John Ashbery, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of (among other collections of verse) Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, is often referred to as “a poet’s poet.” This is meant as a compliment; the suggestion is that his work is either particularly pleasing to — or, perhaps, best appreciated by — those who make verses themselves. Ashbery is best described, to my mind, as an avant-garde experimental poet who never met a convention he couldn’t defy. He cast a wide shadow over the poetic landscape of the present era.
As the holder of a master’s degree in poetry from a fine institution and a former maker of poems myself, I should like to note that my own opinion of his work falls squarely in line with that held by the poet Philip Larkin, who when asked if he cared for Ashbery replied “Well… I like strawberry.” Ashbery is not, in other words, this poet’s poet. His work — set beside Larkin’s — feels to me like a linguistic garbage heap outside a thriving city. It seems to be composed almost entirely of the diseased bits cut out of poems that went on to live happy, healthy lives among real people. I much prefer the work of Elizabeth Bishop, for example, who even Ashbery had the good sense to refer to as “a poet’s poet’s poet.” (The most bon of his bon mots, if you ask me.) Bishop, like Larkin, not only knew the conventions of her craft, she demonstrated how well she knew them by (gasp!) relying on them, masterfully, time and time again. (Which made her moments of defiance all the more powerful.) Ashbery may have wished he was as talented as she was; I wish the same.
Poets continue to love his work. Do non-poets, I wonder? There’s a way in which it can be seen as easy for a general reader; because he obeys no rules whatsoever — not even those of grammar — one needn’t work particularly hard to “get” it. You can simply enjoy the flow of words, one to the next, and not worry at all about trying to make it mean something, because it almost always doesn’t. (You just need to know that you have permission to do that, which is hard for those of us who, you know, took composition classes in middle school and had to write term papers.) The lack of pressure to interpret, to figure things out, must come to some people, at least initially, as a relief. In time, though, does it all begin to seem vapid, as if a severely insane person is babbling in the world’s ear? Wouldn’t most of us eventually want to understand something? Or most things? I know I do.
I have been thinking about Ashbery and Bishop ever since I saw a production of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest at Forum Theatre not long ago. (I have intentionally delayed this blog post so that it appeared after the run of the play was over; I’m not a reviewer, nor do I want to be — I am simply a playwright thinking about his craft.) I have been an admirer of Churchill’s work for some time, ever since my first reading of Top Girls, and I was thrilled to be able to see more of it in person. I’m also a great admirer of Forum, which is one of the most ambitious companies in the DC area. No challenge is too great for them, and they swing for the fences every time.
After the show, however, I found myself thinking: this is a playwright’s play. She’s using structure to reflect the psychology of revolution. The first act’s snippets of story are reflective of the way narrative is thwarted in a tyrannical state; the second act’s outpouring of story is the revolution itself, narratives released from their chains; and the third act is what happens after the revolution, when the long-repressed narratives begin to conflict and twist and reveal both their fault lines and their secrets. How clever of her, I decided… perhaps a bit too clever.
I really don’t want to compare Churchill to Ashbery: far from it. Her work is far more accessible, and it quite clearly conveys a great deal of meaning. It’s rich and complex and vital and — at some times more than others — deeply human. I still admire it very much… but what I wonder is whether it’s the playwright in me who admires it or the theatergoer? I fear it’s the former. I fear that what I’m reacting to, when I see it, is her intellectual derring-do, rather than the ways in which she moves me… because she doesn’t move me as much as she makes me analyze what she’s doing. Her work appeals to the head more than it does to the heart (though it does appeal to that at times, too — don’t get me wrong). I’m not sure that’s good for me, and I wonder whether a non-theater audience would feel the same way.
And yet… there’s also a significant chunk of Mad Forest that reminded me of Ashbery’s work in another way: the second act, which was (I thought) rather too easy. Composed entirely out of first-person storytelling — about twice as much as I believe was necessary (though look at me, dramaturging for Caryl Churchill!) — it demanded nothing of the audience but the ability to sit quietly and listen, and any one of the many stories that were told could have been cut without costing the audience’s understanding at all. (Thus my desire to cut half of them at one fell swoop.) How much more difficult would it have been for Churchill to dramatize (or embody) the revolution instead of symbolizing it?
I have come to the conclusion that Churchill may be (sigh) a playwright’s playwright. This means I am still free to love her work, because I am one, but I will now begin to wonder whether she’s, well, a playwright for non-playwrights, too. I should like to know. I should also like to know who Churchill, in turn, might consider a playwright’s playwright’s playwright — someone like Lanford Wilson, maybe? — because that’s someone whose work (like Wilson’s and Bishop’s) I would surely admire.