Well Versed

How poets describe the indescribable

I used to be obsessed with John Ashbery’s poetry. In “The Ecclesiast,” a typically ambiguous early poem, the Pulitzer Prize winner begins one stanza with what could be a banal observation or homespun proverb —“For the shoe pinches, even though it fits perfectly” — and ends with a sentimental plea: “My dearest I am as a galleon on salt billows. / Perfume my head with forgetting all about me.” Reading him is at once exasperating and hypnotic, like watching someone flip through TV channels. I can’t recommend it enough.

At the height of my enthusiasm, I made the mistake of picking up a pair of books about Ashbery. I didn’t want to study the significance of his writing. I suppose I was looking to share my bewilderment with someone. But the books, loaded with theory and academic jargon, were more opaque than the poems themselves. I suddenly felt alienated from the work: it seemed I was missing the...