I wish this could be less personal, but it can’t. In 1966, when I was a twenty-three-year-old English teacher at the University School of Milwaukee, I contracted poetry as if it were a localized low-grade fever that demanded constant applications of its own substance. Seen from the outside, it must have looked like a kind of addiction, except that the results were entirely healthy. I felt awakened, nourished, and washed clean by what I was reading. The depth of need and the quality of pleasure in the satisfaction forbade entry to most conventional forms of discrimination—though I would have argued this point strenuously. Among many others, I read—well, more or less devoured—Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, James Dickie, Robert Francis, Richard Wilbur, Muriel Rukyser, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Bly, James Merrill, Robert Creeley, Robert Olson, William Carlos Williams, Galway Kinnell, W. D. Snodgrass, Mark Strand, Diane Wakoski, d.a. levy, Robin Morgan, Lenore Kandel, Peter Wild, Shirley Kaufman, David Mus, Ron Padgett, Greg Kuzma, St. Giraud/Bill Knott. This list could go on for at least a page ... If it was on the poetry shelves at the university bookstore, I was willing to give it a try. For a person with almost no money, I bought a lot of books. On the basis of core samples taken in the poetry aisles, I picked up many titles by poets I knew nothing about.
None of the poetry books I bought and read in 1966 (and 1967, until I finally got around to Rivers and Mountains) had the effect on me that The Tennis Court Oath did after I got it home and opened it up. That effect was well-nigh galvanic. The book was radically different from anything I had ever read: really, the ruling aesthetic radically differed from any previous conception I’d had of what poetry was or could do, which means that it had next to no contact with everything I had been taught about poetry in university English departments. In fact, The Tennis Court Oath very consciously overturned the way I, and many other people, had been taught to read poetry and think about it. This was completely liberating. Once I was able to respond to Ashbery’s second book as a collection of particularly adventurous, not to mention tremendously stylish, avant-garde poems and not some kind of natural phenomenon like an earthquake, I realized that nothing I had been taught about literature need necessarily apply, that the concept of “rules” could be seen as irrelevant to the actual process, that no matter what anybody said, a certain randomness was built into works of literature, and that the border between what appears to be sense and what is experienced as nonsense is so porous as to be liminal. The Tennis Court Oath, or, more accurately, what happened to me when I read The Tennis Court Oath, made it possible for me to write. Some will not see this as an unmixed blessing.
The poems that most touched me were “‘They Dream Only of America,’” “Thoughts of a Young Girl,” “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher,” “Leaving the Atocha Station,” “Our Youth,” “Faust,” “Europe,” and “Idaho,” especially the last three. “Faust” made the sestina form seem contemporary, lighthearted, and almost offhand (“Business, if you wanted to know, was punk at the opera”), even as its line ends, anything but random, moved it toward total darkness (“On the bare, sunlit stage the hungers could begin”). “Europe” and “Idaho” seemed to me then, and as far as I know actually were, completely unprecedented in American poetry, blithely experimental, disjunctive, rejecting of the ordinary consolations and assurances of language usage, yet filled with self-evident pleasure, even joyousness. (In “Europe,” Ashbery keeps quoting phrases, sentences, and paragraphs from William Le Queux’s giddy, wildly stiff-upper-lip novel of World War I, Beryl of the Biplane.)
Some of “Europe”’s brief sections suggest that the words and phrases within them exist as fragments of a more conventional text from which all the surrounding matter has been lost, such as:
I moved up
The ghosts of many possible narratives, several of them about baseball, move through these lines. Other sections, including those from Le Queux, invoke a larger narrative the poem itself has no interest in providing other than by means of the fragment at hand.
The snow stopped falling
On the head of the stranger.
In a moment the house would be dark
Lovely, I say. It sounds, at least to me, at once gothic and Japanese, a moment from an exotic but familiar context, except for its refusal to melt into absolutely transparent English by changing the second line to “On the stranger’s head.’” This refusal, a deliberate retard inserted into the line, is what makes the fragment speak for a suggested but unnecessary whole.
The primary impression created by “Europe” is of a freewheeling, overwhelmingly generous impulse toward a form of communication in which the possibilities of language are experienced as limitless. “Idaho,” which I still find irresistible, locates the same impulse within a comically confined, in fact satirical, format, that of the kind of commercial romantic fiction that existed immediately before the invention of category “romance” novels. That the profligate, swarming inclinations of “Europe” should be channeled into a vessel that Ashbery (one imagines) finds both charming and risible results, inevitably, in detonation. On the occasion of “Cornelia”’s twenty-seventh birthday, long strings of question marks, exclamation points, quotation marks, and pound signs unfurl across the page; the narrative fabric shreds and reconstitutes itself; “Biff” finds himself distractingly aroused by “Carol,” a train whistle blows; and the birthday girl herself hastens toward a ripely foreshadowed exit.
indeed. The entire poem seems to me to anticipate the ending of “Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox” in The Double Dream of Spring, not solely because of the heated-up, “genre” quality of the prose.
Like the document of 1789 that provided its title, Ashbery’s second book was a shot across the bows of the ancien régime. What I see in it now is the record of an extraordinary talent seeking to define itself within the discovery of an inexhaustible fertility. Later on, that inexhaustibility led to “The Skaters,” “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Three Poems, and Flow Chart. Other aspects of the book opened up ground that would be explored and codified not by Ashbery himself but a generation of poets then mostly still in or just out of college, all of them deeply familiar to readers of Conjunctions. The Tennis Court Oath remains an indispensable masterpiece.
Now I also see something that completely escaped me when I was in my early twenties—the disquiet, desperation, and anger underlying the confidence and sense of assurance that informs the brusque refusal to connect. We are not a great distance from “On the secret map the assassins / Cloistered,” the first line of the title poem in Rivers and Mountains, for these half-submerged feelings, too, helped to propel him forward into that wonderful book.