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This review is taken from PN Review 142, Volume 28 Number 2, November - December 2001.

ONE WAY DAVID HERD, John Ashbery and American Poetry (Manchester University Press)

'I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.' These words, from John Ashbery's long poem in prose and verse, 'The New Spirit,' have frequently been cited as an illustration of the twin impulses towards intimacy and concealment that characterise his oeuvre. The irony of which David Herd is well aware is that critics of Ashbery's poetry have similarly hesitated between putting it all down and leaving it all out, and not always to the reader's advantage. The hostile and dismissive response of some British reviewers has further complicated the situation for readers in the UK. Caught between Harold Bloom's 'disciple of Stevens' and Tom Paulin's naked emperor, many readers would sympathise with Ashbery's own desire for a 'serious mixed critique' of his work, and it is in this context that Herd wishes to situate his own book.

To have begun this review by 'setting the scene' seems apt, since Herd proposes as the governing principle of Ashbery's poetic the 'desire to write the poem fit to cope with its occasion'. In an impressive and wide-ranging introduction, Herd illustrates what this might mean with reference to Pasternak, who he sees as Ashbery's presiding poetic influence, and to the pragmatic philosophy of William James. He also gives an invaluable account of Frank O'Hara's discovery of Paul Goodman's article 'Advance-guard writing 1900-1950' which posits that ...

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