Ashbery, Proust and Time
by John Deming
John Ashbery is releasing a new book, Planisphere: New Poems, this month. Ashbery is prolific, but is not to be confused with the many successful older poets often accused of over-publishing. Ashbery’s many books, each distinct, are very much a part of the same project: small projects that combine to form an expansive interpretation of time, among other things. In that sense, he probably as more in common with a figure like Marcel Proust. Here is a look at both writers. First, I have listed some comments Ashbery made about Proust; next, I have included the whole of his poem “Proust’s Questionnaire”; finally, I have included a short essay about these two writers and their common obsession: time.
Here are some comments Ashbery made about Proust in a1983 Paris Review interview with Peter Stitt:
“Sometimes I would do a Proustian excursion, looking at buildings he or his characters had lived in. Like his childhood home in the Boulevard Malesherbes or Odette’s house in the rue La Pérouse.”
“I read Proust for a course with Harry Levin, and that was a major shock.”
“I started reading it when I was twenty (before I took Levin’s course) and it took me almost a year. I read very slowly anyway, but particularly in the case of a writer whom I wanted to read every word of. It’s just that I think one ends up feeling sadder and wiser in equal proportions when one is finished reading him—I can no longer look at the world in quite the same way.”
“Yes [I was attracted by the intimate, meditative voice of his work], and the way somehow everything could be included in this vast, open form that he created for himself—particularly certain almost surreal passages. There’s one part where a philologist or specialist on place names goes on at great length concerning places names in Normandy. I don’t know why it is so gripping, but it seizes the way life sometimes seems to have of droning on in a sort of dreamlike space. I also identified with, on account of the girl in my art class, with the narrator, who had a totally impractical passion which somehow both enveloped the beloved cocoon and didn’t have much to do with her.”
 Earlier in the interview Ashbery mentions taking an art class and falling “deeply in love with a girl who was in the class but who wouldn’t have anything to do with me.” (392)
Here is Ashbery’s poem “Proust’s Questionnaire” from 1981’s A Wave:
I am beginning to wonder
Whether this alternative to
Sitting back and doing something quiet
Is the clever initiative it seemed. It’s
Also relaxation and sunlight branching into
Passionate melancholy, jealousy of something unknown;
And our minds, parked in the sky over New York,
Are nonetheless responsible. Nights
When the paper comes
And you walk around the block
Wrenching yourself from the lover every five minutes
And it hurts, yet nothing is ever really clean
Or two-faced. You are losing your grip
And there are still flowers and compliments in the air:
“How did you like the last one?”
“Was I good?” “I think it stinks.”
It’s a question of questions, first:
The nuts-and-bolts kind you know you can answer
And the impersonal ones you answer almost without meaning to:
“My greatest regret.” “What keeps the world from falling down.”
And then the results are brilliant:
Someone is summoned to a name, and soon
A roomful of people becomes dense and contoured
And words come out of the wall
To batter the rhythm of generation following on generation.
And I see once more how everything
Must be up to me: here a calamity to be smoothed away
Like ringlets, there the luck of uncoding
This singular cipher of primary
And secondary colors, and the animals
With us in the ark, happy to be there as it settles
Into an always more violent sea.
The ceaseless passage of time is among the most prevalent concerns in both Ashbery and Proust. “Time” is the last word in Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (both the book and the poem, as the title poem concluded the collection); every daily event “arrives / Flush with its edges,” posits the title poem. Faith in a single deity is a “contradiction of fundamental logic,” he writes in “The System,” one of three prose poems comprising Three Poems. The devout live “with the eye and the mind focused on a nonexistent center, a fixed point, when the common sense of even an idiot would be enough to make him realize that nothing has stopped.”
Still, the elaborate sentences in “The System” are full of irony and often contradiction, indicative of an internal debate that resists resolution of any kind, even the resolution that there is no such thing as resolution. Like Proust, Ashbery has created a “vast, open form” for himself. Over the course of 28 books, he has published poems of every conceivable variety and tests the limits of his forms on a very large scale. It’s equally freeing, it seems, to constrain each poem in a collection to four quatrains (Shadow Train) and see what develops, or to let dense prose dictate it own course page after page (Three Poems).
Here’s how Proust concludes his six-volume serial novel In Search of Lost Time: “So, if I were given long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail, even if the effect were to make them resemble monsters…for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch the distant epochs through which they have lived, between which so many days have come to range themselves—in Time.” Another novel, Jean Santeuil, concludes, “the work of life and death, the work of time, proceeded on its course without a break.” Each end defies the notion of “end”—time continues, leveling, perhaps equalizing, discovering anything in its path. Time is presence, fitted with otherness; as Ashbery states in his 2007 poem “Anticipated Stranger,”: “God will find the pattern and break it.”
Much of Proust’s prose, much like certain passages in Ashbery’s poetry and creative prose, involves extended sentences that arrive flush with the passing of time; they do their best to hold off the “certitude” or “stopping point” of a period, or the stopping point of a fixed, certain idea. Time is positioned as a human being’s most fundamental problem, and accomplishing whatever work time permits one to accomplish – accounting for time as it passes, and learning from it – seems the appropriate response. This says something about the volume of work that both have produced. Time is the space a person occupies; passed time is “beneath” a person, according to Proust, leaving one standing on higher and higher stilts until they either collapse for good, or extend to a new, unrecognizable set of circumstances. Ashbery notes in “Convex” that days grow “concentrically” around a life, a more useful representation of time than the traditional “linear” timeline. Time is not backwards to forwards; it is a plane, and to feel it passing is to feel warps in the curve of spacetime.
As Ashbery notes in his Paris Review interview, any profound realization a person comes to, any moment of epiphany or catharsis, is greeted with the passing of that profound realization and the presentation of a new, perhaps more complex set of problems:
“Things are in a continual state of motion and evolution, and if we come to a point where we say, with certitude, right here, this is the end of the universe, then of course we must deal with everything that goes on after that, whereas ambiguity seems to take further developments into account.”
It’s a fitting justification for what has often been considered ambiguity in Ashbery’s poetry; it’s the “I’m doing this, I’m doing that” of the subconscious, the “droning on in a sort of dreamlike space.” There is room in time for “cold pockets / of remembrance” (“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”), and romantic obsession and memory might fill that dreamlike space for the obsessed, regarding nothing as a final truth or certainty except for the fact that time will continue to pass, and that truths and obsessions will shift and evolve, settling “into an always more violent sea” (“Proust’s Questionnaire”). Time is a “vast, open space” to occupy, and both writers chronicle the still blanker spaces. The contradiction about “settling” into a “violent” sea is unsurprising, because Ashbery always allows for contradiction — the passing of time can’t be quantified as purely violent or purely settling.
What questions might Proust seem to be asking of Ashbery, or of anyone, in “Proust’s Questionairre”? “It’s a question of questions, first: / That nuts-and-bolts kind you know you can answer / And the impersonal ones you answer almost without meaning to. / ‘My greatest regret.’” Attempts to answer these questions “are brilliant”: nearly a conscious antidote to the passing of time—“words come out of the wall / To batter the rhythm of generation following on generation” — like Proust’s “distant epochs” through which everyone passes at once.