Barely tolerated, living on the margin
In our technological society, we were always having to be rescued
On the brink of destruction, like heroines in Orlando Furioso
Before it was time to start all over again.
—john ashbery, “Soonest Mended”
The Brink of Destruction
Revisiting John Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended”Edward Hirsch
Barely tolerated, living on the margin
He’s always distracting you from the subject,” Donald Barthelme said to me once, “which is too sad to face directly.” We were walking under a canopy of live oaks on North Boulevard in Houston, his hometown—I had just come to teach in the Creative Writing Program that he helped to build— and we were talking about the American poets he most admired, like Gertrude Stein and John Ashbery. He didn’t see much of a boundary between poetry and prose, between, say, Stein’s triad of psychological portraits, Three Lives, and her collection of cubist poems, Tender Buttons. His favorite book of Ashbery’s was Three Poems, which consists of three long, baffling, adventurous prose poems. It was Ashbery’s favorite book of his own, too. He sounded just like Barthelme when he said, “The pathos and liveliness of ordinary human communication is poetry to me.”
Barthelme favored writers who favored invention and pastiche, who worked obliquely and kept their feelings to themselves, fending off anyone who got too nosy or inquisitive. He thought that Ashbery’s angle of approach was funny and tormented. Barthelme and Ashbery shared a taste for the surrealists, the Dadaists, the collagists; they liked abstract expressionism minus the heroism. They took the ironist’s position. As the author of Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts and City Life, Barthelme struck most people as a quintessential New Yorker, a sort of born insider, but once I got to know him I realized that this wasn’t true at all, that he approached the city from the outside, with the wariness of a provincial who had come to take a good look around and decided to stay—Grace Paley called him “a reporter and a poet.” After teaching his poetry for a while I realized that this was true of Ashbery, too, who had grown up on a farm in far upstate New York and escaped to the great metropolises, Paris and New York.
There are all sorts of John Ashbery poems—he was an entire school of different poets—but one kind, possibly the one I value most, invariably diverts readers from the subject because it’s too sad to face directly. He was a magician who defended against too much feeling, which sometimes threatened to overwhelm him, and so he surprised you with his tricks. He simply would not be hemmed in, and he took you to places you’d never been before.
He was a magician who defended against too much feeling, which sometimes threatened to overwhelm him, and so he surprised you with his tricks.
It can be difficult to read Ashbery’s work in a disinterested way. Now he’s a fixture of the canon, but when I was coming up in the 1970s his work elicited such intense responses that it seemed impossible to encounter it without entering a literary war zone. There were too many noisy disciples and vehement detractors.
Some critics were certain that he was ruining American poetry; others felt that he was saving it. If you took a position on a certain book—say, his second collection, The Tennis Court Oath, which I found off-putting because of its extreme disjointedness, or The Double Dream of Spring, his mid-career classic, which I found captivating for its melancholy lyricism—then you were immediately put into one camp or another. Lines were drawn, allies solidified, enemies made. In the meantime, Ashbery recommended “fence-sitting / Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal,” and carried on undeterred, trying on different modes—sometimes going on disjunctive sprees, as in Hotel Lautréamont, other times following Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore into a territory of reflective consciousness, as in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Houseboat Days. He liked the drama of thinking, but his poetry is so emotionally cool and intellectually various—he veered between Rimbaud and Elizabeth Bishop, Parmigianino and Andy Warhol—that it’s nearly impossible to pin down, which was precisely the point. If you asked for a key to his work, the poet Richard Howard observed, then he’d present you with another set of locks. Ashbery confirmed my own hunch when he said, “A lot of people throw up their hands and say that I am writing poetry that isn’t poetry at all. I don’t think of myself as being a destroyer of poetry and I think I am continuing, in my own way, from a body of poetic tradition.”
