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This review is taken from PN Review 27, Volume 9 Number 1, September - October 1982.

SIMULTANEOUS MONOLOGUES John Ashbery, As We Know (Carcanet) £4.95

A series of eloquent and ambitious long poems, from 'Fragment' (The Double Dream of Spring), through 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror', to 'Fantasia on "The Nut-Brown Maid" ' (Houseboat Days), has demonstrated John Ashbery's ability to work within extended forms. 'Litany', which opens As We Know, continues where 'Fantasia' left off, and in continuing goes beyond it.

If a poem of Wallace Stevens stands at back of 'Litany', it is the meditation on 'the eye's plain version' of things, 'An Ordinary Evening in New Haven': 'We keep coming back and coming back/To the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns/That fall upon it out of the wind.' Stevens's is a poem of the quotidian, of middle-life, 'of the physical town': he comes back to the hotel, and Ashbery has come back, time and time again, to the suburban America of 'Street Musicians': 'The chattels in barrels/ Of an obscure family being evicted/Into the way it was and is.' But Ashbery's suburban America has proved more resistant than Stevens's New Haven to transformation, 'in the make of the mind'. Ashbery takes his cue from Stevens the ironist and not Stevens the transcendentalist. Stevens's fictive meditation of 'a whole/The full of fortune and the full of fate', in 'The Auroras of Autumn', came 'Like a blaze of summer straw, in winter's nick.' Ashbery is supremely the poet of 'winter's nick'.

'Litany' is written in double columns printed parallel on the page, parallel voices meant, Ashbery says ...


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