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PN Review 275
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This review is taken from PN Review 268, Volume 49 Number 2, November - December 2022.

Cover of Something Close to Music
Harry SandersonJohn Ashbery, Something Close to Music, edited by Jeffrey Lependorf (David Zwirner Books) £8.95.
Something Close to Music

Stendhal once said it was it was other arts that taught him the art of writing. I don’t know where he said it, only that the film director Robert Bresson quoted him to that effect in an interview, a story Clive James told Peter Porter in an old radio recording. I recount that chain of reception in order to illustrate a principle parallel to Stendhal’s own: how works of art press into one another, giving a liquidity to forms often treated as mutually exclusive.

That idea – or is it a process?– is central to John Ashbery’s work. Critics have focused on his origins as an art critic, his affinity for music, and his frequent use of ekphrasis, a genre loosely defined as literature responding to works of art. Yet the treatment is often limp for being overly literal, with critics satisfied to point out where his poems refer to paintings. Something Close to Music, edited by Jeffrey Lependorf as part of David Zwirner Books’s Ekphrasis series, engages Ashbery’s process on closer terms by selecting a series of poems, art critical essays and playlists from Ashbery’s music collection.

Ashbery constantly framed his art writing as a minor pastime, undertaken to make money while destitute in Paris. In one sense the essays here do play in a minor key: they are brief, colloquial, and almost always begin with a personal anecdote, so that they become something of> a diary. Yet they are not minor in the sense of being cursory or effete. In the ...

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