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This review is taken from PN Review 124, Volume 25 Number 2, November - December 1998.

THE RHYTHM OF STANDING STILL JOHN ASHBERY, The Mooring of Starting Out (Carcanet) £25
JOHN ASHBERY, Wakefulness (Carcanet) £7.95

The riddling, questing nature of John Ashbery's work is already in evidence in the very first poem of his first book, Some Trees, which appeared (it is something of a shock to be reminded) as long ago as 1956. The poem in question ends with the lines: 'As laughing cadets say, "In the evening / Everything has a schedule if you can find what it is."' These two lines serve as well as any as an entrée to Ashbery's poetic world in their initial promise of meaning and then their refusal (or inability) to say quite what that meaning is. Here is a deadpan, slightly languorous wit, the flatness of a statement that is simultaneously both less and more than a statement. This view of life as inherently paradoxical, as an allegory unaccountably incomplete, is something that will be refined upon, developed, re-interrogated, subjected to a thousand different treatments in his later works. But, above all, we have from the beginning the distinctive signature that we have come to recognize as that of John Ashbery.

The Mooring of Starting Out enables us to read in sequence the first five books. There is an absence of juvenilia: here is a poet who has found his voice early. That voice is, of course, dependent for its originality on other original voices. The Ashbery manner is unthinkable without Wallace Stevens (who is almost too close in Some Trees) and Whitman: we hear, for example, in the long prosy lines of ...


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