From Poetry Foundation:
What does the characterization unfinished mean when describing a poem? Some things obviously merit the adjective—a chair with three legs, a portrait with a swath of raw canvas where facial features should be, a song cut short just before its crescendo. Such cessations can be plainly seen or felt. But unless a line stops in mid-thought, a poem doesn’t immediately appear truncated. Consider the famous example of Samuel Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” We know that it’s a fragment only because the author explained upon publication that the interruption of an annoying visitor prevented him from fully recounting his dream vision (rather than having nodded out on opium). In the case of a more modern specimen, in a free-form poem that traffics in ambiguity of purpose and effect, any degree of incompletion will be somewhat camouflaged by that aesthetic disposition. To be sure, fragmentation, lacunae, and open-endedness have been central to Modernist and post-Modern enterprises. A seemingly unfinished work may be so, or appear to be so, intentionally—that being the point of the poem. The mood of the ongoing moment tilts against the totalizing impulse; emblematic punctuation is the ellipsis rather than the period. The once necessary sense of an ending gives way to the notion that thinking has merely come to rest for a brief spell.
Perhaps more than any other poet of the postwar period and beyond, John Ashbery gave voice to rumination’s off-handed, recursive, ever expansive circuits. Beginning in his early volumes Some Trees (1956), The Tennis Court Oath (1962), and The Double Dream of Spring (1970), he tested the conventional limits of how a poem might start. He often began in medias res with what feels like a snatch of overheard conversation, as in “A White Paper,” which casually opens, “And if he thought that / All was foreign—.” Many of his poems also conclude without quite concluding; the many pages of “Europe,” for example, cease with the unpunctuated line “the breath.” Poems from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s and continuing well through the book-length poems of later decades seem to emerge from an animated discourse already in progress. In a 1976 interview with Richard Kostelanetz, Ashbery describes his creative process: “I have a feeling that in my mind is an underground stream, if you will, that I can have access to when I want it. I want the poetry to come out as freshly and unplanned as possible.” In another interview from 1984, he directly addresses the issue of resolution: “I don’t look on poems as closed works. I feel they’re going on all the time in my head, and I occasionally snip off a length.”
“The History of Photography” isn’t quite a history—or at least not obviously so. Instead, over the course of the poem’s six numbered sections, readers seem to travel among vaguely recognizable, half-remembered images, entering their narrative possibilities briefly and then moving on to the next. Of course, seem is the operative word. Where we are in place and time and just what is happening is purposefully indeterminate. Is a single image being described, a composite of many, or perhaps something like the essence of any photograph? Likely all of these. But chiefly, Ashbery enacts a photograph’s ability to simultaneously spark intimate personal associations even as it offers a portal to another world, unfamiliar yet alluring. Innumerable photos throughout history depict an old man leaving someplace; does it matter if readers know which one may be the poet’s departure point?
Now the old man takes his leave.
Courtesy wrenched from confusion douses
the reproach of his having here. We all imbibe
the new freshness like a straw, a stem
takes us from there to there, like heaven.
Factual clarity emerges at intervals. Without naming Louis Daguerre, Ashbery ventriloquizes him as he takes Boulevard du Temple, a momentous photo circa 1838:
The first person to be photographed was a man
having his boots cleaned. There were others
in the same street, but they moved and became
invisible. How calm I am!
Louis Daguerre: Boulevard du Temple, 1838/39 (detail)