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

Bards, Boardrooms and Blackboards: John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens and the Academicization of Poetry Claude Rawson

John Ashbery is perhaps the most highly regarded living poet in America. He is, in more ways than one, the heir of Wallace Stevens, and like Stevens some three decades ago is acquiring a belated minority following in Britain. He is in many a critics' poet, like many modern and postmodern masters, the product of a culture whose reading is shaped in the seminar-room and which accepts 'explication' (even defeated explication, which is a permanent invitation to more explication) as an essential constituent of its reading experience. This need not imply inauthenticity. It is a natural (and by no means the ugliest) product of the hegemony of university English departments over the literary consciousness of the more affluent regions of the anglophone world, and (as Alvin Kernan showed some years ago)1 deeply rooted in the economics of (especially) American publishing, which have identified even for imaginative writers the profitability of the teacherly text. In Britain, English departments, like everything else, are fewer and smaller than in the United States, and to this day form a smaller proportion of poetry's reading public. This may have something to do with Ashbery's relatively late recognition there, though these correlations are doubtless not simple.

The phenomenon of an academicized literary idiom is wider and older than the institutional hypertrophy of literary studies that it nowadays reflects. Its roots lie partly in an earlier modernism, in the works of Joyce, Eliot, and Pound, whose principal writings precede the rabbitlike proliferation of literature ...


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