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This item is taken from PN Review 238, Volume 44 Number 2, November - December 2017.

For forty years John Ashbery has been an unpredictable and rewarding contributor to PN Review. In 1978 he first submitted poems. They appeared in PNR 4. They include the now celebrated ‘Pyrography’; the brisk, staccato ‘The Thief of Poetry’ and – more characteristic – ‘Unctuous Platitudes’. Slotted in second place is a little poem anthologists cannot resist, ‘What is Poetry’, an unassertive ars poetica which, in my mind, suggests a kind of dialogue with Charles Tomlinson’s poem ‘More Foreign Cities’, in which the British poet replied to Kingsley Amis’s proto-Brexit provocation, that people didn’t want more poems about foreign cities:

Not forgetting Ko-jen,
Musical city (it has
Few buildings, and annexes
Space by combatting silence),
There is Fiordiligi, its sun-changes
Against walls of transparent stone
Unsettling all preconception – a city
For architects (they are taught
By casting their nets
Into those moving shoals); and there is
Kairouan, whose lit space
So slides into and fits
The stone masses, one would doubt
Which was the more solid
Unless, folding back
Gold segments out of the white
Pith globe of a quartered orange,
One may learn perhaps
To read such perspectives. At Luna
There is a city of bridges, where
Even the inhabitants are mindful
Of a shared privilege: a bridge
Does not exist for its own sake.
It commands vacancy.

Tomlinson is Ashbery’s near contemporary – Ashbery a mere six months his junior. Especially in their early work, they seem to share ground. Over time they move a world apart, and their differences reveal a cultural gulf. Tomlinson’s poem has a clear occasion. It is polemical in an oblique, English spirit: the poet steps around a provocation which survives, parched, as the epigraph. Tomlinson embodies an aesthetic counterstatement to Amis’s bumptious philistinism.

But it’s an embodiment poor in body. Tomlinson’s ‘inhabitants are mindful of a shared privilege’: architecture, geometry, but the breathing human content is reduced to a solitary observer’s admiring eye. Here Tomlinson is heir more to Wordsworth than to Wallace Stevens. He is European, experimental and inventive in ways Ashbery appreciated, a generational odd-ball among English poets. But his poem’s purity is chill. After hearing Tomlinson read at a Cambridge Poetry Festival in the 1970s, Ashbery remarked, ‘He’s a real barrel of laughs.’

Ashbery can be a barrel of laughs, even (or especially) when he is most serious. In ‘What is Poetry’ the landscape is peopled. The poem does not ask so much as declare five seemingly unconnected questions, ruminates and concludes, questioning again, on a conventional, off the peg image, a cliché the poem might have been expected to avoid. The negotiation and not the point of arrival matters.

The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow

That came when we wanted it to snow?
Beautiful images? Trying to avoid

Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving

The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it

As we believe it. In school
All the thought got combed out:

What was left was like a field,
Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.

Now open them on a thin vertical path.
It might give us – what? – some flowers soon?

Ashbery’s final contribution to PN Review is the text of a lecture he gave on Delmore Schwartz. He makes a case for the poet’s late works. Having quoted negative critics, he says tentatively, generously: ‘Yet there is something there, perhaps indeed the ruin of a great poet, but perhaps something more. It turns out that critics were premature in condemning the late work of Picasso and Stravinsky; perhaps Delmore will one day get a similar reprieve.’

His own later work has not yet been misvalued, but his rich waywardness throws off some critics and readers. Now that the life is done the work will go on shaping and reshaping language and the ways it makes worlds true. His sense of English is stalked and sometimes re-routed by his love for French poetry and prose, their different precisions. He tunes in to Americas and Europes and Orients, sometimes in a single poem. He avoids reverse gear: his mode, especially in later years, is to proceed, at different velocities, through familiar and unfamiliar worlds. It is impossible even now not to speak of him in the present tense.

‘Tales from Shakespeare’ is the last poem he sent us (PNR 225). It concludes reassuringly, ‘OK, let’s cope.’ 

This item is taken from PN Review 238, Volume 44 Number 2, November - December 2017.

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