The appearance of Flow Chart in 1991 marked the kickoff of a remarkably prolific period in John Ashbery’s long career, a decade during which he published seven all-new books of poetry as well as a collected series of lectures on poetic form and practice. So it comes as no surprise that this book-length poem—one of the longest ever written by an American poet—reads like a rocket launch: charged, propulsive, mesmerizing, a series of careful explosions that, together, create a radical forward motion.
It’s been said that Flow Chart was written in response to a dare of sorts: Artist and friend Trevor Winkfield suggested that Ashbery write a poem of exactly one hundred pages, a challenge that Ashbery took up with plans to complete the poem in one hundred days. But the celebrated work that ultimately emerged from its squared-off origin story was one that the poet himself called “a continuum, a diary.” In six connected, constantly surprising movements of free verse—with the famous “sunflower” double sestina thrown in, just to reinforce the poem’s own multivarious logic—Ashbery’s poem maps a path through modern American consciousness with all its attendant noise, clamor, and signal: “Words, however, are not the culprit. They are at worst a placebo, / leading nowhere (though nowhere, it must be added, can sometimes be a cozy / place, preferable in many cases to somewhere).”
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About the Author
John Ashbery was born in 1927 in Rochester, New York, and grew up on a farm near Lake Ontario. He has authored more than thirty books of poetry, fiction, drama, and criticism, his work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and he has won numerous American literary awards for his poetry, including a MacArthur Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and a National Humanities Medal. His book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. For many years, Ashbery taught graduate and undergraduate poetry courses at Brooklyn College and Bard College, and his most recent book of poems is Quick Question, published in 2012. He lives in New York.
Read an Excerpt
By John Ashbery
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 John Ashbery
All rights reserved.
Still in the published city but not yet
overtaken by a new form of despair, I ask
the diagram: is it the foretaste of pain
it might easily be? Or an emptiness
so sudden it leaves the girders
whanging in the absence of wind,
the sky milk-blue and astringent? We know life is so busy,
but a larger activity shrouds it, and this is something
we can never feel, except occasionally, in small signs
put up to warn us and as soon expunged, in part
Sad grows the river god as he oars past us
downstream without our knowing him: for if, he reasons,
he can be overlooked, then to know him would be to eat him,
ingest the name he carries through time to set down
finally, on a strand of rotted hulks. And those who sense something
squeamish in his arrival know enough not to look up
from the page they are reading, the plaited lines that extend
like a bronze chain into eternity.
It seems I was reading something;
I have forgotten the sense of it or what the small
role of the central poem made me want to feel. No matter.
The words, distant now, and mitred, glint. Yet not one
ever escapes the forest of agony and pleasure that keeps them
in a solution that has become permanent through inertia. The force
of meaning never extrudes. And the insects,
of course, don't mind. I think it was at that moment he
knowingly and in my own interests took back from me
the slow-flowing idea of flight, now
too firmly channeled, its omnipresent reminders etched
too deeply into my forehead, its crass grievances and greetings
a class apart from the wonders every man feels,
whether alone in bed, or with a lover, or beached
with the shells on some atoll (and if solitude
swallow us up betimes, it is only later that
the idea of its permanence sifts into view, yea
later and perhaps only occasionally, and only much later
stands from dawn to dusk, just as the plaintive sound
of the harp of the waves is always there as a backdrop
to conversation and conversion, even when
most forgotten) and cannot make sense of them, but he knows
the familiar, unmistakable thing, and that gives him courage
as day expires and evening marshals its hosts, in preparation
for the long night to come.
And the horoscopes flung back
all we had meant to keep there: our meaning, for us, yet
how different the sense when another speaks it!
How cold the afterthought that takes us out of time
for a few moments (just as we were beginning to go with the fragile
penchants mother-love taught us) and transports us to a stepping-stone
far out at sea.
So no matter what the restrictions, admonitions,
premonitions that trellised us early, supporting this
artificial espaliered thing we have become, by the same token no
subsequent learning shall deprive us, it seems, no holy
sophistication loosen the bands
of blessed decorum, our present salvation, our hope for years to come.
Only let that river not beseech its banks too closely,
abrade and swamp its levees, for though the flood is always terrible,
much worse are the painted monsters born later
out of the swift-flowing alluvial mud.
And when the time for the breaking
of the law is here, be sure it is to take place in the matrix
of our everyday thoughts and fantasies, our wonderment
at how we got from there to here. In the unlashed eye of noon
these and other terrible things are written, yet it seems
at the time as mild as soughing of wavelets in a reservoir.
