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

Letters
And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)
Mark Ford
MIDWAY THROUGH HIS LONGEST POEM, Flow Chart of 1991, John Ashbery’s speaker jokingly looks forward to the day when his complete correspondence will be published on onionskin paper. It is my guess that, even if issued in thick books that make use of the very thinnest paper available, John’s own collected letters would run to dozens of volumes. Despite his frequent apologies for being late in replying to letters received and his equally frequent laments that he has nothing much to report, John was an indefatigable correspondent. This was especially the case during the years that he spent in France (1955–65), when he traded letters with New York-based friends such as Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher.

For this commemoration of his life and work I have compiled a series of extracts from the hundreds of letters and emails I received from John between 1986 and his death on 3 September 2017.

A little context about the origins of our friendship might be useful for the reader of these extracts. In 1984 I embarked on a doctoral dissertation on his poetry under the supervision of John Bayley at Oxford University. I soon found myself particularly interested in the influence of the French writer Raymond Roussel on John’s poetic development; accordingly I wrote an essay comparing the two, and expounding John’s own research and publications on Roussel in the late fifties and early sixties.

I sent this to him in New York, and he eventually responded with the first ...


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