An illuminating space for those wayward pleasures

John Ashbery and American Poetry
July 19, 2002

Near the end of "The System", one of "Three Poems", John Ashbery writes: "What place is there in the continuing story for all the adventures, the wayward pleasures, the medium-size experiences that somehow don't fit in but which loom larger and more interesting as they begin to retreat into the past?" In David Herd's telling of the continuing story of Ashbery, a place is made for all the adventures and wayward pleasures, the contingent particularities, in this poetry. Following his subject's example, Herd aims in this overview of Ashbery's work from Some Trees (1956) to Wakefulness (1998) for democratic inclusion, amplification and tactful juxtaposition.

If, as Herd proposes, the meanings of this poet are strongly "in another", then it is fitting that his critical practice should place "Three Poems", say, alongside Pascal, or read several of the texts in A Wave in the context of that larger American discourse about Aids. This study finds ethical value as well as aesthetic interest in Ashbery's attempt to include within his poems the conditions of their own making; and it would be difficult to imagine criticism more sensitive than Herd's in its elucidation of the poetry's "occasions".

Only towards the end does the reconstructive energy flag. April Galleons , for instance, is treated in merely a dozen lines; while it is disappointing to find a criticism previously so circumstantially particular, rendering the postmodern time and space in which Ashbery's later poetry moves as simply "the age of faxes and cordless phones".

Herd is Ashbery's ideal reader, since he tends not to reconfigure the poems by provocative theories or speculative interpretations, but to elaborate that conceptual framework that he suggests the poems prepare for themselves. Critical commentary amplifies Ashbery's note of self-commentary. Such a procedure is illuminating for the reader, but Herd's method is not without risks. Rather than hearing again Ashbery's favourite quotations from Pasternak, say, the reader might sometimes wish a gap to open between the poet's preferred terms and the critic's. This would introduce more interpretative variety and would also be truer to Ashbery's hope that any encounter with his poetry will collapse his own authority and stimulate the reader to new forms of creation. At moments, Herd seems anxiously to confront the possibility that even the most sensitive poetry criticism is not only superfluous but distracting. Criticism may bear a family resemblance to all those routine interviews Ashbery has given where the explanatory language threatens to induce a "less than active reading, and so to militate against the poet's ideal". There is a rarer Ashberyan interview, however - "not explaining the poetry as such, only leading to it" - and Herd's commitment and tact fully align his study with such higher interaction between poet and audience.

Andrew Dix is lecturer in English, Loughborough University.

John Ashbery and American Poetry

Author - David Heard
ISBN - 0 7190 5597 0
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 245

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