Only the belated certainty comes to matter much,
I suppose, and, when it does, comes to seem as immutable as roses.
Meanwhile a god has bungled it again.
was a time of seeming: golden eggs that hatched
into regrets, a snowflake whose kiss burned like an enchanter's
poison; yet it all seemed good in the growing dawn.
The breeze that always nurtures us (no matter how dry,
how filled with complaints about time and the weather the air)
pointed out a way that diverged from the true way without negating it,
to arrive at the same result by different spells,
so that no one was wiser for knowing the way we had grown,
almost unconsciously, into a cube of grace that was to be
a permanent shelter. Let the book end there, some few
said, but that was of course impossible; the growth must persist
into areas darkened and dangerous, undermined
by the curse of that death breeze, until one is handed a skull
as a birthday present, and each closing paragraph of the novella is
underlined: To be continued, that there should be no peace
in the present, no sleep save in glimpses of the future
on the crystal ball's thick, bubble-like surface. No you and me
unless we are together. Only then does he mumble confused words
of affection at us as the barberry bleeds close against the frost,
a scarlet innocence, confused miracle, to us, for what we have done
to others, and to ourselves. There is no parting. There is
only the fading, guaranteed by the label, which lasts forever.
This much the gods divulged before they became too restless,
too preoccupied with other cares to see into the sole fact the
present allows, along with much ribbon, much icing
and pretended music. But we can't live with them in their day:
the air, though pure, is too dense. And afterwards when others
come up and ask, what was it like, one is too amazed to behave strangely;
the future is extinguished; the world's colored paths all lead
to my mouth, and I drop, humbled, eating from the red-clay floor.
And only then does inspiration come: late, yet never too late.
It's possible, it's just possible, that the god's claims
fly out windows as soon as they are opened, are erased from the accounting. If one is
it matters less than to others embarked on a casual voyage
into the promiscuity of dreams. Yet I am always the first to know
how he feels. The inventory of the silent auction
doesn't promise much: one chewed cactus, an air mattress,
a verbatim report. Sandals. The massive transcriptions with which
he took unforgivable liberties—hell, I'd sooner join the project
farther ahead, retaining all benefits, but one is doomed,
repeating oneself, never to repeat oneself, you know what I mean?
If in the interval false accounts have circulated, why,
one is at least unaware of it, and can live one's allotted arc
of time in feasible unconsciousness, watching the linen dresses of girls,
with a wreath of smoke to come home to. There is nothing beside the familiar
doormat to get excited about, yet when one goes out in loose weather
the change is akin to choirs singing in a distance nebulous with fear
and love. Sometimes one's own hopes are realized
and life becomes a description of every second of the time it took;
conversely, some are put off by the sound of legions milling about.
One cultivates certain smells, is afraid to leave the charmed circle
of the anxious room lest uncommitted atmosphere befall
and the oaks
are seen to be girdled with ivy.
Alack he said what stressful sounds
More of him another time but now you
in the ivory frame have stripped yourself one by one of your earliest
opinions, polluted in any case by bees, and stand
radiant in the circle of our lost, unhappy youth, oh my
friend that knew me before I knew you, and when you came to me
knew it was forever, here there would be no break, only I was
so ignorant I forgot what it was all about. You chided me
for forgetting and in an instant I remembered everything: the
schoolhouse, the tent meeting. And I came closer until the day
I wrote my name firmly on the ruled page: that was a
time to come, and all happy crying in memory placed the stone
in the magic box and covered it with wallpaper. It seemed our separate
lives could continue separately for themselves and shine like a single star.
I never knew such happiness. I never knew such happiness could exist.
Not that the dark world was removed or brightened, but
each thing in it was slightly enlarged, and in so seeming became its
true cameo self, a liquid thing, to be held in the hollow
of the hand like a bird. More formal times would come
of course but the abstract good sense would never drown in the elixir
of this private sorrow, that would always sing to itself
in good times and bad, an example to one's consciousness,
an emblem of correct behavior, in darkness or under water.
How unshifting those secret times, and how stealthily
they grew! It was going to take forever just to get through
the first act, yet the scenery, a square of medieval houses, gardens
with huge blue and red flowers and solemn birds that dwarfed
the trees they sat on, need never have given way to the fumes and crevasses
of the high glen: the point is one was going to do to it
what mattered to us, and all would be correct as in a painting
that would never ache for a frame but dream on as nonchalantly as we did.
Who could have expected a dream like this to go away for there are some
that are the web on which our waking life is painstakingly elaborated:
there are real, bustling things there and the burgomaster of success
stalks back and forth, directing everything
with a small motion of a finger. But when it did come,
the denouement, we were off drinking in some restaurant,
too absorbed, too eternally, expectantly happy to be there or care.
