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Um, O.K. So nearly nine months have passed since I first lit upon this idea of starting some kind of supplement to the poems that appear in the New Yorker. A proper gestational period (anthropocentrically speaking) and I find myself fulfilling a self-imposed deadline in the ninth month of an election year with a poem by John Ashbery.
A lot has changed since that seed germinated in the cool dark recesses of my little brain and what you’re reading here; namely, the New Yorker landed a topnotch poet as editor: Paul Muldoon. Prior to his arrival, many of the poems were annoyances that did a poor job filling large blocks of white space and impeded my progress from Talk of the Town to the caption contest. These annoyances appear with less frequency now. The New Yorker is publishing new and exciting poets; many of whom I’ve never heard of and some who’ve yet to publish a book. A poet friend was so excited by Matthew Dickman’s poem, that he spent the following day scouring the interweb for his poems and reading all that he could find.
There’s nothing new about John Ashbery: in 1955 W. H. Auden, disappointed with the crop of submissions for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, asked Ashbery and Frank O’Hara to submit their manuscripts. Auden ended up selecting Ashbery’s Some Trees, which was published the following year and Ashbery has been going ever since, picking up nearly every major literary award along the way. He’s now the old man of letters, except his notion of what that means is very different from the old-timers who preceded him. Instead of diminished output, Ashbery has clearly gone insane and is publishing a new book of poems nearly every year.
His prolific output tends to be another blemish for his detractors, for which he has many. I am not one of them. I like Ashbery a great deal: “Hotel Lautreamont” is one of my all-time favorite poems; Girls on the Run, a book-length poem inspired by the works of Henry Darger, is one of my all-time favorite books. He seems like a nice person in interviews and what not, and someday I would like to buy him lunch. However, if I read too much at one time then my poems starts to sound like sad imitations (and there are enough of those out there already). For better or worse, he has influenced a generation of poets, who, in turn, has influenced him. (The room is spinning; I think I’m going to hurl.)
And while it’s an impossible task to be the leading edge of the American avant-garde for five decades, Ashbery continues to experiment and create meaningful work. Of course, experiments are going to fail and over the years Ashbery has produced his fair share of poems that miss their mark. The September 28, 2008, poem, “The Virgin King” might be one of them.
When Ashbery is at his best, the poem details the creative process; it is artifact and creative act. In his book of lectures-cum-essays Other Traditions, Ashbery says as much. “As I see it, my thought is both poetry and the attempt to explain that poetry; the two cannot be disentagled.” The poetry is the explanation. But as readers we like some explanations better than others. And as readers, we can’t help but try to make sense of the written word, even though Ashbery would like us to treat his words as notes in a musical composition.
But our brains are not wired that way and while I have a diatribe about how poetry is taught in our schools reserved for another day (teaser: puzzles that need to be figured out), Ashbery is a “difficult” poet whose poems lend themselves to explication. He often employs figurative language and disjunctive syntax so as readers we need to read the thing a few times, use our whole brain and put in a little work.
Except the more work that I put into it, the more confused I am. Richard Howard said to Ashbery following a visit to his classroom that his students “wanted the key to your poetry, but you presented them with a new set of locks”: each successive reading gives a new set of locks.
But let’s start with what we know: two stanzas of five lines each written in free verse with a shift in register following the stanza break that would please Harold Bloom. (To paraphrase: Bloom thinks that’s the most effective use of a stanza break, to change registers or point of view.) The title doesn’t have any obvious meaning though it could be a reference to Ludwig II, the 19th century Bavarian king who apparently had no amorous feelings for women and found comfort in the company of men. Therefore, a virgin king (at least with women).
While nothing else in the poem remotely references Ludwig II (or even his era), the Bavarian king was highly eccentric, had fantastic flights of fancy, and commissioned fanciful works, including castles and summoning Richard Wagner to his court. So his fingers were in the pie of Bavarian art and architecture, which, with the references to claymation and watercolors may hold some water.
But I know I’m grasping at straws and this poem probably has nothing to do with Ludwig II (even though he’s an interesting creature) and inside I’m screaming because I “get” the poem while it eludes me. Slippery.
O.K. Let’s forget about the title for a moment and traditional explication (thank God!) and look at some of the poem’s constituent parts. Ashbery’s first sentence is classic Ashbery: it begins with an enigmatic third-person personal pronoun and ends with the disjunctive syntactical trick. He also throws in a phrase set off by quotation marks (“innocent details”). This all gives the reader a sense of familiarity while washing away all logic. He then immediate follows it with a platitude or cliche or common saying or whatever, which, puts us on seemingly solid ground. But we’ quickly realize we’re in quicksand.
Who are the “they”? What are the “innocent details”? Who is the king? What is the watercolor virus?
Is the first stanza about the creative process? Is it about the new crop of MFA-toting poets? Are they the “they” who know more (because the poetic tradition constantly accrues) AND less and who’ve glossed over the “innocent details”. Is Ashbery linking poetry with claymation (which I suspect is in danger of becoming a lost art because of new technologies)? Does he think poetry is in further danger of being marginalized? Is the watercolor virus designed to connote computer viruses or is this a metaphor for procrastination (Ashbery is a notorious procrastinator); an interruption in the creative process.
And now there’s a huge shift in the second stanza toward second-person narration: Ashbery imagines us reading this (what? the first stanza? the poem? something else?) on a train through rural Georgia. He often employs this trick too–directly addressing the reader in plain language until he surprises you with a surreal image. In this case the wonderful “conductor holding a bun.” (Don’t think too hard about what the bun may represent; I think it’s just supposed to be a bun.) And then he leaves us on the couch, traveling on the couch, which, when I first read the poem I immediately thought of therapy but now I’m not so sure. Maybe there’s a couch on the train? It could simply be the traveling we continue to do each and every day (whether we like it or not) by virtue of the spinning earth.
It could also be traveling through the act of reading. The first stanza could represent the act of writing and the second the act of reading. He’s imagining us reading this on a train in rural Georgia but we’re reading it on the couch and imagining we’re reading it on a train “stumbling” (a word I don’t like here) through rural Georgia.
I don’t know. That’s all I got. I’m stumbling. The poem is quintessential Ashbery: elusive, surreal, funny. Not his best but serviceable. I alternately get it and scratch my head, which is not an uncommon experience and we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. As Ashbery said, “There seems to be a feeling in the academic world that there’s something interesting about my poetry, though little agreement as to its ultimate worth and conserable confusion about what, if anything, it means.”