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

Some Thoughts on the Tennis Court Oath Miles Champion

'You want/the fact/of things/in words,/of words' (Robert Creeley)

What more can be said about Ashbery's second major collection of poems now that, after more than thirty years, it has finally gone out of print? Ashbery himself disingenuously refers to it as 'the book of mine that everybody hates', yet he is surely aware that these early poems had a decisive effect on the writing of younger New York poets (Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan) and also, perhaps, on writers of a similar generation in this country such as Tom Raworth.

True, the thirty poems in The Tennis Court Oath can be regarded (as they invariably have been) as somewhat anomalous in the wake of Ashbery's post Self-Portrait critical acceptance, and the seamless merging of his name into that smooth extrusion of 'great' American poets… At the same time, however, these poems - even a purely 'experimental' work such as 'Europe' (dismissed as a 'fearful disaster' by Harold Bloom) - have been rendered more approachable for us by the concerted investigation of language's referential domain by so many of America's 'vanguard' poets over the past two decades - not that the even more radical dislocations of Language poetry have lessened the effect of The Tennis Court Oath - if anything, Language theory has merely provided us with another potential point of entry into Ashbery's earlier work.

Indeed, the poems continue to delight, disconcert, and move the reader in a profound way, much as Stockhausen's Klavierstücke, ...


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