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This article is taken from PN Review 75, Volume 17 Number 1, September - October 1990.

The Other John Ashbery John Pilling

JOHN ASHBERY'S INTEREST in 'otherness', whether personal, cultural or transcendental, has gradually acquired him a considerable audience for his poetry in this country, though not without some controversy muddying the water. The publication of Reported Sightings, a large collection of 'art chronicles' written over thirty years (1957-1987), confirms how far he has been prepared to pursue his quarry, but represents something of a compromise as regards accessibility. There are bound to be those who will see Ashbery the chronicler as further proof of how 'French' he can be, given the sheer number of modern French poets who have doubled as apologists for painters. But the truth is that Ashbery has always felt the need to 'take French leave' of poetry without anything so beaurocratic as a residence permit. He could probably have written no less compellingly, after all, on anything musical from showtunes to Szymanowski if circumstances had been otherwise. Certainly as an art critic he has operated without benefit of that free association in the face of the image which is such a hallmark of his comparable French contemporaries. Of the stances Ashbery considers typical, 'put-down, panegyric and straight reportage', he has stringently practised the last, and has indicated as much by his choice of title for this compilation. Even here, however, with a marked decrease in the quotient of suggestiveness alongside the titles of his volumes of poetry, Ashbery has left a sufficient ambivalence to remind us that evidence and mystery are by no means incommensurable, and ...

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