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

Remembers David Herd
ALL ONE WANTED TO DO, on hearing the news that John Ashbery had died, was quote him – to register his passing by recalling his words. This is the most instinctive of elegiac impulses, no doubt, the urge at the moment of a person’s passing to recover their voice. How much stronger, though, is that impulse when the voice in question has framed the language through which we have lived our lives. This is surely true. At any rate it seems true to me. Wherever one’s reading in poetry might go, and whomever one might be thinking about, surely no poet has so captured or created the linguistic environment in which we happen to find ourselves as fully and permissively as Ashbery.

How to quote him, how to choose, is a different matter. On the one hand, one can drop in anywhere in the poetry and find the play of meaning and the undoing of meaning, the forming towards significance and the acknowledgement of the banal. As with ‘Sortes Vergilianae’, ‘the ancient practice of fortune-telling by choosing a passage from Vergil’s poetry at random’, as Ashbery tells us in a note to The Double Dream of Spring, so with his own poetry one can break open a book at random and find the poet articulating the condition of one’s life. On the other hand, there’s the question of when to break off, because what the poetry is catching above all perhaps is the process of living, the difficulties and the pleasures of getting through, ...

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