I admire people who seem to have read everything in order, but I was never one of them. My own sense of Ashbery’s work is influenced by the fact that I was immersed in Wordsworth’s Prelude at the time when I was puzzling over the method of The Double Dream of Spring and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which established him as a poet of meditative self-consciousness. In particular, I was focused on what Wordsworth called “spots of time,” those spiritual cells and epiphanic moments, which he deemed “the hiding-places of my power.” These solitary moments of crisis, “fleeting moods / Of shadowy exultation” and “unknown modes of being,” break the narrative flow of the autobiography and rupture temporality. They take place in darkness, they are terrifying and hard to recall, they have an “awful Power” and visionary authority. Ashbery captures the fleeting feeling of them in “The Task” when he states, “For these are moments only, moments of insight.” The more I read Ashbery’s humorously self-reflexive meditations the more I came to think of him as a poet who recognizes the epiphany as a kind of terminal point, a shutting down of consciousness. Or perhaps he didn’t want to feel disappointment or regret over not having certain luminous moments or piercing experiences.
I came to think of him as poet who recognizes the epiphany as a kind of terminal point, a shutting down of consciousness.
I don’t want to nail down what is intentionally unfixed in Ashbery’s work, but one way to read his self-defining long poems—“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” or “Grand Galop” and “A Wave,” or the book-length Flow Chart—is as a continual avoidance or postponement of spots of time, a way of engaging consciousness to repeatedly hold off the concluding insight. As he defines it in “Self-Portrait”:
The locking into place is “death itself,”
As Berg said of a phrase in Mahler’s Ninth;
Or, to quote Imogen in Cymbeline, “There cannot
Be a pinch in death more sharp than this,” for,
Though only exercise or tactic, it carries
The momentum of a conviction that had been building.
Ashbery’s poems establish a pattern of opening up and closing down, of disclosure and concealment. They reveal, they re-veil. They embrace what he calls “the charity of the hard moments,” they welcome and embrace change. They are flow charts that repeatedly push back the locking into place that is “death itself.” This is the reason that Ashbery can be so rewarding and frustrating at the same time. He is a poet of perpetual deferrals.
“soonest mended” is one of the key lyrics in The Double Dream of Spring; Ashbery called it “a kind of signature poem.” He loved Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” which he considered her masterpiece, and said that it was the inspiration for “Soonest Mended.” He admired and imitated the way that Bishop’s lyric “plies continually between the steel-engraved vignettes of a gazetteer and the distressingly unclassifiable events of a real voyage.” Bishop fused description and consciousness in a way that Ashbery found various and “indescribable,” and I would say that his poem, like hers, leaves one feeling “ravished and unsatisfied.” Ashbery also paired “Soonest Mended” with Thomas Traherne’s seventeenth-century poem “Poverty” for an anthology called Preferences, which suggests a bedrock memory of deprivation alluded to, if not quite described, in Ashbery’s text. Traherne remembers growing up impoverished, “alone and desolate,” and grieves that “all my wealth should be / Confined in such a little room, / Yet hope for more I scarcely durst presume.” Presumably, Ashbery also mourns that “such a scanty store / Should be my all.” His poem refers to growing up and maturing as a thwarted or disappointed quest romance.
The title, “Soonest Mended,” lops off the head of a two-part proverb—“Least said, soonest mended”—and thereby enacts the meaning of the didactic statement. The title says even less than the proverb, which suggests that the less you say the less likely you are to get into trouble. This bit of conventional wisdom can be invoked in different familial or social contexts. It may be one way to keep you out of danger, another way of warning you to keep your mouth shut. One unexpected result might be a poetics of discretion and indirection. As a poem, “Soonest Mended” defies its proverbial advice: it doesn’t really say less; in fact, it goes on for two long stanzas and a total of seventy-one lines, but it does keep avoiding what it approaches. One fifteenth-century version of the proverb was “Lyttle sayde, soone amended.” Or as Ashbery once put it in a lecture: “Poetry bloweth where it listeth. It should never be thought of as a practical solution to life’s mess.”
There are some poets whose lines stab you with blunt force, and others whose sentences meander off in different directions and take a while to knife you, so that you don’t quite realize you’ve been cut.
