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

Ashbery in Perspective Anthony Howell

It is John Ashbery, more than anyone else, who has been responsible for creating that measure of recognition conceded nowadays to abstract poetry. Abstraction is a questionable term for a form which insists on the reality of its medium; making us aware of the surface we are looking at, or of the actuality of the words in a text, whatever the content signified by it. In Ashbery's case, a laconic acceptance of the ordinary may resemble content; but his detached, amusing, sometimes melancholy tone provides the excuse for a poetry which tunes us in to a consideration of syntax and sentence-construction - the feeling of how things hang together, or could or should or might hang together - just as an intriguing piece of music leads us from its beginning to its end. The gist of a previous passage may slip away as we read further, but again and again we stumble as if by accident on phrases of deep import: they come upon us like sudden raindrops out of a blue sky.

I have heard him referred to as a poet difficult to understand. However, I have found it easy to appreciate the poems I have got to know. It is hardly a question of comprehension, but simply that the flow of his inspiration is charted by his language - to shape a phrase out of the title of his long poem 'Flow-chart'. Like a landscape, his poetry is to be returned to and dwelt in. ...


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