Timor mortis

A poet from the other side of Lake Ontario, John Ashbery, died last week. I’d been so busy not looking at the news, and finding it full of air when I saw it (weather news, mostly) that I didn’t know until a poet in California tipped me off this morning. Ashbery himself — who like all aspiring poets, and the accomplished ones, too, had to take jobs — feared death. We all fear our own, but he also feared the deaths of others, as he explained. As art critic for a nasty rag called Newsweek, in some previous century, he especially feared a major artist would die. This meant he would be called into the office in the middle of some dark and dreary night, and not allowed to go home until he had written the obituary.

Only recently did I begin to appreciate Ashbery’s long, almost Egyptian meditations on death. They weave through all his poems, but unlike Death himself, Ashbery is never confrontational. He wasn’t political, either, and in his prime, would get in trouble with the Official Guardians of American Literature by, for instance, not mentioning Vietnam. He praised other poets for not doing so, either; yet still won all the prizes because he was so large, and articulate.

He wrote an incredible amount of verse– two thousand pages of it in Library of America editions so far — and to my own frustration, I never catch him nodding. Clichés of popular speech wink from here and there, but they are never slips. He had the gift for elevating the plain and common to a fine opacity, in glinting sea-light rich and knelling strange, in the ding-dong of his internal half-rhymes and sparkling assonance amid, as he put it, the weird fragrances of Persian and Aramaic. Sight, sound, smell: but all in American English. And all to no purpose, no purpose at all, that was not poetic.

I can’t explain why I avoided him so faithfully, until what seems just the other day. He was a poet’s poet, I suppose, and I’m not clubable. As allusive as a Chinaman, and insistent as a Goan, he would threaten to flood out one’s mind. Young poets, in particular, should probably avoid him until they have become strong swimmers. Those who try to “surf” him (as I am doing now) wash in pummeled, drilled, and axelaxed.

From the next poem in his exquisite collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), he writes by the open window where

… the air pours in with piano notes
In its skirts, as though to say, “Look, John,
I’ve brought these and these” — that is,
A few Beethovens, some Brahmses,

A few choice Poulenc notes. … Yes,
It is being free again, the air, it has to keep coming back
Because that’s all it’s good for.
I want to stay with it out of fear …

Ninety he was, when the air stopped, and he gave the “curt greeting.”