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This poem is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January - February 2018.

on Three Poems
The Diamond Light of Pure Speculation:
John Ashbery’s Three Poems
Drew Milne
THREE POEMS is often described as Ashbery’s most challenging and innovative book. Ron Silliman goes so far as to say that it is ‘not merely John Ashbery’s best and most important book, one that American literature is still working to fully incorporate’, but that ‘it represents one of the most intellectually ambitious literary projects ever written’. As Silliman suggests, Three Poems resists exposition and works more as a process of meanings in play than according to hierarchies of argument and discursive information. It is also tricky to quote extracts without cutting short the unwinding of its process:

And so a new you takes shape. You can stand it at first. If the beloved were an angel, then this you would be the nameless spirit that watches from afar, halfway between heaven’s celestial light and dull Acheron. But it is not necessary to sanctify the gods in order to live in the suddenly vast surroundings that open out among your features like pools of quicksilver…

The processes through which ‘you’ take shape come in and out of focus, in a fluid texture that works through some strangely archaic and metaphysical materials, here, for example, ‘Acheron’, the mythical Greek underworld river and lake of pain. But this is not a poetics of referentiality, but one of mercurial quick-wittedness, in which conventional narrative forms vanish ‘in the diamond light of pure speculation’. One of the particular delights of Three Poems is the way Ashbery’s boldly stated similes implode: ‘like wallpaper that could be decorated with scenes of shipwrecks or military attributes or yawning crevasses in the earth and which doesn’t matter’. Similes and metaphors fall on their own swords as if we might choose whether to run with the romance of it all or simply laugh it off. The making up of the poem as a commentary on itself, a movie of consciousness in the making, develops through implicit differentiations and shifts of attention, but within a flow that remains grammatically familiar as prose.

Three Poems develops its texture using some of the antique and classical resources of prose writing, including meditations and philosophical reflections, but with a new spirit: ‘The temptation here is to resume the stoic pose, tinged with irony and self-mockery, of times before.’ Although there is an undertow of suffering, his poetry is one of pleasures and affirmations, a poetry that makes light of the whirlpools of social and existential negativity. When I first became fully engaged by Ashbery’s poetry, it was this sceptical but affirmative lightness that struck me, and as an antidote to the prose of Samuel Beckett, and perhaps most explicitly so in Three Poems.

Part of the initial interest and excitement of Three Poems is that it offers poems that appear to be prose. The texture breaks up here and there, but the dominance of prose is such that the book as a whole could almost be mistaken for a novel, or, perhaps, for a Beckettian prose text. Beckett’s own prose works, however poetic, retain the architectures of prose and narrative. Ashbery’s 1969 novel, A Nest of Ninnies, written with James Schuyler, is rightly subtitled ‘a novel’, though more in the manner of Ronald Firbank than Henry James. Three Poems is evidently not a novel, but a literary work in prose: indeed, a poem consisting of three poems. Viking Press tried to finesse the categories: ‘One additional word from the publisher: even if you don’t ordinarily read poetry but enjoy outstanding prose, turn to page one of John Ashbery’s Three Poems.’ Subsequent criticism has not quite settled Ashbery’s debts to French prose poetry or to books such as Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons or William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell. But what matters more is that Three Poems is not reducible to generic precedents.

One distinctive quality of Three Poems is the way its parts – ‘The New Spirit’, ‘The System’ and ‘The Recital’ – echo each other across the sequencing of the book. Another distinctive quality is the way the mercurial texture of non-sequiturs in Three Poems is forever slipping off into something different. The technical brilliance of Three Poems is its shifting address to the ‘you’, a you that is both the speaking/writing voice addressing itself and potential lovers, and also a more theatrical address to you, yes you, the reader reading this. There is a positive flowering around the aura of the word ‘you’ and a kind of collective movie: ‘We are both alive and free. If you could see a movie of yourself you would realise that this is true. Movies show us ourselves as we had not yet learned to recognise us’. This poetics of the second person, singular and plural, allows Ashbery to sustain a texture that telegrams narratives without becoming chained to the voice of a story-teller. Narrative is off-stage, with the focus rather on an engaging flow of self-consciousness that keeps its wits about it, all the while resisting the oceanic emptiness of so much surreal or dreamy prose. Three Poems affirms its poetics of pleasure, remaining amusingly sceptical, without becoming ideologically affirmative.
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