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

Flowchart Keith Silver

Flowchart may press more than a quantitative claim to being John Ashbery's most characteristic poem. The book is made up of a single monologue which strikes the reader with both the profusion of its figurative language - drawn from numerous myths and epochs - and the absence of any sensual anchor. Lacking a central landscape, or even of an explicit ideological core, the verse exhales a sense of unsubstantiated bounty. We are on a glorious imaginative shopping spree with a credit card which the Romantic subjectivity will no longer endorse. In spirit, if not substance, this is a distractedly urban poetry, long speculative sentences continually losing themselves in the mental traffic. Attention spans are short. The most elaborate linguistic flourishes are hung on to non-events, so that you repeatedly find yourself looking back to see what all the fuss is about, only to be bafflingly disappointed. Ashbery can sometimes seem like a huge python, tumbling off the branch under the superfluous weight of his own brilliant coils.

In this and other works, a beguiling conversational tone continually draws attention to its own haphazard nature, its lack of seriousness. In Ashbery however these are precisely the qualities which matter the most. As the poem progresses a playfully negative rhetoric begins to make itself felt. We encounter such thoroughly typical utterances as 'It's so easy not to understand, to take full possession of one's unaware-ness', and 'Not coinciding with anyone's notion of a "person" yet livelier still for it'. ...


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