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

Secret Sorcery, Early Ashbery John Pilling

For someone who once believed he was 'destined never to have an audience' John Ashbery has proved the fates kind. Since Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the unprecedented triple of Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award, there has been the Bollinger Prize and other accolades now almost too numerous to itemize. Yet for all the talk of him as 'the greatest living American poet', there has never been a broad consensus as to the merits and demerits of his work. To paraphrase a remark Ashbery acknowledges as itself a paraphrase (of Bernard Shaw) - it can be found in the Art News Annual of 1968 - what has happened is that Ashbery's poetry has passed 'from unacceptability to notoriety without an intervening period of appreciation'.

In a 1956 'Discourse on Poetry' delivered by the Sicilian Salvatore Quasimodo this transmission problem is very expertly addressed:

The secret of a poetic language reveals
itself to criticism very late, that
is, when the model has already
branched out into imitation, when
its best memory falls to fragments,
becoming a 'school'.


Yet in fact the somewhat arbitrary identification of a 'New York School' comprising principally Ashbery, Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch kept the secrets of Ashbery's poetic language buried under the debris of claim and counter-claim. They had each, in any case, subjected the very notion of a specifically poetic language to such a radical, and ...


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