There are some poets whose lines stab you with blunt force, and others whose sentences meander off in different directions and take a while to knife you, so that you don’t quite realize you’ve been cut until you get home and discover that you’re bleeding. This is the difference between, say, Robert Lowell and John Ashbery. The comparison seems apt because Ashbery called “Soonest Mended” “a one-size-fits-all confessional poem which is about my youth and maturity but also about anybody else’s.” In the breakthrough poems of Life Studies, the 1959 collection in which Lowell embraced a radically autobiographical lyric, the poet tried to give the impression that the reader was getting “the real Robert Lowell.” This was an enabling fiction that many readers and critics believed to be literally true. It was M. L. Rosenthal’s review of this book that led to the moniker “confessional poetry” for the poetry of utmost personal disclosure. Ashbery took a different tactic—he mocked the idea of confessional poetry and pretended that the reader was not getting “the real John Ashbery” at all but some generalized or distanced confession, as if we all had the same childhood and adolescent memories. “Some of it is not really about me,” he said; “it’s what Gertrude Stein called ‘everybody’s autobiography.’”
Like Stein, Ashbery poses as a representative American. She established the precedent when she stated, “I used to be fond of saying that America, which was supposed to be a land of success, was a land of failure.” Ashbery’s strategy: to present a speaker who does not refer to himself as “I” but as “we.” The style is elusive, the thinking nonlinear. The cue to the feeling is in the first phrasing, “Barely tolerated, living on the margin.” The poem is shadowed by Ashbery’s memories of being an artistic gay kid growing up on a farm in the tiny village of Sodus, New York. He detested farm life and said that he was attracted to boys before he knew there was such a thing as homosexuality. But the speaker generalizes this situation into the idea that others, too, that indeterminate “we,” which some readers understand as gay lovers or queer poets of the 1950s, were only just allowed—different, peripheral, disenfranchised.
Barely tolerated, living on the margin
In our technological society, we were always having to be
On the brink of destruction, like heroines in Orlando Furioso
Before it was time to start all over again.
There would be thunder in the bushes, a rustling of coils,
And Angelica, in the Ingres painting, was considering
The colorful but small monster near her toe, as though
wondering whether forgetting
The whole thing might not, in the end, be the only solution.
To understand this passage of somewhat outlandish, feminized allusions—we’re being compared to heroines—you don’t really need to have read Ariosto’s sixteenth-century mock epic of chivalry Orlando Furioso, a romance (featuring a young lover named Angelica) that Vivaldi turned into an opera, or to have viewed Ingres’s nineteenth-century painting Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica, based on the poem, but these references do indicate the way Ashbery filters experience through the lens of other texts. Such filtering seems to be the only way he can confront growing up on the margins, feeling jeopardized, looking for a kind of rescue that would never arrive, turning from one piece of culture to the next:
And then there always came a time when
Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile
Came plowing down the course, just to make sure everything
Only by that time we were in another chapter and confused
About how to receive this latest piece of information.
Was it information?
Happy Hooligan, a popular comic book character from Ashbery’s childhood, comes charging into memory, driving into the poem and popping out of his car to reassure him, or us, though personally I had not heard of Happy Hooligan, since the comic strip ended in 1932, when Ashbery was only five years old. It’s a little too late for a redemptive hero. It’s as if life is a chapter book and we turn the pages as we get older. The answer to the question is that it was information, but what kind?
Weren’t we rather acting this out
For someone else’s benefit, thoughts in a mind
With room enough and to spare for our little problems
(so they began to seem),
Our daily quandary about food and the rent and bills to
The question raises another question, another doubt. One explanation gives way to another, but all the explanations are incomplete. The question also evokes the memory of poverty, the quotidian grind. It’s both about daily life in the 1930s, the time of Ashbery’s Depression-era childhood, and “the daily quandary” for the rest of us, too, at least those of us who grew up always looking around for the rich overlords of the system.
But then comes a tiny instance of Stevensian sublimity, of imaginative liberation. It’s a moment of trying not to be noticed and of noticing, of standing outside on the lawn at night and gazing up at the stars:
To reduce all this to a small variant,
To step free at last, minuscule on the gigantic plateau—
This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free.
The moment of plenitude can’t last: “Alas, the summer’s energy wanes quickly, / A moment and it is gone.” A spot of time can no longer serve: the necessary arrangements, ordinary acts, “simple as they are,” but also poems or paintings or comic books, don’t come to rescue us.
