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Review of John Ashbery's Collected Poems 1956-1987 - David Hart, Stride Magazine, October 2010
To begin plainly, the book brings together twelve volumes to 1987, ordered chronologically by American publication, plus 65 uncollected poems from periodicals and anthologies to 1990.
When I bring my single volume Ashberys off the shelf I am reminded they are mostly Carcanet-published, following USA publication, and not infrequently a new Ashbery poem appears in, say, the London Review of Books. But has there been influence here? Is there a British Ashbery trail during this more than half a century?
My far from comprehensive instinct says not. My instinct is also that following him is likely only to result in parody. This not least because it is rarely clear what he's doing. It's his genius, uniquely mindful.
The paradox deepens with the thought, how widely shared I don't know, that this first Collected seems to me of more significance than almost any other book of poetry published this year.
Of his many individual books, even my few of them show what uniformity results from bringing them into a Collected. At an extreme, The Ice Storm here collected as 4 pages, I have as a 29 page tiny pocket edition (Hanuman (Madras/New York 1987); The Vermont Notebook is here as originally set, but in the original edition (Black Sparrow Press 1978) the prints by Joe Brainard are much starker; Flow Chart will come into the next Collected, and will not reproduce the impressive original document (Carcanet 1991) accommodating its long lines.
As is well known, and is clear from the 14 page biographical Chronology in this Collected, Ashbery was drawn early in his life to both the visual and musical arts. His poetry is surely best read with this in mind, and the separate books (and his poems in the LRB with plenty of space around them) are playful with form.
As format matters, so do the years between. Having on one's shelf (eventually) 'all of Ashbery' in let's say two volumes, is very different from discovering his latest during the years of its making; and there hangs in the air still the critical reception book by book; few poets have become such markers of both themselves and of us. Someone will write a book on this - too much to embark on here, even were I able.
In September 1986, John Ashbery gave a reading at the Shrewsbury Poetry Festival. About a hundred people attended, including Michael Longley and Lydia Pasternak Slater, who had their own festival spots. I am reading from the notes I made in a copy of his Selected Poems (Carcanet 1986). In response to a question whether he used dreams, he said, "My poetry is somewhat like dreaming to me." When asked who he thought he was writing for, I have his reply as best as I could note it, that his poetry "is speaking to someone .... in general, to myself, .... the you in my poetry is generally rather vague."
He began by reading the first three poems in the Selected, which are now in the Collected as the first two and the fourth, from Some Trees. He read 'Glazunoviana', 'He', (from The Tennis Court Oath) 'Thoughts Of A Young Girl', then jumped the years towards the back of the Selected (from A Wave): 'At North Farm', 'The Songs We Know Best' and 'Landscape (After Baudelaire)', and as he read the last of these I noted where he broke or ran over the lines. He observed the breaks to line 3,
Dreaming, I'll hear the wind in the steeples close by
then at line 4 he read
Sweep the solemn hymns away. / I'll spy )
without a break into line 5,
On factories from my attic window, resting my chin
and observed the break there, although the phrase carries over to the next line. [I am indicating / as a spoken break, ) as a run on]. For the rest of the poem he read sometimes over the lines with no break, sometimes where he might have done this he didn't. And given what is on the page, this makes musical sense. But then why write
How sweet to watch the birth of the star in the still-blue )
Sky, through mist; / the lamp burning anew )
At the window:.......
At the time it bothered me and perhaps it does still, although if I imagine visually the poem as he read it, it would be all over the place. So there's an orderliness of fracture, which may be of the essence.
After that he read from loose sheets. My only personal note was that when he was introduced (I didn't know by whom) as "the greatest since Lowell in America", I noted that 'he sat there with this going on over his head, like a bent-over Cheshire cat, as if suffering it gracefully'.
Whereas the selection from A Wave concluded the Selected, in the Collected it ends at page 787 with April Galleons to follow to 884, followed by 99 pages of Uncollected. He's a poem machine.
Whether or not to run over the lines when reading aloud (or indeed silently) might have some bearing on why if you opened the book about a third of the way in, you'd say it was prose. This is, one might suppose, the defiantly titled Three Poems (1970), made up of 'The New Spirit', 'The System' and 'The Recital'. From the second page of the latter,
But as the days and years sped by it became apparent that
the naming of all the new things we now possessed
had become our chief occupation; that very little time
for mere tasting and having of them was left over, and that
even these simple, tangible experiences were themselves
subject to description and enumeration, or else they too
became fleeting and transient as the song of a bird that is
uttered only once and disappears into the backlog of
vague memories where it becomes as a dried, pressed flower,
a wistful parody of itself.
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