The wetness of a river the dryness of a wave
Ted Hughes and John Ashbery: an unlikely duo to be coupled within a single review. Mr. Hughes is the dazzling British stylist: visceral, inventive, rough-edged. Highly regarded and popular in Europe, he was thrust into prominence on the American scene in the early 1970s with the remarkable book-length sequence ''Crow.'' John Ashbery is the crown prince of the ''New York school'': utterly refined, master of the subtle tones of post-modernist ennui. Since 1977, when his ''Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror'' took three top literary prizes, he has probably been America's most imitated poet.
In fact, it was only the merest externals - similar titles, publication dates , cover designs - that made me hold their collections side by side. But paired together, they not only force to the surface each other's distinct and opposite characters; they also form the extreme borders of the erratic work that goes on under the heading ''contemporary poetry.'' By their contrast, these two works raise basic questions concerning what poets write about and how they address their subjects and their readers.
Both books are portrayals of intensified human experience. In Hughes's ''River'' (Harper & Row, New York) the focus is most definitely outside of the poet, centered on the awesome and encompassing power of the natural world. The currents that Ashbery is interested in flow through the minds of individuals and cultures: brain waves, ripples of language and meaning. Yet the focus is almost exclusively inside the poet's mind, and despite Ashbery's linguistic facility, the book feels thin, claustrophobic, and a touch desperate. In Hughes's river, you get wet, engulfed by the surging aquatic life and carried away by the forceful cadences. Ashbery's waves, on the other hand, are bone dry, light as air, desiccated flickers of thought that eddy around the reader's attention.
''River'' may well be Hughes's most unified and most satisfying work since ''Crow'' - despite, or perhaps because of, a more restricted focus than in his previous collections. As before, the poet has set for himself two challenges. One is a reawakened experience of the world, spurred on by cleareyed description and scoured clean by startling metaphor. Hughes takes the Romantic impulse to decipher nature's secret iconography and combines it with a naturalist's passion for detailed observation and a cosmologist's broad view of systems. His poems depict the river in all her guises, the hills and fields that surround her, and man's sometimes awkward presence between them. Hughes's verse can make the occasion of a salmon spawning an event of universal and magical import.
Which leads to the second thread in Hughes's work: mythopoetics - the re-creation of ancient, and the invention of original, mythic designs to clarify our experience of the world. In an interview after the enormous success of ''Crow,'' Hughes said ''poetry is nothing if not ... the record of just how the forces of the universe try to redress some balance disturbed by human error.'' For him, the poet does not so much construct from the intellect as receive through the unconscious images and rhythms that reflect the broader developments. If such metaphysics seem anachronistic in our technological age, I think Hughes would wear the distinction proudly and warn us of how reckless our rational decade truly is.
In taking as his subject the seasons of the river and its surrounding countryside (the poet makes his home in England's lush county of Devon), Hughes is not only describing the familiarity of its appearance (''buds fur-gloved with frost'' and then ''Crack willows in their first pale eclosion/ Of emerald''), he is also conjuring the obscure forces that bring it to life (''The mill of the galaxy, the generator/ Making atoms dance''). Two of Hughes's strongest influences are much in evidence here: William Blake, in his mythologized creatures and emblematic designs; and Gerard Manley Hopkins, with his sparkling, sinewy alliterative lines. It is precisely in this match of factual experience with the subconscious abstract of language that Hughes's poems are most delightful.
All this is not to say there aren't problems with ''River.'' The poet's densely packed lines and inexhaustible stream of hyphenated word-conglomerates tend to lose some of their freshness after a time. In some of the poems, he simply fails to ignite that palpable sense of music-magic he desires. Then, we become sharply aware of how the projective form of free verse requires a firm intuitive shaping from the poet. Otherwise the poem becomes a sprawling net drawing in too much foam and too small a catch.
But in some of the most daring pieces in ''River'' - such as ''The Morning Before Christmas,'' ''An August Salmon,'' and the self-deprecating ''A Cormorant'' (where the poet in all his up-to-date sporting equipment is wading in a trout stream - ''A deep-sea diver in two inches of water''), in the elegiac ''October Salmon,'' and the celebratory final poem ''Salmon Eggs'' - Ted Hughes drums his incantatory language into a vision of shadowy, violent forces, dream-imbued landscapes, and the endless cycle of birth that is nature's redemption.
