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This article is taken from PN Review 46, Volume 12 Number 2, November - December 1985.

Surface and Accident: John Ashbery Göran Printz-Påhlson

John Ashbery's position in modern poetry (or modernist poetry or, indeed, postmodernist poetry) is now so secure, but also so peculiar that it seems more difficult than ever to bring it into focus, relating it to the American poets of his own or a slightly younger generation. Critics like Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler have worked hard at rounding it up in a more traditional fold of American poetic development, but for every new departure taken in his later books there seem to be more and more stray mavericks among his poems, which quite definitely refuse to let themselves be classified in those terms. It is some time since the heyday of the New York poets, and it might be difficult to remember how Ashbery could be seen to have anything in common with Ted Berrigan or Frank O'Hara. There is, however, in his latest books - and perhaps more so in his most recent book, A Wave - enough to remind habitual Ashbery-readers of the time when he was considered l'enfant terrible of the American poetry scene.

Which has all led to the fact that, whereas quite a lot of ingenious and sometimes brilliant criticism has been directed to important areas of Ashbery's activities, in poetry - and one should perhaps add, fiction and drama - the main territory they are addressing themselves to and, in a way, the very rationale behind those activities have remained in need of elucidation and confrontation with the poetic practices ...


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