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This article is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January - February 2018.

Remembers Ben Hickman
I FIRST STARTED reading Ashbery because I’d heard he was a surrealist and I was an 18-year-old boy. What a disappointment Some Trees, therefore, was. Ashbery’s first book had none of the clash and clamour of traditional avant-gardism, none of the metaphoric juiciness I thought the best poetry was supposed to have. Just these awkward, spare poems that began unannounced, chatted for a while in the middle, before hesitating to an ending.

Then there was the title poem, a more obviously brilliant love lyric in which ‘you and I / Are suddenly what the trees try / To tell us we are’, that ends simultaneously joyous and hushed:

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

The hallmarks of the Ashberyan are here: immanence, multiplicity, contradiction, reticence. The final couplet suggests what would become the central dialectic of Ashbery’s career: how surface is our only means to depth, puzzling and wondrous as it may remain.

Ashbery was just twenty-one when he wrote ‘Some Trees’. Like most love poems, it speaks of the singular event, and is in this sense untypical of the work for which Ashbery would become renowned. In general this work is more interested in flow, but flow of a particular kind ...

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