“The Virgin King,” The New Yorker September 29, 2008
Neither an Ashbery fan nor an Ashbery critic, I have little to say about his “The Virgin Queen.” A short poem of two cinquains, it contains his characteristic wit and associative gesture, but it doesn’t, for me, reach beyond either. In fact, it reads like a poem he slapped together in seconds, using the tools for which he’s known and popular but not really building much with them. Of course, that assessment could be way off . . .
The poem moves very quickly, and if it’s at all concerned with readers’ ability to keep up, it doesn’t show it. The first two sentences begin with the ambiguous, without-antecedent pronouns “They” and “It” respectively. They assume readers will go along for the ride, examining this hole they’ve created, the hole that a focused subject generally occupies. That subject could be “The Virgin King” of the title. But who’s the Virgin King? Initially, the phrase made me think of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, although the poem seems to have nothing at all to do with her, and so the title wouldn’t appear to be riffing her. A quick Google of the phrase returned hits naming Richard Branson, the King of the Virgin Empire, but the poem seems equally unconcerned with him. So, we have an opening stanza—half the poem—that doesn’t focus attention on a subject, grammatical or contextual, effectively fogging reader focus in such a way that nothing seems important. Everything does. And, the one place Ashbery does draw our attention, the “innocent details” he places in quotation marks, is equally unhelpful and arbitrary, a red herring, since neither innocent nor details resonates with anything particular in the poem.
The second stanza has much the same effect: there’s an ambiguous “you” (which does work as the reader) and an ambiguous “we.” We’re forced again to pay attention to things other than subject and subject matter. But, it’s in this other realm that the second stanza offers high contrast to the first and so becomes interesting. Both have sort of a waggish humor, which connects them, but structurally they’re very different from one another. The first is comprised of four relatively short sentences, the second of two sentences, one built with a few subordinate clauses that extends its main idea across four lines. So, the first stanza reads somewhat choppily, full of staccato; the second reads quickly and fluidly in comparison. Consider the opening of each. Stanza one: “They know so much more, and so much less, / ‘innocent details’ and other.” The comma after more and the endstopped linebreak keep the sentence from picking up the pace, from creating a strong sense of rhythm. Stanza two: “Something tells me you’ll be reading this on a train / stumbling through rural Georgia,…” Not a single pause until the comma after Georgia slows us down, and probably readers cruise through the enjambment at train. The line is trochaic until its last few words, giving it noticeable rhythm, and as such its feel is much different than that of the entire previous stanza. Of course, the train is stumbling, an interesting verb for a train and a bit of an oxymoron considering the pace of the sentence that contains it.
Anyway, I appreciate some of the poem’s tidbits as mentioned above, but they seem to me more like drills to an exercise than facets of a poem (I guess I’m making some kind of poetry assertion here). It’s like Ashbery wrote an imitation of himself. This is fine . . . except I find myself saying oh, that’s an Ashbery poem, which chalks it up to being little more than nothing in and of itself. If you’ve read much of his previous work, then you know everything there is to know about this piece.