And now here comes the major modern poetry killer, John Ashbery, hailed, worshiped and emulated the world over. I knew him, reader, back at Harvard, if only slightly. The closest I came was years later, when I ran into a common friend of ours who was off to visit John in the hospital and persuaded me to tag along. I forget what Ashbery was ailing from that had bedded him, as well as what may have been said in that threesome.
More perpendicularly, he proved amiable but distant the rare times we may have crossed paths, as amiable, I imagine, as when he smilingly murdered poetry.
And NOW for the PUNCHLINE:
The extraordinary free-verse meditation “A Wave” (1983) is the last essai in John Ashbery’s Selected Poems of 1987. The evocative title can be read as a cannily ambiguous try-on: it immediately suggests oceanic rhythmicality, but there are also implicit intimations of the “wave-theory” of modem physics (key principle and metaphor for the “electric age”) and, at least, an implication of gestural nonchalance which Stevie Smith had contrasted to “drowning” and John Berryman acted out as farewell salute to an uncomprehending world (see above, Chapter 5). In contrast to the existential intensity of Smith’s polarisation and Berryman’s casual desperation, Ashbery’s “Wave” represents a zone of apparently relaxed, postmodern hyper-reality where experience is a constant renegotiation between a hypostasised “we” of communality and the environmental simulacra which surround and help define the contemporary human project. “A Wave” inscribes a cool, street-wise Heraclitianism where insubstantiality is almost sacralised as material being and the pragmatic present (“the ground on which a man and his wife could / Look at each other and laugh, remembering how love is to them”, 331) is all that can be constituted. Ashbery’s style represents postmodernity through a kind of linguistic mimesis of flux in its verbal fluidity, calculated vaguery and eclectic artificiality: in this it can fittingly be termed “postmodernist”.