Follow the link above for Helen Vendler's review of Ashbery's latest in the March 7 issue of The New Republic.
Vendler seems fond of the sweeping statement that nevertheless crumbles with the lightest pressure. She's particularly culpable of this in the essays in her books. But this review has a few moments:
"Ashbery's experiments have not always succeeded." Really? Which writer's experiments have "always succeeded"? What's the point of that paragraph-opening sentence? This: "Not everyone was convinced that the dual streams of consciousness (two separate columns running parallel down the page) of 'Litany' could really be read as one, or remembered well enough to modify each other." Ah, so if "everyone" "was convinced" that "Litany" worked, then we'd be somewhere else, wouldn't we? Of course, the "not everyone" means that if a single person--Vendler, perhaps?--wasn't convinced, then it just doesn't work.
Further down: "the trouble with superficial ways of making new is that they leave out the old. Ashbery keeps the old in--through allusion, echo, and the revival of perennial topics--and therefore can 'communicate ideas' after all." So the communication of ideas requires "the old." "making new" does not equal "communicat[ing] ideas." Uh, okay.
Toward the end: "I wish that all the poems in Where Shall I Wander were understandable to me on the spot." Why? Because of her deadline at TNR? Because the Oscars were coming on?
Though I mostly agree with its first half, the review's final sentence is just weird, as if two separate thoughts were fused together from two different sentences: "'Accessibility' needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgment if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world." How about "Right-wing zealots need to be voted out of office if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world"? Or "'Accessibility' needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgment if we are to escape the tyranny of popular taste"? I don't like my versions either, but they at least make more sense.
Vendler does make some good (if not particularly original) points and provides some historical/contextual information and a general sense of the book. And I was struck by the humility in this paragraph:
"I may be mistaken (I have been so before) in my synopses, since Ashbery--with his resolve against statement bearing the burden of a poem--would always rather present a symbolic whole than offer a propositional argument. Still, I have offered these synopses to show that Ashbery does make sense if we can tune our mind to his wavelength--something I am not always able to do, but which is exhilarating when that precarious harmony of minds is reached. Ashbery suggests, he does not assert. His readers are left to skate along the polished surfaces of his text, seeing images, bumping into pieces of diction, flashed at by paradoxes, speeding through tone after tone, as the atmosphere of the poem darkens or brightens."
But I also wonder how healthy it is for a critic to seek "that precarious harmony of minds" with a poet she is reviewing. That seems like an anti-intellectual approach based on a kind of sympathy for the poet/poetry that refuses detachment; in fact, it makes detachment a flaw in the critic's apparatus while implying that only poets whose wavelengths Vendler can access are worth writing about. And all of this is in the service of convincing us that "Ashbery does make sense if ..." Do we still need critics to tell us that "Ashbery does make sense" ... "if"?
At least they didn't assign the book to Adam Kirsch. Then we'd be in an altogether different department.