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

The Messiness of Life Peter Porter

There has never been a critical atmosphere more inimical than today's to what I believe is the most natural response to poetry - namely selecting from it with pleasure and pointing readers in that direction. If I call this 'wallowing' as a gesture towards the superior archons, then there is not enough such wallowing at present and too much high-class commenting and criticising. Ashbery might seem so successful a figure that critical decorum now calls for deep assessment, and explainers both judidous and arcane must be unleashed on him. A more appropriate response would be the opposite. We need greater familiarity with Ashbery's poetry: we need to read it over and over again. The niceties of criticism are all too likely to come from that subsidised domain, the University English Department. 'Early Difficulty in The Tennis-Court Oath and its companion poems'; 'Middle Period Authority in the poems of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Houseboat Days'; a lead-in via Shadow Train and A Wave to 'Late Ashbery' in full lexically-swollen state (Flow Chart) with a coda presenting the lyrical revaluation of Hotel Lautreamont - and so on! Such is a possible evening class lecturer's brisk handing-out of chapter headings. More sophisticated approaches are already coming from the press, usually big books with impeccable theoretical antecedents. There are less sophisticated ones also - I first read John Ashbery in 1980, since when I have written none other' - something like this could be several poets' confession.

Ashbery remains ...


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