John Ashbery: The Instruction Manual

“John Ashbery wrote his first poem when he was 8. It rhymed and made sense (‘The tall haystacks are great sugar mounds/ These are the fairies’ camping grounds’) and the young writer—who had that touch of laziness that sometimes goes along with precocity—came to a realization: ‘I couldn’t go on from this pinnacle.’ He went on, instead, to write poems that mostly didn’t rhyme, and didn’t make sense, either. His aim, as he later put it, was ‘to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about.’ It worked. Early on, a frustrated detractor called him ‘the Doris Day of Modernism.’ Even today a critic like Helen Vendler confesses that she’s often ‘mistaken’ about what Ashbery is up to. You can see why: It simply may not be possible to render a sophisticated explication de texte of a poem that concludes ‘It was domestic thunder,/ The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched/ His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.’ No wonder Ashbery is widely thought of as dauntingly ‘difficult’—or, in some camps, as something of a literary hoaxster. It would be a shame, though, if this prevented curious readers from picking up his books. Being difficult, after all, is not the same thing as being incomprehensible. And the truth is that Ashbery’s poetry is still very much invested in the reader’s pleasure—more so than many supposedly ‘approachable’ poets. Where Shall I Wander, his latest book, is an often delightful and arresting mishmash of battily comic poems about facing death—the poet is now 77—and coded reflections on his early years as part of what became known as ‘the New York School.’ Like much of Ashbery’s poetry, it is challenging in a strangely inviting way. It is hard to talk concretely about Ashbery’s poetry, because his subject is, so often, aesthetic consciousness—what he calls ‘the experience of experience.’ On the one hand, the poems have the dashed-off look and feel of pop culture-inflected postmodernism, inspired by the radical innovations of Dada and French Surrealism. …”
SLATE (March 2005)
Jacket2: John Ashbery’s jacket
Jacket 2 — Contents page: John Ashbery feature
John Ashbery: The existential loneliness of a brilliant poet

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