Dan Chiasson on John Ashbery’s Breezeway (and William James)


John Ashbery’s new book, Breezeway, has just been published, and Dan Chiasson has written one of the first substantial reviews of the book for the New Yorker.  With the clever title “American Snipper,” the characteristically perceptive, beautifully written review stresses that Ashbery’s poetry is “composed partly of language foraged from everyday American speech. The effect is sometimes unnerving, as though somebody had given you your own garbage back as a gift, cheerfully wrapped. Ashbery is nearly eighty-eight; more than ever, his style is a net for the weirdest linguistic flotsam … His game is to make an intentionally frivolous style express the full range of human feeling, and he remains funnier and better at it, a game he invented, than his many imitators.”

I was happy to see Chiasson connect Ashbery to the philosopher William James, who he calls “a profound influence on Ashbery” — and a bit surprised, as well, as I sometimes felt a bit lonely arguing that Ashbery has deep ties to James and pragmatism in my book Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry.  Chiasson writes:

Ashbery’s style prizes such mistakes and misapprehensions, as though looking for the word on the tip of the tongue. William James described consciousness as the “alternation of flights and perchings,” suggesting that we tend to overvalue the “perchings,” the nouns or the primary verbs in a sentence that steal the spotlight from the little words, like “in,” “and,” “but,” “or,” and “of.” It was James, a profound influence on Ashbery, who coined the term “stream of consciousness,” and who insisted on what he called a “reinstatement of the vague and inarticulate to its proper place in our mental life.” James’s “flights” and in-between zones find, in “Breezeway,” a breezeway: a structure between structures, a place to rest that is not a resting place, a “long Q & A period” before the big event is adjourned—a period marked, as in the title of one poem, by deliberate “Andante and Filibuster.”

As Chiasson notes, the poems in Breezeway are “late poems, working alertly within the uncommon genre of poems written in extreme old age, a genre they in turn significantly expand. The poems anticipate death but hold it off—they filibuster—by transfiguring it into comic forms.”

Asserting that “the finest lyrics in this book rank with Ashbery’s best short poems,” Chiasson discusses Breezeway‘s final poem, “A Sweet Disorder” (which I also discussed briefly here), and concludes:

“From his current vantage point, monitoring the past with a gift as big as any American poet has ever controlled, keeping an ear alert for the invigorating ironies of the present, Ashbery must know he is one for the ages.”

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