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

J.A. in Britain
John Ashbery in Britain
Oli Hazzard
JOHN ASHBERY visited Britain for the first time in 1956. His first impression was, as he wrote to F.T. Prince, of ‘an endlessly fascinating though not an exciting place; being there is “a high oddity” (H. James) for me… It rather reminds me of America in the thirties: the architecture, slightly less modern look of everything, politer people.’ Despite this registration of the comparatively retro character of the place – and rather against the general tide of opinion among poets in 1950s America – Ashbery maintained at the time that ‘even the English poetry I didn’t like somehow seemed superior to its American equivalent’. In addition to his ardent enthusiasm for Prince, Ashbery valued in particular the work of W. H. Auden, Laura Riding, and Nicholas Moore, and was beginning to formulate and consider the implications of an ‘other tradition’ of minor or overlooked British writers of the past, which included Thomas Lovell Beddoes and John Clare. Though he venerated English poetry – ‘English’ and ‘British’ are, interestingly, virtually interchangeable in Ashbery’s vocabulary – he was also irritated by it, or at least by the way it was frequently used as a yardstick by which the failures of modern American poetry could be measured, as he told Prince in 1957:

What modernism there is in poetry seems to be confined to me and a few of my friends. The new English poets are constantly being held up to us poor folk as examples. We are supposed to learn from the past, ...

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