I was with some poetry friends in a pub near Holborn, shooting the breeze before a reading two of us were participating in. The breeze was fairly dark on that day, for various reasons. It was the weekend following Donald Trump’s inauguration for one thing; it was January in London for another. Let us hope that it was genuine curiosity, at least as much as the need to keep the conversation going, that caused one friend to ask which poet I thought of as the main background presence for my own writing. He did not quite phrase the question in terms of influence. I did not have to think to know that the answer was John Ashbery. But for some reason, the name felt a little flat on my tongue, as if this was an important fact about myself that I had not been nourishing or had grown inattentive to. Further comment seemed called for, and what I found myself saying next was that, for me, Ashbery was the sky. It was true, and of course it remains so. The sky is not something that just goes and dies one day.
But then, what is it that we actually get from the sky? Both everything and nothing. My friend seemed surprised by my answer. Perhaps Ashbery is by now so pervasive in my stuff that he no longer shows through on the surface. I first started reading him intensely within the mainly hapless ambit of the 1990s British poetry world, a fate which left me absurdly free to treat him more or less as a personal discovery, and to make of him what I would, or could. The conversation in the pub seemed a good prompt to attempt a more open reckoning with him, to turn back toward him in acknowledgement perhaps.
One afternoon shortly thereafter, I found myself wondering whether Ashbery, whose admiration for Edward Lear is well attested, had ever written limericks. I may stand corrected, but my light research showed he had not, and so I quickly decided to write some for him. Once it had offered itself, the dare felt fairly irresistible and the faint tang of presumptuousness seemed like just another creative obstacle to be surpassed on the path to riffing off of Ashbery’s own impishness. The piece did indeed then pretty much write itself, except that I could not get it to feel finished. One obvious danger was that I might write too many of them. It was hard to figure out why any given one should be the last. I wanted to end on something that would not be just another limerick, but then this brought the further danger of finishing with something disjoined from the set’s basic premise. The coda as it stands offered a solution that was not exactly a limerick but was, in a sense, even more of a limerick than a limerick is:
The limerick with the huge beard
The limerick disappeared
right into its blazing beard.
Right afterward things started getting weird.
By a strange twist of fate, the set published in The Paris Review more or less right at the moment of Ashbery’s death. I already can’t quite remember how the sequence of events unfolded. His death left me in a state of longing: I want to learn more from him. Perhaps this is a defense against mourning. But then, what isn’t a defense against mourning these days, and isn’t Ashbery’s own poetry made up of defenses against mourning, and of their paradoxical intensities and forms of regeneration? I have been thinking of a triangle of virtues that I want to try to learn from Ashbery’s writing, and the three that I have come up with are openness, errancy, and faithfulness.
Openness comes first because it comes first in the poems. For one thing, you can see it in his bravura opening lines or clauses, in the ways in which they set thought and feeling going by reaching out to you so fast and so suggestively. But it is there, too, in his cornucopian vocabulary, and in the range of high and low and downright murky registers and contexts that it variously connotes. It is there in the subtlety and expansiveness of his syntax, in the ways in which it allows his sentences to open so wide they might swallow the world, while also maintaining an often exquisite and sometimes bleakly patient sensitivity. Ashbery learned from his beloved Rimbaud and Emerson the virtues of keeping his eyes open and continually tilted toward the new.
Errancy follows from openness, but it also modifies and departs from it. His poems glide from meaning to meaning and from style to style partly because this is how they can keep tracing and sketching the various world they trail. But poetry that was purely porous to the world would be either painstakingly banal or viciously contortive; poems have to keep shifting the grounds or tweaking the terms of their engagements with the flow of experience if they are to go on asserting their own shapes, incisions, and pleasures. Ashbery’s poems survive their own acuity by indulging in often goofy and sometimes lurid humor. Elsewhere they use tricks of rhetorical resolution or pastiche proverbial styles to counter their own centrifugal expansions. Their errancy means that they can keep seeking to confront pain precisely because they can twist away again a moment later and head back out into artistic freedom.
Lastly, we find faithfulness, though it has also been holding the others together all along. Faithfulness is the willingness to bear with the obscurity of your desires, to keep nudging or surging toward the poem that may be there or may not, and to believe that readers for it exist and that they want to be astonished. Without it, an art as complex as Ashbery’s would vaporize. So the great, yawning arcs of recursive syntax in his 1970s style are full of openness and errancy, but they are also undergirded by a sureness of technique that assuages disorder without grasping for meaning or certainty. The blippy, shattered montages of phrase and mood in many later poems keep faith with the possibility that all this may yet cohere, or may at least both state the facts and give pleasure. Marianne Moore may be the most unsung of Ashbery’s own mentors, but he learned from her an endless hope that the complexities of the poem and of the world may finally answer one another. He was faithful, day after day, to the moody and circuitous act of writing.
Ashbery’s poems scanned their own culture and historical world with a certain dogged, often appalled loyalty. The final comparison that comes to mind is with Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, in all its epic exuberance and its cryptic restlessness. Spenser’s is the great investigation that we have of our culture’s seemingly endless vocation for historical ambiguity and moral mutation, and of the endless imaginative wandering and faithfulness by which we can keep track of ourselves and renew ourselves. Ashbery’s work combines visionary charge with an unfussed amplitude in ways that layer and undulate like Spenser’s. For both Spenser and Ashbery, quests tend toward the inconclusive, and yet their poetry quests onward. If my limericks wound up forming a set of uncanny, unintentional, and slightly loopy elegies, I can hope that this has its own faithfulness to an elegist as droll and full of riptides as Ashbery. The joys of reading him and learning from him remain. The very opening of Spenser’s first canto conjures him for me now: “A gentle knight was pricking on the plain.”
Patrick Mackie lives in Gloucestershire. He is the author of The Further Adventures of the Lives of the Saints. “A Set of Limericks with a Coda For John Ashbery” appears in issue no. 222 (Fall 2017) of The Paris Review.