Monday, December 24, 2007

John Ashbery and Robert Lowell

American poetry has always been seen by critics as pulled between two extremes. In the last half of the 19th century, it was Whitman and Dickinson. In the first half of the 20th century, it was Pound and Eliot on one side and William Carlos Williams on the other.

In this article that appeared in The Economist last month, the last half of the 2oth century falls within the polarity of John Ashbery and Robert Lowell. I'm not sure I agree with any of these polarities, but least so this one. Still, it's an interesting article.

JUST as Norman Mailer, John Updike and Philip Roth were at various times regarded as the greatest American novelist since the second world war, John Ashbery and Robert Lowell vied for the title of greatest American poet. Yet the two men could not be more different.

Lowell was a public figure who engaged with politics—in 1967 he marched shoulder-to-shoulder with Mailer in protest against the Vietnam war, as described in Mailer's novel “The Armies of the Night”. Lowell took on substantial themes and envisioned himself as a tragic, heroic figure, fighting against his own demons.

Mr Ashbery's verse, by contrast, is more beguilingly casual. In his hands, the making of a poem can feel like the tumbling of dice on a table top. Visible on the page is a delicately playful strewing of words, looking to engage with each other in a shyly puzzled fashion. And there is an element of Dada-like play in his unpredictability of address with its perpetual shifting of tones, as in:

“The lobster shouted how it was long ago
No pen mightier than this said the object
As though to ward off a step...”

Lowell, who died in 1977 at the age of 60, addressed the world head on. By contrast, Mr Ashbery, who celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this year, glances wryly at the world and its absurdities. In this edition of his later poems, a substantial gathering of verses selected from six volumes published over the past 20 years, his poetry does not so much consist of themes to be explored as comic routines to be improvised. He mocks the very idea of the gravity of poetry itself. His tone can be alarmingly inconsequential, as if the reader is there to be perpetually wrong-footed. He shifts easily from the elevated to the work-a-day. His poems are endlessly digressive and there are often echoes of other poets in his writings, though these always come lightly at the reader, as though they were scents on the breeze.

Lowell wrote in strict formal measures; some of his last books consisted of entire sequences of sonnets. Mr Ashbery can also be partial to particular forms of verse, though these tend to be of a fairly eccentric kind—the cento (a patchwork of other poets' works), for example, and the pantoum (a Malaysian form, said to have been introduced to 19th-century Europe by Victor Hugo). Often he writes in a free-flowing, conversational manner that depends for its success upon the fact that the ending of lines is untrammelled by any concern about whether or not they scan. Within many of his poems, there often seems to be a gently humorous antagonism between one stanza and the next. Mr Ashbery likes using similes in his poetry. This is often the poet's stock-in-trade, but he seems to single them out in order to send up the very idea of the simile in poetry, as in “Violets blossomed loudly/ like a swear word in an empty tank”.

Life, for Lowell, was a serious matter, just as he was a serious man. Mr Ashbery's approach, as evinced by his poetry, is more that of a gentle shrug of amused bewilderment. Unlike Lowell's, his poems are neither autobiographical nor confessional. He doesn't take himself that seriously. “Is all of life a tepid housewarming?” For a poet this is a tougher question to answer than you might think.

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