It’s not usual we have an Ashbery Sighting from the Beijing News, but the following appeared recently, on the occasion of Ashbery’s work appearing in a new Chinese edition (Thank you, Google Translate, though with a good bit of light editing necessary still, and yet still much of this remaining as inscrutable as it may be interesting) :
Ashbery: The Carnival of Language
John Ashbery (John Lawrence Ashbery, 1927-2017 American poet, art critic. Known for the complexity and difficulty of interpretation of his work, there is controversy in the poetry world. but most poetry commentators still regard him as as great poet as Eliot).
In the opening remarks of his Harvard University Norton Lectures, Ashbery talks about an interesting story: Once, he went to give a poetry lecture to the poet Richard Howard's students. In the question and answer session, Ashbery tried to explain to the students that they had already understood his poetry, but Howard told him afterwards: "They want to open the key to your poetry, but you give them a new lock." Ashbery explained this to him that “I couldn't explain my poetry,” but then he retorted, “Things should be like this. For me, the beginning and end of poetry are outside the mind."
It is at this point that Ashbery can make a basic distinction from many other poets, and this is also at the core of Ashbery's poetry—the difficulty of seeking meaning. If the meaning is not the poet's most heart-felt, or Ashbery does not use meaning in the usual way, like most poets, then that is the inevitable fate of Ashbery's poetry.
language floating on the river of feeling
If Ashbery is still defensive about describing his thought process, then the words of George Moore quoted by him might offer something more decisive and stand out: “Time will not make poetry fade, and customs will not make poetry tasteless.”* If poetry casts a pale illness for thought, in the latter context, thought emerges in a completely derogatory image. It is not difficult to understand that in any discourse system of thought-orientation, language must be reduced to a tool and a slave to meaning, but modern poets - at least from Rambo, Mara and Valery - it has long been the restoration of language autonomy and subjectivity as the most important work of poets. So from the perspective of literary history, Ashbery's poetry, although novel as a hot, delicious food just set on the table, is still a part of modernism, in which the language itself is poetry. That means is also the sole purpose, and the introspective spirit of the language itself runs through its creation.
Of course, meaning is the inherent attribute of language. Poetry with language as its starting point cannot be completely separated from meaning. But in this tradition, poetry no longer pursues a "central meaning,” but rather its focus is on the center. The escape of meaning, the result of the language of the carnival (that is, the so-called language dance of Valery) itself disintegrates the central meaning, with the joy of the flow of the language, the latter is crushed into fragments of meaning that are incoherent. There are ways to support the dance of language carnival from the bottom, so the so-called ambiguity and polysemy of poetry are generated by the way, but I will add that the latter is only a by-product of the poet's pursuit of language intoxication and carnival. This is still not the starting point and trigger point for excellent poetry writing. At most, it is only a ruler to measure the language effect after the poet, in order to further adjust the language (words) from different degrees.
*Actual complete Moore quote from the Ashbery Harvard Lecture (on John Clare) referenced above: "Time cannot wither nor custom stale poetry o’er with the pale cast of thought. So perhaps the time has come for somebody to ask if there is not more poetry in things than in ideas, and more pleasure in Gautier’s Tulipe to a higher plane that Keats’s sonnet to Autumn.”