PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
Mark FordLetters And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)

(PN Review 239)
Henry Kingon Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(PN Review 244)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Colm Toibin on Thom Gunn's Letters Allice Hiller and Sasha Dugdale in conversation David Herman on the life of Edward W. Said Jena Schmitt on Hope Mirrlees Brian Morton: Now the Trees
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
PN Review New Issue

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

Ashbery's Humour Nicholas Everett

The emphasis critics give to the difficulty and recalcitrance of Ashbery's poetry tends to obscure the fact that it is also, in another way, a wonderfully easy, undemanding read. Stop digging, stop squinting, turn off the blinding interpretative torch, and the poems carry you smoothly across their friction-less yet ever-changing surfaces, offering constant pleasurable shifts in atmosphere and tone. I look forward to each new collection not for the rigours and cultural significances of its Post-modernist discourse (though these are no doubt there too) but for the little surprises it can be trusted to deliver on almost every page - many of them very funny. In this respect, the title-poem of his latest volume, And the Stars Were Shining, from which most of my examples will be taken, has more than lived up to expectations.

Perhaps the first thing to say about Ashbery's humour is that it works so well because it doesn't draw undue attention to itself, but slips past on the celebrated lubricity of his characteristic mode. Many poets (including some he has influenced) spoil their more humorous ideas and turns of phrase by pushing them to the front of the stage, expecting them to do too much. The conclusion to James Tate's short prose poem 'Goodtime Jesus', for instance, is a good idea, and even quite funny, but it would have been better had he not demanded that it carry the poem. 'Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, ...

Searching, please wait... animated waiting image