Can You Hear, Bird
A 1995 collection of poems that finds John Ashbery at his most conversational, funny, and surprising
In Can You Hear, Bird, John Ashbery’s seventeenth collection, language is both a plaything and a sandbox. The poems are arranged not in the order of their composition but alphabetically, by the first letter in their titles, like the neatly arrayed keys of some fabulous Seussical instrument. In line after line, Ashbery demonstrates his alertness to language as it is spoken, heard, broadcast, and dreamed—and sets himself the task of rewriting, redefining, and revising the American idiom we think we know so well. Can You Hear, Bird is a decisive example of the uniquely Ashberyan sensibility his many fans love, revealing a generous and acute chronicler of the everyday bizarre, an observant and humane humorist, and an ear trained on decoding our modern world’s beguiling polyphony.
The talky voice that has been unflappably echoing American culture and crossing it with higher-tone concerns returns in a fullness of wry, observant wit. Ashbery (And the Stars Were Shining) is clearly uncomfortable with the academic industry that has grown up around him: many of these poems directly address readers, critics and would-be biographers: ``suppose this poem were about you--would you/ put in the things I've carefully left out'' he asks, coolly enumerating such possibilities as ``descriptions of pain, and sex.'' Ashbery is best known for wrapping philosophical musings in a candy-coated shell, pointing out the hairline cracks of irony. He's at it still, in poems like ``My Philosophy of Life,'' which concludes: ``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...'' In these 100-plus short lyrics, prose poems and one long poem, Ashbery continues to charm us into thought.