john ashbery | the serious doll

26 11 2007


Poetry Dispatch No.154 | January 22, 2007

The votes are in. (Poetry Dispatch # I53, “The Couple in the Next Room” “ and/or ‘Why I don’t read John Ashbery and would never buy another books of his’. The poets and readers are angry, humored, perceptive and in TOTAL agreement. But first, in case you may have forgotten-: the John Ashbery poesy territory, revisited…Norbert Blei


The Serious Doll by John Ashbery

The kinds of things are more important than the
Individual thing, though the specific is supremely
Interesting. Right? As each particular
Goes over Niagara Falls in a barrel one may
Justifiably ask: Where does this come from?
Whither goes my concern? What you are wearing
Has vanished along with other concepts.
They are lined up by the factory balcony railing
Against blue sky with some clumsy white paper clouds
Pasted on it. Where does the east meet the west?
At sunset there is a choice of two smiles: discreet or serious.
In the best of all possible worlds, that is enough.

from Houseboat Day



Thanks for the warning. After reading that, I wouldn’t either.

My reply would be, “Huh?”
-J O

I am not astonished by poetry that speaks of nothing but artifice to only the poet and academia. —Norbert Blei, Poetry Dispatch Loved your comment. Hated the Ashberry poem. Bewildered by the critics. –S

I missed your Poem by Ashbury, just picked it up in the Delete box. My thought on seeing who the poet was was…………Ashbury??? You’ve got to be kidding.! And it turned out you agreed. I find him a jokester, dry of life.
-S P


I am so glad you said that…I thought it stunk (that’s the southsider in me) –SH

You’ve got my vote on the matter, too.

I agree wholeheartedly; he just makes me
mad. –A

ick me too



Dear Coyote Claws, I sure as hell didn’t understand this one.

Saying you like Asbury is like saying you like the holidays. Inside we’re all happy and relieved when they’re over and we can go back to our real normal lives that we secretly love. No one is brave enough to say these sentiments aloud. We just go along with it all.


This sounds like me on Vicodin! Free association, or WHAT? Chuckles,

Yep, The stuff is merde. Allons to real poetry.


I’m with you on this one. I can’t tell crap from excellence in most poetry but I don’t like the feeling I’m being put on. –RP


I read it twice and found only confirmation of nothingness. I’m reminded of an undergraduate course in T.S.Eliot in which I thought no one could possibly retain that much information from footnotes, without which we apparently couldn’t expect to understand him. I departed still mystified. But I was grateful because it made guys like Frost so immediate.

I agree with your assessment.


I know what you mean about Ashbery..I think I agree with you. This density is fine if you know the key to translating him, and I just do not have the time. There are many great poets left out there for me to discover. –DT

I share your view! More grit, more accessibility, I say.

Old Navajo Brave & Chieftan!

For once you are not sniffing poetic glue! I could make neither heads nor tails of it either, although it did pique my curiosity to explore the rest of the book.

My 30 year starter wife said, while observing some highly touted abstract paintings at the Art Institute: “I am not interested in ‘intellectualizing’ or trying to understand the artist’s personal nightmare!”

Louis XIV put it better: “Enlevez-moi ces grotesques!” Idiomatic translation into 21st Century vernacular: “Get these fuckin’ ugly things out of my face!”

I suppose one can become too involved in one’s personal take on perception, but why write of it for the public; just create the prose in your secret diary and see if it is a smash after being published posthumously! Then you don’t have to worry about it!

I am glad you are reading so much new work! I love poetry and never tire of the tried and true old ones I love…Millay..

I forwarded your #152 Ashbury to D.W., noting “I suppose you might also have an opinion,” and this was his reply. DS :

Re: Ashbury’s verse. I am with Blei. Were Wallace Stevens still alive, I think he would call Ashbury “a clam playing an accordion,” novel at first, then just mind-mushy.


this reads like gibberish to me

thank god. i though i was the only one who thought him ridiculous. thank you thank you thank you.


Why do you suppose Ashbery’s work–I agree with you about it–has captured such acclaim? It reminds me of the faddish paintings of New York artists whose work I find repelling. But some of them, too, have captured acclaim that lasts for decades, & earns them money I wish I were paid. As chief executive artist of my enterprise, myself, I find I must consider the competition, or die. I don’t doubt that some of it is know-who. But–I’m guessing–he must speak to the desire among the not-quite-terminally bored, for some sort of cleverness, that doesn’t require moving beyond their privileged apartments? I’m so ignorant of their lives, I can only guess.

The people in question control probably the majority of money that, for instance, people who write poetry are going to be paid in our life-times. Probably, maybe. It must have been so during Whitman’s life-time, too–the London crowd. Yet, look what he did. But he spent the second half of his life quite sick, adding to the core of Leaves of Grass–some excellent, most not as good as that core, mainly struggling to publish, rather than being creative in the sense of writing great poetry–struggling to survive during the long period during which most Americans earned less for their labor, relative to what they had to buy, than before the Civil War, while an elite got fabulously wealthy financing & contracting to build & supplying rails to & buying & selling the railroads. I frequently imagine how it must have looked to him, what was going on, who was getting paid, who was acclaimed, while he lived by the fertilizer factory, recovering from his stroke, partly, suffering from a variety of other illnesses he was in no position to have treated–if there were treatments–& putting out one edition after another of his book, only gradually getting out of nearly fatal poverty.

