Breaking Down Wisdom Machines (& That Shuddering Fridge)

John Ashbery’s death reminded your editor of Philip Levine’s comments on Ashbery’s wit. Not to worry, I’m aware Ashbery and Levine were something other than brothers in verse but bear with me…

Levine had been musing (in an interview) about his antipathy to writers who acted like gurus (“I don’t have the answer to anything, except, ‘Keep trying, kid, buddy, old man.’ Even though my poems are very serious, they’re not answers.”):

I don’t really like wise men, or wise women for that matter. I don’t like those wisdom machines telling people how they ought to live. So I want to make it clear that I don’t know how other people ought to live….And I make this very clear through humor…

His respondent brought up Ashbery—“What Ashbery has done is put the seriousness and buffoonery together in the poem.”—sparking an affirmation from Levine:

Yeah. He said to me, “You probably think I’m frivolous.” And I said, “No, John, I don’t.” And he insisted on it. And I insisted that I didn’t feel that way. And then he said he liked my poetry a great deal but that I probably wouldn’t believe it. And I said, “No, I believe it. I think it’s pretty terrific myself. Why wouldn’t I believe that you would like it?” And I said, “I like your poetry. I think you write with extraordinary brilliance.” And Ashbery certainly is not a wisdom machine. I feel very sympathetic to him as a person.

Here’s a poem by Ashbery that brings home his own distance from wisdom machines.

My Philosophy of Life

Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea—
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him—not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough
to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something
…William James
wrote in some book of his you never read—it was fine, it had the
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet
…still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and
…his alone.

It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought—
something’s blocking it. Something I’m
not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise—I’ll let
things be what they are, sort of. In the autumn I’ll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he’s
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him—
this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know.
Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That’s what they’re made for! Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one…

A late poem by Levine (published posthumously) underscores why he might’ve felt sympathetic to Ashbery “as a person.” May I add some weight to that tree in the wind in the second verse? Take this as First’s tribute to Ashbery.

Rain in Winter

Outside the window drops caught
on the branches of the quince, the sky
distant and quiet, a few patches of light
breaking through. The day fresh, barely
begun yet feeling used. Soon the phone
will ring for someone, and no one
will pick it up, and the ringing will go on
until the icebox answers with a groan.

The lost dog who sleeps on a bed of rags
behind the garage won’t appear
to beg for anything. Nothing will explain
where the birds have gone, why a wind rages
through the ash trees, why the world
goes on accepting more and more rain.

P.S.If you’re engaged by Levine’s work, Paul Berman just posted a piece on the poet’s anarchist impulse and there’s more here. B.D.