Too Quick for its Own Good

Quick Question by John Ashbery (Ecco Press, 2013)

John Ashbery’s latest collection of poetry lives up to its title, prompting a number of quick questions: How difficult should poetry be? Where is the line between complex and incomprehensible? And what should readers do when poets cross it? The questions may be quick, but the answers are complicated. After all, readers will respond differently to any given text, depending on their interests, background, and general temperament, just as they will have their own definition of “difficult,” not to mention their own idea of “poetry.” To this reader, however, Ashbery’s recent work seems more concerned with being difficult than being poetic.

Difficulty, in itself, is not a bad thing, but difficulty for its own sake is problematic, especially when it supersedes (or nullifies) meaning. Ashbery has always been known as a difficult poet, but until recently his poetry has been worth the effort. Earlier classics like The Double Dream of Spring, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Flow Chart are consistently challenging but still enjoyable, experimental yet oddly accessible. They remain genuine spectacles in the poetic landscape, in part because they avoid quick questions that provoke quick answers. Ashbery’s latest series of questions, on the other hand, is a bit too quick for its own good.

The opening lines of the opening poem, “Words To That Effect,” foreshadow the essence of the book: “The drive down was smooth/ but after we arrived things started to go haywire,/ first one thing and then another.” Not only do these lines encapsulate the experience of reading Quick Question as a whole, but they also describe (for better or worse) the process of reading any Ashbery poem. Typically, his poetry lulls the reader into a false sense of security with deceptively simple, direct language, and then jumps playfully from one idea to the next, until the poem becomes a linguistic labyrinth, a maze of meanings. Of course, his formal randomness has its own brand of order, just as his disparate strands of thought connect in strange, untidy ways. Thirty years ago, Ashbery’s technique was revolutionary; now, it feels stagnant, bordering on self-parody.

His signature eloquence and witty wisdom have been largely traded for self-deprecating clichés and bizarre jokes, making his poems feel deliberately obscure and, at times, even cynical. Irony can be healthy in small doses, but if a joke has too many layers, the punch line will be confused with the setup. (The more there is to “get,” the less there is to understand.) Ashbery’s ironies are so heavily compounded that his poems tend to lose their anchor and drift away from anything resembling reality. “It can’t be anything too obvious,” begins a poem entitled “Unlike the Camelopard,” echoing the prescription of Wallace Stevens in his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”: “It must give pleasure.” Throughout Quick Question, Ashbery follows his own advice (to a fault) but seems to ignore Stevens’ crucial injunction. Going forward, he should amend his motto: It can’t be anything too opaque.          

— Chris Gilmore