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Chinese Whispers


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About the Author

John Ashbery was born in 1927 in Rochester, New York. He grew up in Rochester and spent most of his time living with his grandparents. Ashbery had to leave the city and move to the country at the age of seven when his grandfather retired from his post as professor at the university. He went to Deerfield Academy at 16 and felt out of place in this '...sort of jock, upper-class WASP school.' (John Ashbery, 'How far to go too far,' The Guardian, G2, 24 July, 1997, 12.) He continued his education at Harvard where he met Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara and, along with James Schuyler and Barbara Guest, they became known as the 'New York School of Poets.' This was not an official 'school,' but a group of like minded poets seeking to undermine the serious and academic poetry written after the war in America. In 1955 Ashbery was awarded the Fulbright scholarship enabling him to go to Paris and he also had his first book of poetry accepted by W H Auden who, at the time, was the editor of the Yale Younger Poets Series. The collection of poems produced during Ashbery's time in Paris, The Tennis Court Oath, were extremely experimental and were not well received by critics. When his scholarship money ran out, Ashbery became an art critic and translator. Ashbery finally returned to New York after the death of his father in the mid-sixties and has remained in the city since then.


Since winning the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1975 for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Ashbery has been regarded as one of our major poets. This thoughtful new collection may not be any great advance-with Ashbery's elliptical style, how far can one go?-but it does maintain his momentum. The eye is immediately caught by some lines in an early poem-"Our lives ebbing always toward the center,/ the unframed portrait"-which feel like a key to Ashbery's aesthetic; he doesn't want us to look only at the center, at the shapes that predominate, but at the details along the edge. Thus, at first reading, his poems can seem like a string of out-of-sequence images, but they do bleed a definite atmosphere. Often, that atmosphere is disquieting or at least restless, but in these autumnal pieces a sense of calm predominates. True, the tale "jerks/ back and forth like the tail of a kite," and frogs and envelopes mutter, "That was some joust!" But the energy crackles only momentarily; here, things repeatedly fall, ebb, dissipate, or descend. Not that these are dreary pieces; there is a light touch and consistent pacing throughout, making this a satisfying read. Given Ashbery's stature, this is recommended for all contemporary poetry collections.-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"

Ashbery's most recent style equal parts cracked drawing room dialogue, 4-H Americana, withering sarcasm and sleeve-worn pathos has been perfected over five or so books and adapted by generationally diverse poets from James Tate to Max Winter. The late Kenneth Koch's description of Ashbery as "lazy and quick" remains thoroughly apropos; these 61 page-or-two poems can seem brilliantly tossed off, much like those in his 2000 collection, Your Name Here. The title is appropriate too: Chinese Whispers is the British name for the game of Telephone, where children (or adults) gather in a circle and whisper a "secret" word or phrase into the ear next to them. The last person says it out loud; the results are often "off" in funny, surprising and telling ways. The surprise, in poem after poem, is that high and low comedy and offhanded delivery can read like simultaneous expressions of pain and regeneration and that they do not dull after multiple permutations are spun out: "The beginning of the middle is like that./ Looking back it was all valleys, shrines floating on the powdered hill,// ambivalence that came in a flood sometimes, though warm, always, for the next tenant/ to abide there." As with all Ashbery's work, these poems leave plenty of room for readers to abide. (Oct.) Forecast: This is Ashbery's 24th book of verse, and 11th since his Selected Poems. While the essays collected in 2000 as Other Traditions were warmly received, the two books of poems that followed 1999's Henry Darger-inspired Girls on the Run got less attention. The release of this book comes a few months after Ashbery's 75th birthday; look for reviews that trace the continuing arc of his work. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

'Praised as a magical genius, cursed as an obscure joker, John Ashbery writes poetry like no one else.' 'The language of [John Ashbery's] books is informed by his roving enthusiasms for particular composers. His tastes are both eclectic and out-of-the-way.' (Michael Glover, 'A blue rinse for the language,' The Independent, 13 November, 1999) 'The careering, centrifugal side of Girls on the Run is one of its most effective tools in creating its special ainbience of good-humoured menace ... Ashbery has made the slush of signification, the realm where words slip, slide, perish and decay, uniquely his own.' (David Wheatley, Review of Girls On The Run, John Ashbery, Times Literary Supplement, 30 June, 2000) 'In his seventies John Ashbery offers a sprightly and energetic alternative. Instead of being sluggish he demands that the self must be even more alert, more vigilant, more attentive to the world around it, not indifferent to and weary of it. Alert, vigilant, attentive ... Wakefulness, the brilliantly evocative title of Ashbery's collection.' (Stephen Matterson, 'The Capacious Art of Poetry,' Poetry Ireland Review 62, 114)

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