An Introduction to John Ashbery’s Poetics of Things: How Poems are Chosen for Objects

The more than 100 poems listed below—each of which corresponds to an object “hotspot” in “John Ashbery’s Nest”— demonstrate how Ashbery thinks about things in poetry.  As is immediately evident from this selection, Ashbery puts real things into poems.  Things that he collects—such as ceramics, blue glass, majolica, floral wallpaper, and antique signs—are directly named in poems.  Even more ordinary things that he uses often—such as buttons, bowls, armchairs, beds, desks, tables, refrigerators—recur in poems, appearing frequently and flatly without description.  As Ashbery understood instinctively as a young poet and articulated much later in essays, interviews and poems, putting real things into poems is an act of resisting the dissolution of the poem into “a poetic statement.”  In short, real things in Ashbery’s poems are working to tether the poem to the non-symbolic, non-allegorical, a project that the poem itself resists but requires.

This need for real things to anchor a poem also helps explain one of the most surprising aspects of Ashbery’s poetics, which is the way that he often flattens the language of description around things.  Because real things appear in Ashbery’s poems as themselves, the language around the thing often is flat and spare so that the thing cannot be made symbolic of something else, but retains its identity as itself.  For example, in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” real objects play a crucial role in keeping this searching, frenetic poem, which is full of things, from unraveling completely into allegory, a poetic process that, as Ashbery describes it, is something that the poem desists (as long as possible) but also desires.  The poem directly explores this poetic process as it is happening.  It begins by naming things: “Rumford’s Baking Powder” (Ashbery’s kitchen wall includes the “Clabber Girl Baking Powder” antique sign); an earring, etc..  At first, there are just a few things.  Soon, though, there are many things, and the poem’s process of inclusion expands so fast that everything in literary and cinematic culture seems to avalanche into the poem, a tumbling that also produces statements of anxiety about all this stuff: a “fern-clogged waiting room,” a “magnetic storm,” and the question underneath: “How will it end?” About one-third of the way through the poem, the avalanche halts and analysis starts with the statement: “The allegory becomes unsnarled too soon.”  The poem confronts its central question about the relationship between poetry and things by declaring that things are too quickly becoming solely part of an imaginative landscape and losing their earthly thingness.  In an interview with Peter Stitt a few years after writing this poem, Ashbery focuses on that line: “The allegory coming unsnarled meaning that the various things that make it up are dissolving into a poetic statement, and that is something I feel that is both happening and that I don’t want to happen.” 

Because the creation of poems is so inextricably tied to the existence of things for Ashbery, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that he began to write poems at the very same time he began to collect things.  From one of his earliest poems, which begins by describing an object he spotted in an antique shop but could not afford to buy: “My head is iron with brass eyes and ears…” the things he saw became a provocation for his poetic imagination.  For the young Ashbery, looking carefully at things (usually in local houses and in antique shops) and writing poems were skills that developed in tandem.  (For more details on this process of development, please see “John Ashbery’s Houses” in Raritan [spring, 2012].)  As his poetic practice and his reading of other poets widened throughout the 1940s, he began to note how other poets thought about the placement of real things in poetry.  He was particularly focused on the works of Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, all poets who wrote about things and, in most cases, were also collectors (as far as their varying economies allowed).  He did this work constantly but unsystematically.  Without ever realizing he was doing so, he created (for his own thinking process) a literary history of poetic thing theory.

In college, for example, just as he started to write poems that would appear in Some Trees (1956), he also wrote an essay on Andrew Marvell’s “The Mower to the Glow-Worms” (English 130b, Spring, 1948) that explained with remarkable clarity his own thinking about the relationship between things and poems.  Ashbery expands on his close reading at the end of the paper: “in all great poets, we are released from the things of the world to find a new significance in the world of the imagination, though the separation from ‘things’ is never complete, and the higher meaning of the poem will invariably have its roots in them.”  Crucial, too, is that as soon as Ashbery submitted his realization, he completely forgot that he wrote it, a necessary process so that so many of his later poems could enact and describe a similar poetic process.

In Ashbery’s 1971 essay on Willem de Kooning for Art News Annual, he explains the painter’s genius by directly building on ideas from this 1948 college paper.  He demonstrates in the process how his reading of Wallace Stevens’s poetry and his study of abstract expressionist art have also deepened his thinking about real things and imagination: “de Kooning can, when he feels like it, invent what Wallace Stevens called ‘a completely new set of objects.’”  Ashbery reads some of de Kooning’s “strange” work, such as Table and Chairs, as creating an imaginative world for objects that retain resonances of the physical thing while enabling a new language and set of associations though original contexts and arrangements.  He views de Kooning’s original objects, like Stevens’s and Marvell’s, as non-symbolic through effort.  As Ashbery explains, de Kooning “knows” about these things, “as the French say, ‘like his pocket’.” 

Ashbery’s essay leads directly to a poem, written forty years later, in which he rearticulates his most important realizations about poems and things.  “Revisionist Horn Concerto” (Hotel Lautréamont, 1992) questions and then reaffirms the notion that “the higher meaning of the poem” has its “roots” in things.  “Buttons, strings, bits of fluff,” are the things that populate the beginning of the poem.  Although these things are “all there,”—always around us, always seen— actually “[O]nly a little / is known about them.”  This anxiety that there is “nothing” that matters about these ordinary bits of “nothing” is the primary feeling in the first half of the poem.  Yet, by the end of the poem, the idea that poetry can emerge out of these bits of nothings returns in an incredible description of a pole that is both anchored to the ground and stretches toward the sky:

        In addition to which the pole
        still turns, in dreams, like the enormous wheel
        of a rickshaw, viewed from up close, now
        dipping into the mud and chaos, now rising like a sigh, a lark
        on the mend, to remind us that all is well, or should be,
        or will be shortly, given the interest in its shadow.

The pole, which “rises like a sigh,” or a bird, is a literalization of a process of reaching toward that “higher,” imaginative music of the poem.  The pole, however, also produces a shadow, here an example of a thing (like any other) which brings the eye back to the ground, where the pole is anchored in the mud.  Yes, the poem suggests, “buttons, strings, bits of fluff” are “nothing,” but they are also the very things that anchor the pole so that it can rise toward the sky without ever fully losing its earthly connection.

The idea that “the higher meaning of the poem will invariably have its roots” in the very things that provoke the imagination is at the heart of the project of naming and describing those things in “John Ashbery’s Nest.”  It is not only that real things appear in his poems as themselves, but that his poems use some of the very things he knows best—“like his pocket”—because he chose them, a process which involved a combination of attention, study and patience.  For example, “Merrily We Live” (Your Name Here, 2000) includes a reference to Ashbery’s “blue glass” bottle collection, which is highlighted as one of the “hotspots” in the dining room.  “Blue glass” appears as itself in an adjectival phrase: “So we have only our trapezoidal reflections / to look at in its blue glass sides, and perhaps admire—.”  In fact, Ashbery employs this technique—to use a real thing that he knows quite a lot about as an adjectival description for something else less concrete—often.  In another example, the phrase “in the ceramic day” appears in both “Unctuous Platitudes” (Houseboat Days, 1977) and “Litany” (As We Know, 1979).  Ashbery’s significant American Art Pottery collection (see it in the downstairs library), about which he became exceedingly expert, modifies the more abstract day. 

Ashbery’s long life as what I call a poet-collector enabled him to populate, often simultaneously, both his home and his poems. It also explains how the very work of creating the Hudson house was, in fact, always a poetic project; the necessarily architectural and material work of decorating enabled his poetic processes to be always in an act of renewal.