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

Ashbery: What's Keeping us Here? Chris Miller

It has been decided that Ashbery is the bard needed by postmodernism, and there is some consumer demand too.

He is the perfect pabulum for the critic. We hear that 'All things seem mention of themselves/And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents' means that 'The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum'.1 Similarly, his poetry undermines the foundations on which we base such fundamental oppositions as 'Truth/falsehood, mask/identity, surface/depth'.2

We hear too that the assiduous employment of cliché and the banal are instances of objection to the 'high art' of modernism, whose 'mode of allusive elusiveness… functioned as a kind of trobar clus,… a rhetoric which would lock away the expression of perhaps common feelings from the understanding of the vile and the base'. Freed of class-prejudice, liberated from Symbolist formalism and irony, 'we' American artists, with Ashbery, move, in Hollander's charmingly arrogant modesty, 'toward a subsequent messiness which we hope will redeem us from our successes'.3 This is why 'Clichés and empty similes and metaphors are accepted by Ashbery; he consents to them finally because, after all, they contribute to our definition of ourselves',4 and it is Ashbery who has made poetry of this truism and a hundred others. Here is the egalitarian, democratic aspect of post-modernism, in which the chair (a chair) is as good as the Van Gogh of the chair, and can be presented in its stead. This ...

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