HOUSEBOAT DAYS by John Ashbery


Email this review


Readers of John Ashbery's eighth book of poetry would make a mistake to begin by looking over its Table of Contents. The titles listed sound innocuous, traditional--owing a bit to Wallace Stevens (""The Ice Cream Wars,"" ""Blue Sonata"") or to the critical concerns of poets (""And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name,"" ""What Is Poetry""). But the thrusts of the book are otherwise, and the titles (""Bird's-Eye View of the Tool and Die Co."") often bear no comprehensible relation to the poems. Ashbery writes Fauve poetry, or perhaps Dada. If you tune in on his wavelength, you get a good program. His poems should be read either very, very slowly (not always rewarding) or very, very fast, picking up the higher frequencies. What can the slow dutiful reader make of such beautiful nonsense as: "". . . The sackbuts/ embellish it, and we are never any closer to the collision/ Of the waters, the peace of light drowning light,/ Grabbing it, holding it up streaming""? Yet he is not self-enamored, he can be wry and sly. ""Ut Pictura Poesis"" is a telling commentary on the difficulties of poets writing today, genuinely Horatian. ""Bothered about Beauty you have to/ Come out into the open, into a clearing,/ And rest."" The last poem, clearly intended as a magnum opus, is a long poem in approximately fourteen-line stanzas, ""Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid.'"" But more elegant is the preceding ""Syringa,"" very loosely based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Here we find the accurate eye for natural details as well as for Nature, the nostalgia that despairs of immortality. Ashbery is saved from his wordiness by the one foot he keeps on earth. ""He goes out./ The empty parlor is as big as a hill.

Pub Date: Sept. 19th, 1977
Publisher: Viking