Ashbery descends from Gertrude Stein, and in a review of Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation he writes, “These austere ‘stanzas’ are made up almost entirely of colorless connecting words such as ‘where,’ ‘which,’ ‘these,’ ‘of,’ ‘not,’ ‘have,’ ‘about,’ and so on, though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about.” While he doesn’t come right out and say it, he suggests that for Stein, an orange is equivalent to an Albert. Later in the review, he writes that Stein’s poems leave us in “the physical world, that collection of thoughts, flowers, weather, and proper names.” Just as an orange is equivalent to an Albert, thoughts are equivalent to flowers, weather to proper names. All of these are equally real: “it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about.” Like others, I take many of Ashbery’s remarks on other artists to reflect on his own art. He concludes, “The poem is a hymn to possibility, a celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen.”
Take these lines from Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood”:
Something strange is creeping across me. / La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars / Of “I Thought about You” or something mellow from / Amadigi di Gaula for everything—a mint-condition can / Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy / Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile / Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged / Stock—to come clattering through the rainbow trellis / Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland / Fling Terrace.This is not collage, exactly, although Ashbery owes a debt to Surrealism. However, one element of collage—the collapsing of “high” and “low”—is apparent in many of Ashbery’s poems. Yet this is only one collapse among many, including the collapse of particular and general, foreground and background, inside and outside, and of “I,” “you,” “he” and “she,” “they,” and “it.”
This list—a can of baking powder, an earring, a cartoon character, “the latest” from an author of historical romances, and a bundle of pornographic photographs—along with the other specifics of the passage—“La Celestina” (the title character in a fifteenth-century Spanish dialogue), “I Thought about You” (a jazz standard), Amadigi di Gaula (an Italian opera by Handel), a “rainbow trellis,” “Pistachio Avenue,” and “Highland Fling Terrace”—add up to something like what has come to be known as a “Latour Litany,” a list evoking the rich diversity of reality (Ian Bogost), including not only objects but people, ideas, and things we might not think of as real, like Daffy Duck. If thoughts, flowers, weather, and proper names are all equally real, then thought, dream, perception—everything we associate with Ashbery’s poetry—are no more (and no less) real than a mint-condition can of Rumford’s Baking Powder or Speedy Gonzales.
In a recent essay, “Here Comes Everything” (a fitting title, perhaps, for a study of Ashbery’s poetry), Tim Morton singles out a passage in Graham Harman’s 1999 talk, “Object Oriented Philosophy”:
But beneath this ceaseless argument, reality is churning. Even as the philosophy of language and its supposedly reactionary opponents both declare victory, the arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball strikes green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of “access” to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines.Morton observes that this passage “revels in dislocation, not location.” Harman’s writing is not “nature writing,” in that it lacks an observing subject. Harman’s is “a world without reference to a subject” (Morton). Such a world appears in Ashbery’s poem “Grand Galop”:
Hugely, spring exists again. The weigela does its dusty thing / In fire-hammered air. And garbage cans are heaved against / The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart.Many Ashbery poems appear to be about, well, everything. In an interview, Ashbery reflects, “I think I consider the poem as a sort of environment, and one is not obliged to take notice of every aspect of one’s environment—one can’t, in fact.” The difficulty of thinking about all of an Ashbery poem, even a relatively short Ashbery poem, is not unlike the difficulty of thinking about environment, or better, ecology—the difficulty of “thinking everything at once” (Timothy Clark).