poet?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Ashbery has long been interested in French art, especially dada and
surrealism. Such interests have merged with an equally strong concern for
poetic form and structure, as evinced by the sestina of "Farm Implements"
and the 4 x 4 structure (four stanzas each of four lines) of "Paradoxes
and Oxymorons," a structure he uses through Shadow Train, the
volume from which the poem was taken. Ashbery's combination of surrealism
and formalism typifies a certain strain of postmodernism.
Obviously Ashbery is writing for a highly sophisticated contemporary
audience. The decade he spent in France provided him with an international
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Frank O'Hara, Kenneth
Koch, and James Schuyler are or were close friends of Ashbery; together
they formed the nucleus of what is sometimes dubbed the New York School
of Poetry. The dream-like imagery bears some resemblance to John Berryman
and Allen Ginsberg.
Walt Whitman provides
a particularly vital touchstone to an American tradition.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
How do comic strips (and other forms of popular art) inform both the
content and the style of Ashbery's poems? Who is speaking in an Ashbery
poem? What is American about John Ashbery?
Altieri, Charles. "John Ashbery." In Self and Sensibility
in Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Berger, Charles. "Vision in the Form of a Task." Lehman, 163-208.
Bergman, David. "Introduction: John Ashbery." In Reported
Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-87. New York: Knopf, 1989, xi-xxiii.
--. "Choosing Our Fathers: Gender and Identity in Whitman, Ashbery
and Richard Howard." American Literary History 1 (1989): 383-403.
Lehman, David, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.