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This item is taken from PN Review 99, Volume 21 Number 1, September - October 1994.

It is possible to read John Ashbery's poetry with pleasure. Indeed, apart from Three Poems and The Tennis Court Oath, I seldom now read it with anything but pleasure, although I resisted at first. Not all the poems produce the same degree of pleasure, the same volume of laughter or intensity of sadness. An elegiac satirist? Sometimes, but he resists generic categorisation by means of his subversions. Like some of the great Scottish poets - MacDiarmid and Graham, for example - whom he in few other ways resembles, he can modulate from hilarity to heartbreak in a few phrases. You cannot pin him down, but as with Proteus there is something other than mere evasion in his languid, droll, unpredictable changes of key, register and volume.

I regret the opaque patristics which now attach to his work. He answers - inadvertently, I believe - to certain current theoretical prescriptions. Critics conjure Ashbery to legitimise arguments, attributing to him deliberate strategies where the pilot of his poem is not a scheming post-Modem opportunist. He is a writer with a remarkably finely-tuned sense of syntax and prosody, an informed, a refined freedom from conventionality in approach, and actual occasions, real feelings. If he is programmatic it is in his instinctive avoidance of predictable sequence, his unwillingness to take things and themes on accepted terms. He is as impatient of whatever offers itself with the 'face of familiarity' as Sisson is.

He deploys varieties of voice - spoken voices, written voices, period tones. These he orchestrates: verbal material from the world we live in, and echoes of worlds of language, art and social discourse which came before, with a hint of those that may come after. Such language negotiates a vivid way through commonplace, cliche, familiar trope, getting to another side (not the other side: things are never dialectical in Ashbery). His approaches, rooted in his particular culture, his wide and often eccentric reading, are strictly inimitable.

This means of course that he has dozens of imitators, and a few poets who have learned their own, rather than his, lessons from him. He offers two kinds of freedom: a freedom from conventional constraints which is enabling, and another freedom which issues in the 'ludic' inconsequentialities of his lesser disciples and is to be found in the less successful of his own poems.

The critical volatility to which his poems give rise has long intrigued me. In the United States he is often read rigidly, through the refracting lens of theory. This criticism is of a kind which puts many English readers off and which I suspect puzzles the poet as much as it does those who resist his work. Clearly he is fodder for a kind of academic audible increasingly in Britain as well, and undisputed god-father of experimental schools whose politics and programme are much at variance with what I infer to be his politics, insofar as the term 'politics' has relevance to so unprogrammatic a poet.

In England there are writers and readers who take pleasure and fruitful indirection from Ashbery - not as many, perhaps, as there are detractors, but when I set out to take the temperature of response to his work in Britain for this issue of PNR, I was surprised at how many writers accepted my invitation, and how many more asked to contribute to a supplement whose aim it is to appraise the mark this American writer is making here, a mark different from the one he has made (for his influence may be diminishing) in America.

The verdicts upon him which I would dispute are those which suggest that, in some sense, his poetry has been opportunistic, hitching a ride in the buggy of the Theorists. I am persuaded by his poems, and by the interview printed here, as by many of the contributions to this issue, that what has been made of his poems and what they are have little in common. I hope the readings offered here will direct attention back to the poems.

This item is taken from PN Review 99, Volume 21 Number 1, September - October 1994.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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