It wasn’t his way to write about compelling reasons for despair–he operated in the contrary mode, almost totally. You have to be so strong, to persist, when drivel is acclaimed, Bushes are presidents, etc., & when, almost surely, what the greatest people of your generation create is lost to you, under an avalanche of
Ashberyisms, misunderstanding, propaganda, & ads for clever gizmos, shows, & obese automobiles.

Be well.


After bringing us Michael Blumenthal, one of the best of the best, I suppose it is in the interest of balance that you bring us John Assberry.
i couldn’t agree with you more…in my opinion he’s the perfect example of the worst kind of bullshit that’s happened to american poetry. it scares me that someone can read his work and find it interesting.

Bravo, dear readers and writers. Thank you. Norbert Blei

John Ashbery (born July 28, 1927) is an American poet. He has won nearly every major American award for poetry and is recognized as one of America’s most important, though still controversial, poets. In an article on Elizabeth Bishop in his Selected Prose, he characterizes himself as having been described as “a harebrained, homegrown surrealist whose poetry defies even the rules and logic of Surrealism.”

Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York and raised on a farm near Lake Ontario; his brother died when they were children. Ashbery was educated at Deerfield Academy. At Deerfield, an all-boys school, Ashbery read such poets as W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Wallace Stevens, and began writing poetry; one of his poems was actually published in Poetry Magazine, though under the name of a classmate who had submitted it without Ashbery’s knowledge or permission. He also published a handful of poems, including a sonnet about his frustrated love for a fellow student, and a piece of short fiction in the school newspaper, the Deerfield Scroll. His first ambition was to be a painter. From the age of eleven until fifteen he took weekly classes at the art museum in Rochester.

Ashbery graduated in 1949 with an A.B., cum laude, from Harvard College, where he was a member of the Harvard Advocate, the university’s literary magazine, and the Signet Society. He wrote his senior thesis on the poetry of W.H. Auden. At Harvard he befriended fellow writers Kenneth Koch, Barbara Epstein, V.R. Lang, Frank O’Hara, and Edward Gorey, and was a classmate of Robert Creeley, Robert Bly, and Peter Davison. Ashbery went on to study briefly at New York University, and received an M.A. from Columbia in 1951.

From the mid-1950s, when he received a Fulbright Fellowship, through 1965, he lived in France. He served as the art editor for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune, while also translating potboilers and contemporary French literature. During this period he lived with the French poet Pierre Martory. After returning to the United States, he continued his career as an art critic, for New York and Newsweek magazines, while also serving on the editorial board of ARTNews until 1972. Several years later, he began a stint as an editor at Partisan Review, serving from 1976 to 1980.

During the fall of 1963, Ashbery became acquainted with Andy Warhol at a scheduled poetry reading at the Literary Theatre in New York. He had also previously written favorable reviews of Warhol’s art. That same year he reviewed Warhol’s Flowers exhibition at Galerie Illeana Sonnabend in Paris, describing Warhol’s visit to Paris as “the biggest transatlantic fuss since Oscar Wilde brought culture to Buffalo in the nineties.” Ashbery returned to New York nearing the end of 1965 and was welcomed with a large party at the Factory, and also became close friends with poet Gerard Malanga, who was also Warhol’s assistant, on whom he had an important influence as a poet.

In the early 1970s, Ashbery began teaching at Brooklyn College, where his students included poet John Yau, and in the 1980s, he moved to Bard College, where he is the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Languages and Literature. He was the poet laureate of New York state from 2001 to 2003, and also served for many years as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Ashbery lives in New York City and Hudson, New York, with his partner, David Kermani.

Ashbery’s long list of awards began with the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956, selected by W. H. Auden, for his first collection, Some Trees. His early work shows the influence of W. H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, Boris Pasternak, and many of the French surrealists (his translations from French literature are numerous). In the late 1950s, the critic John Bernard Myers categorized the common traits of Ashbery’s avant-garde poetry, as well as that of Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Kenward Elmslie and others, as constituting a “New York School.” Ashbery then wrote two collections while in France, the highly controversial The Tennis Court Oath (1962), and Rivers and Mountains (1966), before returning to New York to write The Double Dream of Spring, which was published in 1970.

Increasing critical recognition in the 1970s transformed Ashbery from an obscure avant-garde experimentalist into one of America’s most important (though still one of its most controversial) poets. After the publication of Three Poems (1973), Ashbery in 1975 won all three major American poetry prizes (the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award) for his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The collection’s title poem is considered to be one of the masterpieces of late-20th-century American poetic literature.

His subsequent collection, the more difficult Houseboat Days (1977), reinforced Ashbery’s reputation, as did 1979’s As We Know, which contains the long, double-columned poem “Litany.” By the 1980s and 1990s, Ashbery had become a central figure in American and more broadly English-language poetry, as his number of imitators evidenced. His own poetry was accused of a staleness in this period, but books like A Wave (1985) and the later And the Stars Were Shining (1994), particularly in their long poems, show the unmistakable originality of a great poet in practice.

