Eighty pages into Ashbery's Flow Chart, in the restored Library of America edition, I found myself just beginning to understand it--this book-length poem that ideal readers will perpetually 'begin to understand,' without any of that Keats-derided "irritable reaching after fact and reason"--I began, that is, to understand it as a kaleidoscopic late-late-Surrealist love poem. As such, it belongs to the line of Surrealist art about love and sex highlighted in the ca.2002 exhibition catalog Surrealism: Desire Unbound--an exhibition JA probably saw at the Met (incidentally, for our purposes, since it arrived a decade after the poem's publication). I also find obvious affinities with Dada, Pop Art and, more pointedly, the assemblages and 1960s paintings of Robert Rauschenberg--as well as their ancestors in the collage paintings of Picasso and Braque from the 1910s. Ashbery's text also winks and nods--obscurely, its gestures clouded by Cubist cigarette smoke--towards other, more specifically literary precursors (of the sort that might have popped into the late Harold Bloom's echo-capturing mind as he read the poem): The Bridge, Leaves of Grass, The Cantos, and that lodestar of Modernist difficulty, The Waste Land. And of course (bien sur), Mallarme and the French Symbolists are in here too, swirling in the Ashberian cyclone.... Ashbery's poem, however, embodies a difficulty beyond the High Modernist, a difficulty we might consider characteristically 'postmodernist,' due to the work's anarchistic skepticism with regard to language, meaning, narrative and form. If such earlier Ashbery books as The Double Dream of Spring, Houseboat Days, and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror might be collectively considered JA's Ulysses, Flow Chart is his Finnegans Wake. A work of remarkable local beauty (line by lovely line, image by startling image), it presents difficulties of global interpretation (the Alfie question: "What's it all about?") that might keep its select few readers guessing for lifetimes--or lead them to run up the white flag of aporia and surrender to France, reducing the poem to a textbook illustration of Derridean radical skepticism, the post-structuralist circulation of meaning, and any number of other ideas powerful enough to keep grad students off crack during the 1980s.
Upon finishing this first reading--complete but necessarily inconclusive, like any reading of Ashbery's best works--I thought Flow Chart a remarkable enigma, an exquisitely difficult pleasure with enough moments of beauty to inspire multiple readings and the desire to pluck the mystery out of the poem's heart. I hesitate only slightly before calling it a great poem (the hesitation a first-reading's hedge); it is Ashbery's magnum opus. And as to what it's all about: all is what it's about. It's a tragic, comic, goofball meditation on life, death and everything in the indecent interval between. It is 'about' (in the sense of 'man about town') the Lucretian-Epicurean rain of imagistic atoms flowing from John Ashbery's mind to his writing hand as the nineteen-eighties stumbled to a close.
This is all but a raw, tentative reaction to a first reading of Flow Chart, and as such it fits the blog, because Mindful Pleasures for the past 12 years has been a place to prose-out my raw readerly reactions. Pretty much everything here is a trial piece. If I'm ever able or willing to write the book-length commentary that Flow Chart deserves, I will title it, from the poem, Exquisite Nitpicking.