Houseboat Days: 2 Hardcover – 19 Sep 1977
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Ashbery (b. 1927) received wide recognition with his book "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (1975) which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The long title poem of the volume, which is based upon a 1524 painting by Parmigianino, remains Ashbery's masterpiece.
"Houseboat Days" (1977) was Ashbery's next book of poems following "Self-Portrait" and was itself a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The volume consists of 39 poems, including a long final poem, "Fantasia on 'The Nut-Brown Maid'" based upon a 16th Century ballad. The poem is a dialogue between characters denominated "He" and "She" on the battle of the sexes, followed by a concluding section in prose. Ashbery made liberal use of lines from his earlier poetry. This long work has not attained the stature of the "Self-Portrait." Instead, the "Houseboat Days" collection is known for its shorter poems.
Ashbery's poetry is difficult, dense, and disjointed. I think it should be read with a sense of play and freedom and that the temptation to paraphrase should be avoided. In its meditative, philosophical character, Ashbery's work follows on that of Wallace Stevens, the poet who most influenced Ashbery. This is avant-garde modernistic writing, and Ashbery wants to help himself and the reader see the world anew without cliches or preconceptions. Yet Ashbery is deeply rooted in his past, and many of his works evidence a sense of nostalgia. The language of his poems shifts, frequently mid-stream, from passages of beauty and formalism to colloquialisms and platitudes. Tenses and pronouns likewise shift repeatedly. There is a sense of plurality, of everydayness, and of finding joy in the commonplace that I think works in these poetic meditations.
Each reader will probably find individual poems in "Houseboat Days" to enjoy and will find others to pass over. I think it is important not to get frustrated or to press too hard in one's reading. The poems that I enjoyed included the title poem, "Houseboat Days", the first two poems, "Street Musicians" and "The Other Tradition", Pyrography", "And Ut Pictura Poesis is her Name", "Loving Mad Tom", and "Syringia". I was able to respond to these poems with some effort. I will discuss three of these poems very briefly below.
"Houseboat Days" seems to be a key poem on the value of understanding change and accepting life as it comes. The poem is critical of a narrow view of reasoning and of the "insincerity of arguing on behalf of one's/ sincere convictions, true or false in themselves." Ashbery writes further: "But I don't set much stock in things/Beyond the weather and the certainties of living and dying:/The rest is optional."
Ashbery wrote the poem "Pyrography" at the invitation of the United States Department of the Interior to celebrate the Bicentennial in 1976. This poem seems to be a journey across America, in both time and place. The poem emphasizes the importance of the everyday parts of life that do not get recounted in histories: "To be able to write the history of our time, starting with today,/It would be necessary to model all these unimportant details/So as to be able to include them; otherwise the narrative/Would have that flat sandpapered look the sky gets/Out in the middle west toward the end of summer."
In "Syringia" Ashbery retells the myth of Orpheus in a deflated way with himself as hero. Euridyce appears in the poem but her role is downplayed. Ashbery describes Orpheus's power of song, and how this was the cause of his destruction by the gods: "Some say it was for his treatment of Euridyce./ But probably the music had more to do with it,and/The way music passes,emblematic/Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it/And say it is good or bad. You must/Wait till it's over.'The end crowns all'". As the poem progresses, Ashbery becomes Orpheus, dealing with the difficult subjects of modernity and everydayness.
Ashbery's poetry may not be for every reader. Most readers will want to explore his work and this volume selectively. "Houseboat Days" remains a good introduction to Ashbery. Those readers wanting to explore modernistic sensibilities in poetry will find this collection rewarding.