John Ashbery has died. For some he was, at least for a while, the clown prince of the democracy of American poetry. For others he was always an irritating pretender, or became one after a brief good run. I never regarded him as the culmination of the spirit of Whitman but I am unrepentant in loving his book of prose-poetry Three Poems. Below is a modified mini-appreciation of this which I initially posted online in 2006.
A definitive work of late 20th-century American poetry, Three Poems is John Ashbery's masterpiece. (Some will try to tell you that this status belongs to Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which is probably true if you are asking about importance and influence in the ranks of American poetry. But I'm talking about depth.)
You may love what Ashbery does with language, washing it and wringing it out; you may find him too clever by three quarters; or you may think his work over-rated and his influence disastrous; but you can't ignore him if you care about poetry in English. For myself, Three Poems is up there with the Upanishads, the Tao te Ching, the Cloud of Unknowing, Spinoza's Ethics, Fear & Trembling, the great poetic sequences of Rimbaud and of Rilke, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, I & Thou, and Green Eggs and Ham. It is one of the great genre-transcending manuals of spiritual discipline. Charles Williams distinguished between two ways in the spiritual life: the Way of Affirmation, and the Way of Rejection, of Images. What Ashbery does here is walk the latter by way of the former, mixing the right-hand and left-hand paths.
I thought if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way."The poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth," Sidney assured us. Three Poems is Ashbery at his most "affirming," but he's showing the absence that is stirred in everywhere, and if this seems a postmodern bankruptcy, at other times it reads like a sort of suburban sunyata.
If you find it just baffling and weird, try reading it without the obligation to "get it." You can even go through it fast the first time, just letting the sound of words and the rhythm of the prose work on you. You may find that the meaning comes into focus about halfway through,like one of those 3-D pictures you have to stare at for a while. What Ashbery has done is to evoke the extreme nuance and imprecision of ordinary life, the way things happen in practice and not, ever, in theory, the way every instant is constantly shading off into the next moment and no experience stays put: you can be falling in love, or hearing terrible news one day; then, after some finite duration, you'll be learning to juggle or changing a diaper or realizing you never liked sushi. These things just happen, in all their bewildering thicket. And yet, an order emerges. Was it always there? Is "seeing it" just a function of our editing what has happened as we talk to ourselves? Or do we live in a broader story, only part of which we are overhearing? Ashbery makes these questions not a theoretical diversion but a lived mode of being, a prayer in the pulse. After this book "living inquiry" means something new. It isn't for everybody, but for some, Three Poems can become almost a breviary.
Ashbery's late-later works got cuter and more non-sequitury by the year, and I never learned to love them, but in Three Poems he either tapped into something so raw and real that it scared him away thereafter, or he mastered the art of seeming like he had tapped the raw and real so well that he never needed to try that again. I'm happily agnostic about this question most days, and then some nights it keeps me up, staring at the pages again. In any case, while he was often funny or even (maybe too often, as his career wore on) jokey, Three Poems is genuinely comic, culminating in a marriage of sorts between the "old" and the "new", and yes, raising suspicions about which section might have mapped onto which, if we care to force the analogy with that other great three-part Commedia. (It's neither a straightforward parallel nor a straightforward reversal, like Seidel's Cosmos Trilogy, but if I had to guess, I'd say Ashbery's three should be read roughly as Purgatory, Hell, Paradise.)
He's gone now, slipping out of this dark wood, and he's taken his secret with him. Or left it in plain sight. Or both.