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

A New Kind of Emptiness Mark Ford

In a poem called 'Valentine', collected in Houseboat Days (1977), Ashbery offers one of his most direct definitions of the polyphonic nature of his poetry:
 
The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other's way, leaving -
  what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.


As various critics have demonstrated, it is often possible to identify and label the different 'meddling' voices which feature in any given Ashbery poem, but it seems harder to define the possibly refreshing vacancy which, he suggests, is left behind by their orchestral bickering.

This 'new kind of emptiness' obviously relates to some extent to American traditions of the sublime. It might be seen as a typically mottled and randomly occurring version of Wallace Stevens's definition of 'The American Sublime' in the poem of that name. Stevens claims here to have no problems disengaging the 'spirit' from the contingencies that surround it:
 
One grows used to the weather,
The landscape and that;
And the sublime comes down
To the spirit itself

The spirit and space,
The empty spirit
In vacant space.


Ashbery, though, is hardly one to articulate such an elemental vision of final identity. Indeed often he figures the self as wholly determined by external influences, taking ...


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