Three Poems – John Ashbery (1972)


“… (John) Ashbery’s most recent volume, ‘Three Poems,’ restates his commitment to hermetic language in more extreme terms than ever before. The very modesty of the book’s title is a provocation, for these are not poems at all, but meditations couched in a maddeningly elusive prose style. Never, I think, have the simple forms of prose been waylaid so masterfully into statements that defy interpretation. The volume is divided into three sections of varying length, entitled ‘The New Spirit,’ ‘The System’ and ‘The Recital,’ which, we are informed, ought to be read in sequence as a trilogy. The nature of the sequence eludes me, since I can discover little in the way of development or resolution in the over‐all movement of the poems. But this, and all my other attempts at explanation, must be taken quite tentatively, since ‘Three Poems’ has a way of keeping its secrets. The keeping of secrets appears, in fact, to be the subject matter of part one, ‘The New Spirit,’ which begins: ‘I thought that if I could put it all down that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.’ Ashbery is a master at leaving it all out, but occasionally he sets into his negative prose a pattern of signs, which are like blazemarks in a wilderness. … Ashbery’s work is located in ‘the thinness,’ outside of time and destinations. It becomes an orchestrated paralysis, devoted not to action but to inaction, broad and still like a pool, not swift and flowing like a river. …In ‘The New Spirit’ Ashbery proposes a sort of spiritual exercise, ‘narrowing down’ the reader’s awareness until he is suspended amid a honeycomb of words. Having entered the timeless pattern of what he calls ‘weightlessness,’ having left everything out, we emerge ‘in the suddenly vast surroundings that open out among [our] features like pools of quicksilver.’ Thus, part one of ‘Three Poems’ defines Ashbery’s poetic art: by rarifying his language, by converting its movement into stillness (i.e., into hermetic difficulty), the poet invites his reader to follow him away from the connected ‘map’ of statements; he shows the reader how to undo the ‘chain of breathing,’ which measures time, and to emerge into a new space, strenuously cold and slow. …”
NY Times: Difficulty as a means of expression (April 1972)
The Diamond Light of Pure Speculation: John Ashbery’s Three Poems
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