In the next movement of the poem, the speaker associates his way into the recognition, if there is one, that it is time to hold on and get on with it.
Our star was brighter perhaps when it had water in it.
Now there is no question even of that, but only
Of holding on to the hard earth so as not to get thrown off,
With an occasional dream, a vision: a robin flies across
The upper corner of the window, you brush your hair away
And cannot quite see, or a wound will flash
Against the sweet faces of the others, something like:
This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.
To the speaker, the star seems brighter when it is refracted in water, and insight looms up as “an occasional dream, a vision.” That robin flying across “The upper corner of the window” is a figure of transcendence, fleeting and barely glimpsed.
The speaker realizes that despite the reticence recommended by the title we all participate in a lot of social chatter, though one wonders where it gets us, because underlying it is an unresolved, unfulfilled longing and need. There is a remarkable progression and enjambment in the lines “We are all talkers / It is true, but underneath the talk lies / The moving and not wanting to be moved.” Ashbery plays on what is true and false here, punning on the word lies, which suggests both untruth and rests or reclines in a certain state. The ambivalence shows. He also puns on the words moving and moved. The speaker is moving on, leaving one place for another, and trying not to be moved by it all. The meaning is also “loose” and therefore hard to describe easily, messy but also simple, and I come away from it recognizing how hard it is to escape from the doomed feelings of childhood, those long-lasting inarticulate wounds.
“soonest mended” is a poem in two parts. Ashbery wrote it in his early forties, and the second section suggests that it is a middle-aged reckoning, a time of coming to terms. At first it seemed that life was filled with obstacles, but then it starts to occur to us that the journey consists of nothing but obstacles:
These then were some hazards of the course,
Yet though we knew the course was hazards and nothing else
It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time.
They were the players, and we who had struggled at the game
Were merely spectators, though subject to its vicissitudes
And moving with it out of the tearful stadium, borne on
shoulders, at last.
There is a shuttling of pronouns between “we” and “you” and “they,” an individual recognition posited as a general truth of adulthood, the hindsight that all along one was playing at a game that was someone else’s game with someone else’s rules. In fact, you weren’t really a player at all, but a mere spectator, someone subject to a series of unwelcome changes, rules you didn’t understand, filing out of “the tearful stadium” with the rest of the crowd. Ashbery was an unathletic kid, which can make you an outsider in high school, and the projection of crying onto the stadium pairs with the idea that it is the spectators, not the heroic athlete, who are carried out of the stadium in a sort of unlikely triumph. I suspect a purposefully vague but genuine memory of hurt behind all this.
Now the poem changes tense to an ongoing present, a recurring nightly recognition and acknowledgment. The next sentence is flickering and refractory.
Night after night this message returns, repeated
In the flickering bulbs of the sky, raised past us, taken away
Yet ours over and over until the end that is past truth,
The being of our sentences, in the climate that fostered them,
Not ours to own, like a book, but to be with, and sometimes
To be without, alone and desperate.
Part of the effect here is an elusiveness that is driven by some underlying but hard to determine logic (“Yet ours,” “Not ours,” “but to be”). The language seems Stevensian and reminiscent of “Of Mere Being” (“The palm at the end of the mind, / Beyond the last thought”) and “The Poems of Our Climate,” especially the lines “There would still remain the never-resting mind, / So that one would want to escape, come back / To what had been so long composed.” Ashbery is less directive than Stevens, but the references to “the end that is past truth,” which seems like death itself, a finality beyond our constructions, “The being of our sentences,” and “Not ours to own, like a book” all indicate the restlessness of an isolated imagination confronting an intractable reality, which we can only approach with uncertainty.
This leads to the conclusion: “But the fantasy makes it ours, a kind of fence-sitting, / Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.” I am inclined to think of what Ashbery calls “fence-sitting,” a lack of decisiveness, as a postmodern version of the Romantic Aeolian harp. It is the result of a personal temperament applied to an aesthetic position. Coleridge sounds positively Ashberian when he states, “Full many a thought uncalled and undetained, / And many idle flitting phantasies, / Traverse my indolent and passive brain, / As wild and various as the random gales / That swell and flutter on this subject Lute!” (“The Eolian Harp”).
