An open letter to the Nobel Committee
No American-born poet has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his/her country. Eliot was a British citizen and, despite the fact that he could never hide his St. Louis roots, we must consider that. Of himself Milosz said: "I am a Lithuanian to whom it was not given to be a Lithuanian." Brodsky, when asked, replied: "I am Jewish—a Russian poet and an English essayist."
What does this matter? Poetry knows no geographical or even temporal boundaries. Yet it would be naïve not to acknowledge that Laureates are often chosen because of their political stances as much as their literary achievements. Herta Müller, Harold Pinter, and Gao Xingjian are just some recent examples.
John Ashbery, born in upstate New York, has won nearly every American and international literary award that a poet can, save for being named Poet Laureate of the United States, which, because of his "obscure" poetry, will probably never happen.
But is it obscure? Ashbery's poems are interactive, or, dare I call them, Transcendental. The personal is the universal, the universal personal. You make the poem as you read, you become, as Emerson would have it (in everyone's writing including his own), "the book's book." The poet washes away, escapes his personality, and you experience the poem as a thing unto itself, formed by the universe. It's an engagement that places Art alongside Nature in the most radical American way. Best to approach a poet like Ashbery as a landscape sorcerer rather than a writer. Language is a nature. Language is nature.
Yes, you simply experience Ashbery's poems, which is liberating for the reader, especially the casual or inexperienced with poetry, awful for the critic. How do you explain a tree? A river? America? The universe? As Van Morrison sang: "It ain't why, it just is."
Remember when you were in school and your teacher had you break down, say, "The Second Coming"? "Why can't it just mean what I want it to mean?" is thrown up. Ashbery writes poems like this. No need to know about gyres and Yeats' mysticism. Do you need to know the story of Orpheus to appreciate "Syringa"? Do you even need to know what syringa is? Surely this knowledge would be helpful, but if you read the poem as if you wrote it—because you are writing it as you read—the heart moves roomier. Eurydice and Daffy Duck are on the same level, and Ashbery shows us this. On the occasions I've been lucky enough teach, my students responded better to Ashbery than most "classic" or "accessible" poets.
There are a lot of poets who like to say anything can be in poetry, but very few who embody that motto in their poetic philosophy or form. They default to what others call poetry. Ashbery's style is such that all language can be pulled in and manipulated, like a prospect of flowers.
More than any other living poet from these shores, Ashbery's poetry is most like his country: everything's included. It is all things and no one thing. President Obama accepted the Peace Prize on behalf of the American people. Giving Ashbery the Literature Prize would give it to Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, Pound, Stein, Frost, Moore, Hughes, Sandburg, Williams, Stevens, Olson, Zukofsky, et al. The prize would go to the whole of American literature, always political, because Americans are their own government. Even when we're not political, we're political. It would signal to the American people that as much as they would like to think of themselves as apart from the world, they are a part of the world, and the world is happy to have them. Maybe, as much as we believe in self-reliance, it would signal that our culture, which is all cultures and no one culture, is worthy of itself.
But if you don't give it to Ashbery, at least give it to Dylan.