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

Not Meeting J.A.
On Not Meeting John Ashbery
Philip Terry
WE ARE ALL marked by the times we grow up in. I grew up in the era of Heinz tomato soup, Smash, comics and Roland Barthes. So for a long time I was firmly committed to the idea of the Death of the Author, which meant I had very little interest in biographies, and certainly no interest in meeting authors. If authors’ intentions were to be disregarded, if the spark of writing lay in the encounter between the reader and the (authorless) text, what was the point?

I don’t know when this changed, exactly, but over the years I did begin to read the odd biography – Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett, though itself largely fictional, was one of them – and I did begin to meet authors, usually by chance, usually poets, as novelists tend to keep themselves to themselves. It was only then that I began to associate certain voices with certain works, and often it wasn’t till I heard people read their own work that it clicked, becoming luminous in ways it hadn’t always been on the page, though my wavering powers of concentration could have been as much to blame here as anything. Everyone who has seen a really good poet read their work knows this. I wouldn’t like or understand the work of Tim Atkins as I do, if I had never heard him read, and the same goes for many others from Tom Raworth to Vahni Capildeo. All these writers have distinctive voices which, once heard, it is impossible to disassociate from the work. Could ...

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