The next section of the poem is like glimpsing people through the window of a passing train. You can see that they are out there, but you’re going by them so quickly that it’s hard to interpret what you’re seeing. This seems to be Ashbery’s way of summarizing something like his high school and college years. I’m struck by the way the “we” now breaks down into two people in conversation. This is the first time that an “I” reveals itself in the poem. The lines have a kind of stately progression:
These were moments, years,
Solid with reality, faces, namable events, kisses, heroic acts,
But like the friendly beginning of a geometrical progression
Not too reassuring, as though meaning could be cast aside
When it had been outgrown. Better, you said, to stay cowering
Like this in the early lessons, since the promise of learning
Is a delusion, and I agreed, adding that
Tomorrow would alter the sense of what had already been
That the learning process is extended in this way, so that from
None of us ever graduates from college,
For time is an emulsion, and probably thinking not to grow up
Is the brightest kind of maturity for us, right now at any rate.
There is a kind of play here on the gap between learning from memory and experience and learning from books. What seems to be a “delusion” is that we grow up and escape, that our book learning somehow protects us from the hard lessons. There is an oblique reference to the quest as the “friendly beginning” or promise of some sort of logical progression that turns out to be far from “reassuring.” Two positions are staked out and ultimately joined. We may not grow up, but we do keep accumulating knowledge, if not wisdom. We progress, sort of, and keep our childhood selves alive in us.
I have loved the swerves of the final sentence ever since I first encountered them in my early twenties. The movement begins with a reference to King Lear’s precept, “Nothing will come of nothing,” which Ashbery modifies with a characteristic “somehow,” and ends with the memory of starting out on a day long ago. Now the “you” and “I” might well be lovers, two people learning to live together, “Brushing the teeth and all that,” which enlarges into a generalized lesson for all of us included in the “we,” who have been socialized into citizenship:
And you see, both of us were right, though nothing
Has somehow come to nothing; the avatars
Of our conforming to the rules and living
Around the home have made—well, in a sense, “good citizens”
Brushing the teeth and all that, and learning to accept
The charity of the hard moments as they are doled out,
For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.
What seems to me most Ashberian here is not just the rapidly shifting diction and gorgeous phrasing but the lesson itself, the idea that not being sure is a kind of “action,” a process of remembering and forgetting, of being moored and unmoored. Things are prepared not purposefully but carelessly, the seeds are crooked and not straight, which suggests some future obdurate growth, the hard moments are charitable and ongoing, and we keep returning to the past in order to leave it. There’s a tone of acceptance, of resignation and even excitement, of dwelling in uncertainties and doubts, which Keats considered a key feature of what he called negative capability. Not choosing one path or the other, not irritably “reaching after fact and reason,” as Keats puts it, becomes a moral stance and aesthetic position. It’s even filled with a sense of rueful wonderment and mystery.
John Ashbery was a poet of what he called “mandarin avoidance.” He admitted that “we are all confessional sometimes,” but didn’t make a big deal of it, and he embraced Auden’s adage that poetry “makes us well / Without confession of the ill.” His poetry is oddly dexterous; it counsels us to get on with it, to keep moving. It has its own ethos of experiment and verbal adventure, of charity and self-forgiveness, the prerogative of the fence-sitter. I can’t always decipher if he is putting everything in or leaving everything out. “On and on into the gathering darkness—is there no remedy for this?” Ashbery asked in Three Poems. There is not. But attention can be paid, art created.
I didn’t know Ashbery well, though we overlapped at poetry gatherings over the years, and once we took a long walk around Houston together before a reading. We didn’t follow a route, but just ambled through the streets willy-nilly until we ended up in front of the Rothko Chapel. I mentioned the small funeral that I had recently attended for Donald Barthelme there. It felt as if the large dark paintings had stood guard, like figures in mourning. Ashbery looked at me with a somewhat pained expression; he had been losing friends at an alarming rate. “I can’t tell if Barthelme’s work is funny or sad,” he said. “Sometimes it feels like the same thing.”