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Why I Am Not an Ashbery

Why I Am Not an Ashbery

johnashberyBy now many of you have likely seen—thanks to the small world that is social media—the fun and silly application known as Poetweet, which scans your tweets and creates from them a sonnet (or other formal poem of your choosing). I was trapped in New York, alone in my friend’s Brooklyn apartment, when I discovered it, and was completely delighted by the resulting poem. (Rob Horning has written compellingly about the ways that algorithms, such as Buzzfeed quizzes, repackage our online personas and sell them back to us, allowing us to consume ourselves like ironic ourobouros.)

Here is the sonnet I “wrote”:

On cars
by Elisa Gabbert

 

Is True Love the one to read?
Your granddad saying “sick” please
Dying of the light when I’m dead.
To be avoided in any case

Because their tongue has less reach
FAIL of a neg I wasn’t even amused.
The Sia videos to be my life coach.
Wait, what? I’m so confused.

& Joan Didion’s travel uniform:
Half the point. OBJECTIFIER
Like watching VH1 but in book form

Lovable, Furry Old Knausgaard
Kitsch from art from kitsch. LOVE
Moment with the word “cupboard”

Truth be told, I find much to admire in this poem; the language is all mine, but I never would have arranged it in this manner. It’s more insouciant and less coherent than I usually dare to be—very New York School (down to the title!) and about halfway between O’Hara and Ashbery. It teaches me things: more of my tweets would make good lines of poetry than I realize (in particular “Moment with the word ‘cupboard’” and “Dying of the light when I’m dead”—the full tweet was “I’ll rage against the dying of the light when I’m dead,” FYI); further all-caps should be a more utilized tool in my toolbox.

A recurring question in my life for the past several years has been: Why can’t/don’t I write more like Ashbery? It’s no small distinction between the verbs can and do – am I unable to write like Ashbery, whose poems I love, or do I not really want to? I want to write like him when I’m reading him, but not when I’m writing. In the aftermath of writing, I may vaguely wish the poem read more like Ashbery, but it does not seem a viable possibility for the poem.

There are people whose style we admire but never emulate. I always look wistfully at women with pixie haircuts and bleach-blond hair. It would be fabulous, I imagine, to be a woman with a pixie cut and/or bleached hair, but I cannot imagine doing the work to become such a woman.

The flip-side of this stylistic inertia is the frisson you feel when you learn some element of your own style is believed unattainable by others. In the mid- to late aughts, I developed a reputation among my girlfriends for “pulling things off,” as in: “Only you could pull that off” or “You actually kind of pulled that off.” The implication, of course, was that there was something inherently ridiculous about what I was wearing, that I was just getting away with some minor crime.

But I didn’t, and don’t, take those comments as backhanded. Getting away with something, whether a bit of successful trickery or grand scheme, is often how I want art to feel—all the marvel of putting down a book and thinking “how did they do that?”

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is the author of The Self Unstable (Black Ocean, 2013) and The French Exit (Birds LLC, 2010). She lives in Denver.

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About The Author

Elisa Gabbert is the author of The Self Unstable (Black Ocean, 2013) and The French Exit (Birds LLC, 2010). She lives in Denver.

  • RM O’Brien

    Yeah, this is super interesting. Poetry is such artifice but we end up choosing one or two approaches that we think of as authentic (even if it’s an approach that challenges the notion of authenticity) forsaking all others. I read that you studied under Bill Knott. He once credited his supposed lack of recognition to his engaging in too many styles at once. I found it a compelling argument…

    • Elisa Gabbert

      Bill Knott did write in many different forms! I think there was a recognizable Knott style whether it was a sonnet or a sestina or Tate-style free verse. But yes, I do think very famous poets often deliver the same thing over and over. Ashbery kind of does.

  • I REALLY hope you do write a poem called “On Cars.”

    • Elisa Gabbert

      Which has nothing to do with cars?

  • Jeremy Spencer

    “There are people whose style we admire but never emulate.” I think that always applies to the writers that I consider my favorite as well.

    • Elisa Gabbert

      Connects to my theory that our stated “influences” are usually wishful thinking.

      • I agree. But maybe “influence” isn’t always about style? Ashbery’s poetry approaches the world from a certain stance; that stance, those habits of thought and perception, can be a major influence without translating directly into similar stylistic tendencies.

        Rae Armantrout is another one for me. I write nothing like her, but find her utterly compelling and inspiring.

        • Elisa Gabbert

          Sure, influence could arrive by other means. I do think most of the people who claim to be / are influenced by Ashbery don’t really write like him. They borrow the high/low mix and the discursive, seemingly random quality, but they very rarely write such beautiful Patrician sentences. My favorite thing about Ashbery is probably his syntax.

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