The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics

Humanities, May/June 2004 | Go to article overview

The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics


Vendler writes about poets John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop.

NO SCRUTINY can exist without an angle of vision. Looking at a single poem, one critic is describing the lyric structure, another the influence of Shelley, and another the use of archetypes; but this does not make their observations "subjective" in the sense of unreliable. An enormous number of valid remarks can be made about any art work, and perfectly reliable connections can be made between those observations and others. Critics making observations can have a common language of debate; more rhapsodic critics, who use the text chiefly as a base from which to depart, cannot, and do not want to, have such a common language. Both kinds of critics are nontrivial: the first kind are the scientists of literature, the second the rhapsodes of literature; the first invite discursive reply, the second repel it by their style, but invite it by their energy. Probably society needs both sorts of critics; and it is clear that these two extremes of criticism are provoked by two quite different sorts of pleasure in the object.

.... Ashbery retells both life and loss with American comic pragmatism and deadpan pratfalls:

The first year was like icing.

Then the cake started to show through.

Reading Ashbery, one notices the idiom: when, exactly, did "show through" come into common speech in this sense? and "started," too, for that matter? The poem ends with the remark, "And paintings are one thing we never seem to run out of": when did "to run out of something" become our normal way of saying that the supply was exhausted? "What need for purists," says Ashbery, "when the demotic is built to last, / To outlast us?" His campaign (of course, not only his) to write down the matter of lyric in the idiom of America is a principled one. His eclectic borrowing from many past styles-an aesthetic some would like to call postmodern-creates a "variegated, polluted skyscraper to which all gazes are drawn," the style of our century, to which we are both condemned and entrusted, a "pleasure we cannot and will not escape."

. . . .The attitudes in Bishop that I have dwelt on here-her sense of deformity, her cold capacity for detachment, her foreignness in human society, her suspicion that truth has something annihilating about it, her self-representation as observer of meaninglessly additive experience, her repugnance for social or political of religious association, her preference for mapping and abstraction-are those that are particularly well-sustained, thematically and formally, in the Complete Poems. …

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