John Ashbery is the master of the inward-spiraling monologue, distended, daydreamy musings tinged with regret, defeat, and above all an insouciant self-irony. His supporters, of whom there are many, might call this precisely the point: His is a poetry that perfectly reflects both the creative and the fearful circumlocutions of contemporary consciousness.
If that is indeed the heart of ''A Wave'' (Viking Press, New York), I would suggest that no matter what it is intended to reflect, poetry by its very nature requires more than a continuous stream of consciousness sliced into lines and stanzas as if it were merely being weighed out to be sold by the ounce or the pound.
In one poem, Ashbery hints at the barrier that has been raised between thought and life, condemning the individual to an internal exile. ''We have lived blasphemously in history/ And nothing has hurt us or can.'' It is a curiously American problem, this false sense of security, combining both a feeling of dominance and one of impotence. But if you were waiting for the poet to step forward and oppose this, you'd be sadly mistaken. ''Still, it is the personal,/ Interior life that gives us something to think about./ The rest is only drama.'' And with that, any responsibility to the outside world is quietly dismissed. The poem is entitled ''But What is the Reader to Make of This?'' What , indeed?
So what does the poet have to concern himself with? In ''Try Me! I'm Different!'' he meditates on style and his old tweed sport coat. Perhaps he reveals the central problem in his writing when he says, ''I lived so long without being scolded that I grew/ To feel I was beyond criticism.'' I expected that such a flash of self-understanding would usher in a new, more authentic style for Ashbery. But like a child without the power to discriminate or set limits, the poet goes on to give credence to every thought and posture. When he frets about the ''larger issues'' - like mortality and the ultimate achievement of his work - in the poem ''Around the Rough and Rugged Rocks the Ragged Rascal Rudely Ran,'' the tone is too smart-alecky to earn a truly emotional response.
Ashbery is at his best when describing the futility and self-delusion of sophisticated urban society. He treats the subject with the mild disdain and exacting understanding of a guilty co-conspirator. ''It was for this we made the small talk, the lies,/ And whispered them over to give each the smell of truth.'' He captures quite well the anxiousness of our times, when words and ideas have become sedatives, ways to escape reality. But it is his own artifice that vitiates his poems' effect. Smartness (as in ''carefully attired'') is the ruling principle, and it is to Ashbery's stylishness that our attention is constantly directed. Poem after poem goes up like a carefully choreographed fireworks display; and when the sparks settle, the sky is as empty as before.
Perhaps it is the apparent disregard for form that most surely undermines Ashbery's writing. He consistently reels out long, proselike lines, unaccented and unmusical, that cannot sustain poetic tension. He attempts a few pieces of rhymed and metered verse like ''The Songs We Know Best'' and ''Landscape,'' but the results are so inept and sophomoric that I was tempted to chalk them up as some sort of parody. In another case, he takes a lovely short-form poem like the Japanese haiku and comes up with his own assembly-line version. Thus, '37 Haiku'' takes these compressed gems and churns them out in masses, laid out in single long lines down two full pages. As elsewhere, what was intended as wit slips easily into a particularly Western sort of excess: Why settle for a single ripe persimmon when you can heap up the superabundance of a supermarket display? Then, in ''A Wave'' - Ashbery's requisite long poem - he describes the ''ocean of language that comes to be/ Part of us ... Preparing dreams we'll have to live with and use.'' His subject is wakefulness and how we discover, or even compose, our own reality. He has not much more than this to say in his poem, and takes 700 lines to say it. The ultimate effect is not a resistance to this counterfeit of life by language, but an acquiescent partnership with it.
Make no mistake about it, though: John Ashbery is a writer of tremendous skill and sensibility. But he has locked himself into a style and a mind-set that squanders his talents and only confirms his worst fears about poetry and society. In several of the poems here he decries the cultural wave of empty words and dead thoughts. But it seems he has neither the desire nor the strength to break with the style of performance that has rewarded him so royally. Despite Ashbery's renown in American poetry, there is so little to recommend in ''A Wave'' that I've begun wondering whether it isn't just the emperor who is shivering in his new suit of clothes, but perhaps the literary courtiers as well , whose criticism has justified and promoted this curious brand of post-modernist fog. What we are presented with is a poetry of manners and mannerisms, polished to a flawless finish and stripped of any passionate edge. Instead of substantial subjects and strong individual responses, we have Ashbery's tiny calibrations on the wheel of self-consciousness, subtle shifts of tone but no great shapes, shadows, or designs. Why are we afraid to tell the emperor that he's naked?