That inspiration came later, in sleep while it rained,
urgently, so that lines of darkness interfered with the careful
arrangement of the dream's disguise: no takers? Anyway,
sleep itself became this chasm of repeated words,
of shifting banks of words rising like steam
out of someplace into something. Forget the promises the stars made you: they were half-
stoned, and besides
are twinned to no notion that can have an impact
on our way of thinking, as crabbed now
as at any time in the past. A forlorn park stood before us
but there was no way to want to enter it, since the guards
had abandoned their posts to slate-gray daylight
flowing into your heart as though it were a blotter, confounding
or negating the rare survival of wit into our century:
these, at any rate, are my children, she intoned,
of whom I divest myself so as to fit into the notch
of infinity as defined by a long arc of crows returning to the distant
coppice. All's aglow. But we see by it that some mortal
material was included in the glorious compound, that next to
nothing can prevent its mudslide from sweeping over us
while it renders the pitted earth smooth and pristine and something
like one's original idea of it, only so primitive
it can't understand us. Meanwhile the coat I wear,
woven of consumer products, asks you to pause and inspect
the still-fertile ground of our once-valid compact
with the ordinary and the true. It wants out and
we shall get it even with decreased services and an increased
number of spot-checks, since all of it, ourselves included,
is in our own interests to speak up for and deny when the proper
moment arrives. Now, nothing further remains to be done except
to sleep and pray, saving the pieces for a slightly
later time when they shall be recognized as holy remnants of the burnished
mirror in which the Almighty once saw Himself, and wept,
realizing how all His prophecies had come true for His people
at last and no one was any wiser for it as they walked the wide
shadowless streets with no eyelids or memory when it came to
intersecting the itineraries of other, similarly blessed creatures
(blessed for having no name, no preconceived strategies
unless they lay underground, too unprofitable to dig up
until the requisite technologies had been developed some
decades down the road and nodding as though in acknowledgment of
an acquaintance one doesn't remember yet is not sure of
having ever formally renounced either: was it on land or at sea
that that bird first came to one, many miles from the nearest anything?).
What we are to each other is both less urgent and more
perturbing, having no discernible root, no raison d'être, or else flowing
backward into an origin like the primordial soup it's so easy to pin
anything on, like a carnation to one's lapel. So it seems we must
stay in an uneasy relationship, not quite fitting
together, not precisely friends or lovers though certainly not enemies, if
the buoyancy of the spongy terrain on which we exist is to be experienced
as an ichor, not a commentary on all that is missing from the reflection
in the mirror. Did I say that? Can this be me? Otherwise the treaty will
seem premature, the peace unearned, and one might as well slink back
into the solitude of the kennel, for the blunder to be read as anything
but willful, self-indulgent. And meanwhile everything around us is already
prepared for this resolution; the temperature, the season are exactly right
for it all not to be awash with sentiments expelled from some impossibly
distant situation; some episode from your childhood nobody knows about and
even you can't remember accurately. It is time for the long beds
then, and the extra hours to be spent in them, but surely somebody can
find something spontaneous to say before it all fizzles, before the incandescent
tongs are slaked in mud and the tender yellow shoots of the willow
dry up instead of maturing having concluded that the moment
is inappropriate, the heroes gone to their rest, and all the plain
folk of history foundered in the subjective reading of their lives
as expendable, the stuff of ordinary heresy, shards of common crockery
interesting only because unearthed long after the time had come for a
decision on what to do at the very moment they disappeared into timelessness,
one of innumerable such tramping exits that no one hears,
so long as they may be promptly and justly forgotten,
subtracted like the soul we never knew we had and replaced with something
young, and easier, climate of any day and of all the days, postmillenarian.
Just so, some argue, some still are
nurtured by their innocence, a wanton
formula a nursemaid gives them. They grow up to be slim,
and tall, but often it seems something is lacking,
some point of concentration around which a person can collect itself,
and be neither conscious nor uncaring, be neutral.
And when the pitcher
is emptied of milk, it is not refilled, but washed and put away on a shelf.
Conversations are still initiated,
haltingly, under the leaves, around an outdoor table,
but they insist on nothing and are remembered
only as disquieting examples of how life might be
in that other halting yet prosperous time
when games of strength were put away.
And each guest rises
abruptly from the table, a star at his or her shoulder.
For then, in smeared night, no blotch or defect can erase it,
the wonderful greeting you heard in the morning
and heard yourself reply to.
Excerpted from Flow Chart by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1991 John Ashbery. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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