Ashbery’s works are characterized by a free-flowing, often disjunctive syntax extensive linguistic play, often infused with considerable humor, and a prosaic, sometimes disarmingly flat or parodic tone. The play of the human mind is the subject of a great many of his poems. Formally, the earliest poems show the influence of conventional poetic practice, yet by The Tennis Court Oath a much more revolutionary engagement with form appears. Ashbery returned to something approximating conventional verse, at least on its surface, with many of the poems in The Double Dream of Spring, though his Three Poems are written in long blocks of prose. Although he has never again approached the radical experimentation of The Tennis Court Oath poems or “The Skaters” and “Into the Dusk-Charged Air” from his collection Rivers and Mountains, syntactic and semantic experimentation, linguistic expressiveness, deft, often abrupt shifts of register, and insistent wit remain consistent elements of his work.

Ashbery’s art criticism has been collected in the 1989 volume Reported Sightings, Art Chronicles 1957-1987, edited by the poet David Bergman. He has written one novel, A Nest of Ninnies, with fellow poet James Schuyler, and in his 20s and 30s penned several plays, three of which have been collected in Three Plays (1978). Ashbery’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University were published as Other Traditions in 2000. A larger collection of his prose writings, Selected Prose, appeared in 2005.


  • * W.H. Auden
  • * Wallace Stevens
  • * Raymond Roussel
  • * John Clare
  • * Marianne Moore
  • * Giorgio de Chirico
  • * Jasper Johns
  • * Gertrude Stein


  • * Turandot and Other Poems (1953)
  • * Some Trees (1956), winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize that year
  • * The Tennis Court Oath (1962)
  • * Rivers and Mountains (1966)
  • * The Double Dream of Spring (1970)
  • * Three Poems (1972)
  • * Vermont Notebook (1975)
  • * Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award
  • * Houseboat Days (1977)
  • * As We Know (1979)
  • * Shadow Train (1981)
  • * A Wave (1984), awarded the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the Bollingen Prize by Yale University
  • * April Galleons (1987)
  • * The Ice Storm (1987)
  • * Flow Chart (1991)
  • * Hotel Lautréamont (1992)
  • * And the Stars Were Shining (1994)
  • * Can You Hear, Bird? (1995)
  • * Wakefulness (1998)
  • * Girls on the Run (1999), a book-length poem inspired by the work of artist Henry Darger
  • * Your Name Here (2000)
  • * 100 Multiple-Choice Questions (2000)
  • * Other Traditions (2000) Harvard University Press
  • * As Umbrellas Follow Rain (2001)
  • * Chinese Whispers (2002)
  • * Selected Prose 1953-2003 (2005)
  • * Where Shall I Wander (2005)
  • * A Worldly Country (2007)
  • * Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems (2007)




4 responses

29 05 2008
Aaron Scott

I’m simply must protest, readers. Many of you seem misinformed on the nature of Ashbery’s poetics. I would suggest–to all of you–that you read more of his work, wrestle with the text, perhaps investigate his poetry before you make such rash, harsh decisions.

Vendler to Bloom to Kakutani have all called Ashbery one of the great, original voices in American literature–often compared to Whitman and Stevens and Crane. He is quite well-respected by his peers: Jorie Graham, (the late) Frank O’Hara, Robert Hass, and a number of poets.

Perhaps, as educated people, which I assume you all are, you should attempt understanding…and not just rash judgment based on little reading.

Ignorance has never allowed great literature to shine.

29 05 2008
hatto fischer

Here in Greece Surrealism has in poetry another meaning as does in Delvaux’s paintings. It seems to be about juxtaposition. Yet Andre Breton would say it is about writing poetry along the line which can clearly distinguish between creativity and the ‘morality of creativity’. What has to be beautiful does not want to be beautiful in a real sentence. You can see that in Ashberry’s own comment that his poetry defies surrealism. If that is a helpful statement to let readers enter more easily his poems I don’t know. I am not even suggesting it might help. Rather when reading the comments I am astonished on how such a poem is dealt with. Maybe the discussion should return to the Niagara falls and after another wedding let some poems go down in a barrel. That image comes close to what Paul Celan had said about his poetry: messages put into a bottle to be cast afloat on a wide and empty ocean. Those who receive these messages may decode them. It is a surrealist challenge but certainly butter or feather will not do to stroke the time in that poem. I wish the poem by Ashberry would not end with “that is enough”. In Lebanon people say it differently: “Enough (with war and violence). We want to live!”

29 05 2008
Judith Wiker

Let us not judge Ashbery too quickly…I do find his taste in nautical nonsense quite creative, which leads me to believe there is a enough of a screw loose to warrant further investigation.

9 06 2008
Barbara Fitz Vroman

I do not know about the previous poem, but the Father poem is achingly filled with insight and forgiveness that could only come from a very superior heart and mind. In the most understated way it thunders with instruction.

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