Is the soul our dark matter — pervasive but undetectable by any instrument we possess? If there’s a part of me that isn’t glia, neurons, and enzymes, it has found a modicum of rest in the revelation that John Ashbery’s poetry was not meant by him to make sense. I’ve feared that much poetry is a riddle that I’m not up to cracking. That I haven’t subjected the poem sufficiently to the persistent hard, informed reading necessary to derive the connections that the poet has made, the arc the poem has traversed. That I’ve jousted with the poem and it has unhorsed me. Much of the fare in Poetry magazine that I peruse now defeats my understanding, is numbingly hermetic. Those are phrases I borrow from Peter Schjeldahl; he applies them to the late paintings of Kandinsky.
I read now that Ashbery was one of our greats (died 2017 at 90); that many poets imitate him now; but that not all are as good at what he did as he was. I’ve no quarrel with his reputation. I’ve glanced at him over the years as if at a sculpture on a Gothic cathedral so lofty only steeplejacks can see it.
This revelation is liberating. Last night (November 12, 2021) for the first time I read “The Tennis Court Oath” with enjoyment. I gave in to it, as it were. It didn’t sweep me off my feet, like certain poems of Auden. It would take yet more readings for me to quote a single phrase (verse?) of it from memory: As Ashbery has written… But it was slyly amusing. It gave nonsensical pleasure. Like a nursery rhyme can do? I’m not sure about that comparison, but it sprang to mind as I flash on the pleasure I got at an early age from “The Owl and the Pussycat” and its runcible spoon. I retain that spoon. No idea what kind of spoon it is. Perhaps that’s my dawning way of approaching some of this spikey verse I read: It’s runcible. Or maybe sporkish.
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