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

About Ashbery Penny McCarthy

There are two judgements of previous writers on Ashbery which are prima facie in opposition, from deciding between which I should like to duck out from under of, by reading Ashbery as the poet of the prepositional mode of knowing.

One of these is John Shoptaw's in Verse1. He draws attention to the 'all-purpose character' of Ashbery's verse - 'like those stretch socks that fit all sizes', in Ashbery's own description of his poetic in The Tennis Court Oath. He reads certainly some of the poetry as representative rather than representational, in the sense that the 'Vermont' of the The Vermont Notebooks, for example, is chosen as a state to stand in for any other (but not for all) of the United States. The particulars in the poetry are not very particular, but are somewhat like slots into which the reader knows (how?) how to supply his (her?) particulars.

The other is that of Robert Crawford in Identifying Poets.2 The first sentence of his introduction is really enough to show the contrast with Shoptaw: 'This book deals with the way twentieth-century poets construct for themselves an identity which allows them to identify with or to be identified with a particular territory.' It would be misleading not to indicate how aware he is that in Ashbery's case this is more the identity of 'identity crisis'. Nevertheless, he does see Ashbery as articulating the perceptions of contemporary America - 'a media-produced America of B-movie reality'.


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