Amid all the troubling news this past weekend, two difficult artists died: John Ashbery and Walter Becker. One was a poet; and the other was, well, a poet.
They did, of course, run in somewhat different circles.
During the years when I taught a class called Contemporary American Poetry—long ago enough for John Ashbery to have qualified—he was never on the A-list in my syllabus. It was probably a failing on my part, for even though I always advised the students never to speak in terms of what poems mean but instead how they work, there was something about me that still wanted to ask, “What does this mean?” And that was something, the answer to which (if there was an answer), Ashbery wasn’t sharing.
As comfortable as I am writing prose, I’ve always been mediocre (on very my best day) composing poetry. Maybe my own lack of facility with the medium made Ashbery’s work that much more inaccessible to me, though I wasn’t alone. I can take some solace in what was written in a recent New York Times remembrance of the man:
It is often easier to say what an Ashbery poem feels like than what it is about, and Mr. Ashbery relished that uncertainty.
John Ashbery was not a social activist, he didn’t dabble in fiction, his words won’t appear on posters with pretty sylvan scenes like Frost’s and Wordsworth’s: he wrote poetry, and throughout his ninety-year life, did so better than just about anybody else.
In another circle people of a certain age—of many certain ages—were saddened by this past weekend’s passing of Walter Becker, one half (along with Donald Fagen) of the music group Steely Dan.
Music group seems almost flippant, for like Ashbery, Steely Dan was difficult. At first the records fit quite easily into the Top-Forty format or, if not that, then the increasingly popular FM rock station playlists. To me back in the 70s Steely Dan was just another good rock band in a world filled with good ones. I bought the albums and played the records. But when Pretzel Logic came along in 1974, I began to listen more critically. We all did. The album was rock, sort of, but there were elements of jazz underscored by weird chord progressions and sometimes baffling lyrics—like these from the title song:
I stepped up on the platform/The man gave me the news/He said, You must be joking son/Where did you get those shoes? Where did you get those shoes?
I sang along the way I read Ashbery’s poetry—never sure where it was going but happy to be invited in. Three years after Pretzel Logic came Aja, their best-selling album of all time, and the title jazz-rock was hung upon them, a title that remained until their breakup three years later, then reemerged as they did in the new century.
Walter Becker’s life comprised many personal hardships and difficulties, a narcotics addiction among them. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, sometimes his lyrics probably hinted at the need for escape:
The Cuervo Gold/The fine Colombian/Make tonight a wonderful thing,
But in later years he had moved to Maui, overcome the demons and, contrary to his former stance, was reveling in the lifestyle of a touring band member—in a sense making up for the years away. Whether Donald Fagen will continue without him is uncertain, but there’s a large canon of unique songs to be performed and no lack of audience ready to listen.
With all the giants of music we have lost over the past few years, Walter Becker may very easily get lost in the shuffle. He shouldn’t.
In Becker and John Ashbery both we lost creative geniuses, originals—masters of their craft—two who sought perfection and didn’t worry much about whether we “got” it. They probably understood that some responsibility rests with the audience.