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

Remembers John Clegg
THERE’S A QUALITY about John Ashbery’s work which I only notice when I stop reading it and pick up another poet. It isn’t quite civility, or decency, or evenhandedness, but it partakes of those, I think. It’s a tone, as I.A. Richards defines it: not part of how Ashbery feels about his material (that would be a feeling, under the Richards schemata), but how he feels toward the reader. (First I wrote ‘toward his audience’, but part of the quality I’m trying to isolate is making each reader feel like they’re the sole member of that audience.)

One element of that quality, certainly, is the reasonableness of the syntax. From ‘The System’:

The sadness that infected us as children and stayed on through adulthood has healed, and there can be no other way except this way of health we are taking, silent as it is. But it lets us look back on those other, seemingly spoiled days and re-evaluate them: actually they were too well-rounded, each bore its share of happiness and grief and finished its tale just as twilight was descending; those days are now an inseparable part of our story despite their air of immaturity and tentativeness; they have the freshness of early works which may be wrongly discarded later.

In the second sentence, each new clause is a clarification or distillation of the central metaphor – days as works – until that expert final turn in ‘wrongly discarded’, where the judgement we are offered is of the works ...

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