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This review is taken from PN Review 137, Volume 27 Number 3, January - February 2001.

HIS NAME HERE JOHN ASHBERY, Your Name Here (Carcanet) £7.95
JOHN ASHBERY, Other Traditions. Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, (HarvardUniversity Press) £15.50

John Ashbery's poems reject biography both in the sense that they are not confessional and their speakers resist identification. Elusive in his long lines, Ashbery won't be pinned down. His poems are always going somewhere, usually with speed. He is fascinated by water but his aqueous voyages aren't full of the tragedy or melodrama that inflect the work of other American authors -Melville, Twain, Eliot, Berryman-when they take to the water. Not that Ashbery is universally chipper and upbeat, but his fatalism is usually picaresquely comic and his tristesse that of Chaplin's clown: he may not have gotten the girl today but, with a jaunty click of the heels, he will head down the road and try again tomorrow. Above all, Ashbery is accepting. His sensibility is helped out by the most distinctive style in modern American poetry, a streaming jumble of words and rushing imagery that forces readers to disengage their conscious minds. Ashbery is the master at marrying ridiculously incompatible figures of speech in a way which makes a curious, perfect sense if you don't stop to think about them: 'Turning and turning in the demented sky, / the sugar-mill gushes forth poems and plainer twists. / It can't account for the roses in our furnace' (from 'Paperwork' and chosen almost at random). Ashbery is probably accused of writing nonsense by the same people who think that Picasso couldn't paint: 'Why, my six year old daughter could make this mess!' Ashbery is not a symbolist because he ...


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