A quintessentially American epic poem that rewrites all the rules of epic poetry—starting with the one that says epic poetry can’t be about the writing of epic poetry itself
The appearance of Flow Chart in 1991 marked the kickoff of a remarkably prolific period in John Ashbery’s long career, a decade during which he published seven all-new books of poetry as well as a collected series of lectures on poetic form and practice. So it comes as no surprise that this book-length poem—one of the longest ever written by an American poet—reads like a rocket launch: charged, propulsive, mesmerizing, a series of careful explosions that, together, create a radical forward motion.
It’s been said that Flow Chart was written in response to a dare of sorts: Artist and friend Trevor Winkfield suggested that Ashbery write a poem of exactly one hundred pages, a challenge that Ashbery took up with plans to complete the poem in one hundred days. But the celebrated work that ultimately emerged from its squared-off origin story was one that the poet himself called “a continuum, a diary.” In six connected, constantly surprising movements of free verse—with the famous “sunflower” double sestina thrown in, just to reinforce the poem’s own multivarious logic—Ashbery’s poem maps a path through modern American consciousness with all its attendant noise, clamor, and signal: “Words, however, are not the culprit. They are at worst a placebo, / leading nowhere (though nowhere, it must be added, can sometimes be a cozy / place, preferable in many cases to somewhere).”
Ashbery invents and reinvents his self in this book-length stream-of-consciousness poem. In manically articulate free verse of long, supple lines, he conjures a secular landscape dotted with shadows of ancient gods, wherein he ferrets out ``signs of life in the land of waiting.'' Bathos sets the mood: Alvin and the Chipmunks, Osiris, Mercury and Argus share common ground. Everyday reality is transmuted by imagination, wish, memory, and by the poet's romantic dialogues with an unnamed significant other. Is the universe a big joke, or is there meaning, perhaps even an organizing principle, behind it? Are free will and predestination reconcilable? How does one move beyond ``a lifetime of self-loathing and shallow interests''? Ashbery ( Some Trees ) weaves a haunted, haunting music around these and other big questions, squeezing joy, ennui, despair, hope and a thirst for belonging out of ordinary experience.