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John Ashbery and American Poetry


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Table of Contents

1. Two Scenes
2. The Art of Life
3. An American in Paris
4. Forms of Action
5. From Poetry to Prose
6. John Ashbery in Conversation
7. John Ashbery and Friends
8. 'And later, after the twister': the sense of an ending in recent Ashbery

About the Author

David Herd is Senior Lecturer in English and American Literature at the University of Kent, Canterbury.


In 1979, Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and ever since he has embodied the paradox he himself described in an interview that year: "On the one hand, I am an important poet, read by younger writers, and on the other hand, nobody understands me." Other books introduce Ashbery's work or pair him with other poets, and David Lehman's splendid The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (LJ 9/1/98) is, as Herd acknowledges, the closest there is to a biography of the poet. Here, Herd puts Ashbery in the context of both his time and all time, and the core of this book is Ashbery's intellectual associations with everyone from Frank Kermode to Blaise Pascal. In pointing out that Ashbery is at home in the mind more than anywhere else, even as he pines for a place in the world, Herd avoids blame-the-poet stereotypes and instead points out that the times we live in make real communication with the best poets all but impossible. In the midst of the blizzard of information that is our world today, Ashbery is thus the emblematic poet, sad and triumphant, irrelevant to the average Joe yet essential to poetry in its present wistful state. Recommended for all good literature collections. David Kirby, Florida State Univ., Tallahassee Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

" In this spirit, what Herd offers is not a reading of Ashbery but a way of reading Ashbery, and a critical language more appropriate to Ashbery's peculiarities than pre-packaged approaches, which merely make Ashbery reflect their own concerns. This is one of the most entertaining, lucid, witty, generous and hospitable works of criticism I have had the pleasure of reading. Like all good critics, Herd sends us back to the poems; prepared for the adventurous journey ahead, but not saddled with someone else's luggage." -- "The Guardian"
" Like all good criticism, this book sends the reader eagerly back to the works in question; it would be a shame if it were read only in academia, for it has much to offer any reader interested in the recent history of American poetry." -- "Publishers Weekly"

In the poetry trade, what often unites the dullest "workshop" conservative and the wildest experimentalist is a shared regard for the poems of Ashbery, even if they are often different poems. But what also unites every reader of Ashbery is the mystery of how his singular achievement came to be, of how the poet developed and sustained a body of work at once so intimate and unknowable. A lecturer in English and French literature at the University of Kent, Herd, in his extraordinarily lucid and jargon-free monograph, is smart enough not to attempt a definitive answer to such questions, but his command of the materials that prompt the questions can only illuminate numerous aspects of Ashbery's long and complex career. Herd's basic thesis that Ashbery's ambition is to write a poem "fit for its occasion," in which the writer and reader (and speaker, as well) come "face to face with the now in which everything must happen" is convincing, but the strength of the book is that he doesn't keep hammering away at it. Herd's "close readings" are just that, never straying pointlessly far from the poems in question, but always alive to their paradoxes. Likewise, Herd's use of secondary sources, including input from such pivotal but nowadays rarely cited figures as Paul Goodman, Philip Rahv and C. Wright Mills, is always at the service of understanding. Like all good criticism, this book sends the reader eagerly back to the works in question; it would be a shame if it were read only in academia, for it has much to offer any reader interested in the recent history of American poetry. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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