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

John Ashbery Michael Hulse

Commentary on John Ashbery's poetry prefers ideas about the thing to the thing itself. It is rare to come across a critic who can say much of interest about a poem of Ashbery's. Legion, however, are the critics who can talk till the cows come home about the autonomy of language in Ashbery's poetry; the challenges posed by it to our sense of self, of cognition, of thought and logic; his oblique longing for transcendence in a secular age; and so forth. This is why Ashbery is the darling of academics who think themselves progressive: he can be used as a platform for ideas that require neither textual analysis nor poetics.

So let's talk ideas about the thing as well. I take it that the history that produces an Ashbery is familiar. With the steady disappearance of God, the sense of selfhood that was underwritten by God's guarantee of the oneness of substance and accidents eroded too. The disintegrated self (Trilling's phrase) of Rameau's nephew; Keats's 'I have no nature'; Rimbaud's 'Je est un autre': these are the signposts on the resulting high road. Over two centuries later we are left with the shibboleth that there is no such thing as an 'I', since selfhood is contingent, plural, unstable. Self, the substance that has displaced the soul in our enquiries, requires but eludes definition. Part of the attempted definition now accepted as orthodox insists that language - the shifting nature of which at once mirrors, shapes and ...

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