Poet and novelist Ben Lerner struggles to explain the experience of reading the poems of John Ashbery, who died this week. The experience, mind you, not the poems themselves, which tend to defy explanation.
Lerner quotes his first novel, where a character is describing reading Ashbery: “The best Ashbery poems . . . describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem; his poems refer to how their reference evanesces. And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately. It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading. But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. But it is a presence that keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the true poem remains beyond you, inscribed on the far side of the mirror. ‘You have it but you don’t have it. / You miss it, it misses you. / You miss each other.'”
Lerner takes another stab: “reading some of the recent poems is like eavesdropping on conversations in an alien world a lot like this one—as if a change in an intergalactic wind enabled us to overhear the telenovelas and advertisements and small talk of a sister civilization from which ours was separated at birth.”
The delights of obscurity are genuine delights. Still: One cannot help but ponder what has happened to poetry when it’s content with the hints and feints of a nearly-private language.