A Review of John Ashbery’s Notes From the Air

Ange Mlinko examines the poetry of John Ashbery, in The Nation:

The one way Ashbery’s poems may always be fruitfully read is as sheer ear candy. Just glancing through his titles will confirm this (my favorite: “Yes, Dr. Grenzmer, How May I Be of Assistance to You? What! You Say the Patient Has Escaped?”). Yet where literature is concerned, we’re ardent believers in the instrumental: how else to explain why the poorest art in the world, with the least influence on American culture, is routinely made the scapegoat of all art’s sins? Rock and roll halts no wars; therefore let us stone poets, goes the logic. Meanwhile, the fact that visual artists become millionaires in an art market fueled by a hedge-fund bubble fazes no one.

Caution: Ear candy may segue shockingly into the sublime, as in these lines from “Chinese Whispers”:

The trees, the barren trees, have been described more than once.

Always they are taller, it seems, and the river passes them

without noticing. We, too, are taller,

our ceilings higher, our walls more tinctured

with telling frescoes, our dooryards both airier and vaguer,

according as time passes and weaves its minute deceptions in and out,

a secret thread.

Peace is a full stop.

And though we had some chance of slipping past the blockade,

now only time will consent to have anything to do with us,

for what purposes we do not know.