Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

John Ashbery, _Breezeway_

IN 1985, THE year Ashbery's first Selected Poems appeared, I had an office next to someone who edited a fairly prestigious literary journal housed at a fairly prestigious university.  One day, passing my office on the way to his, he asked if I had read James Fenton's condescendingly dismissive review of Ashbery in the Sunday NYTBR. I had. "I think Ashbery's about done," the editor said. "People are on to him."

So, thirty-one years later, can you think of a living American poet more influential than, more honored than, or with better prospects for future regard than John Ashbery?

(And when was the last time you heard anything of James Fenton, who in 1985 was sometimes mentioned as his generation's successor to Auden and Larkin?)

Breezeway is, for me, hard to distinguish from Planisphere or Quick Question, but at this point Ashbery hardly needs to have any late-career surprises up his sleeve. One largely knows what to expect, and Ashbery delivers, and that suffices: "Was it this you were expecting, / and if not, why not?" he reasonably asks.  He can apparently keep this up for as long as he wishes to--"No problem / that I can see, unless it's running out of raw material."  His material being the flotsam and jetsam of spoken and written English, he can't run out.

I wonder whether the best way to read late Ashbery is to take in about twelve poems at a time, then put the book down for a few days, then read another twelve. He does tend to repeat his devices (the sudden unexpected question, a proper name brought in for the first and only time about three-fourths through the poem, a direct but unfulfillable imperative), so breaks might be helpful, but even once you notice the recurring tricks, his powers of invention seem never to flag, and tthe old delight keeps blooming.

No comments: