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

Ashbery's Abnormalcy Gregory Woods

There is a defining moment in the poem 'Qualm' when the oblique trajectory of John Ashbery's view comes clearly into evidence. The poem, which appears in the 1982 collection Shadow Train, is ostensibly about Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States (1921-23). The prime point Ashbery makes about this undistinguished politician is that he invented two words: 'bloviate', whose meaning is unclear, and the unnecessary 'normalcy'. Both the vagueness of the former and the fact that the latter is a perversion of 'normality' suggest that Harding was not the man to grant custody of the American language; and yet, as Ashbery has accepted by the very fact of having included them in his poem, for all their crassness both words are strangely expressive, particularly on the manner of their own coining. Ashbery's supposition of what 'bloviate' means - 'to spew aimless verbiage' - instantly sticks to Harding as the perfect word to describe his linguistic activities. And the word's perfection, its aptness to purpose, is clearly self-contradictory, a paradox. The same goes for 'normalcy', which in some sense - indicated by the fact that the word has always been so sniffily received by English-speaking intellectuals - is not a normal word at all.

Ashbery presents Harding as a dull man, at least by presidential standards: he never even wanted to be president; he died undramatically, in a hotel, while his wife was reading to him from a newspaper. From this portrayal one infers that ...


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