Cover image for John Ashbery and American poetry
John Ashbery and American poetry
Herd, David.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Palgrave, 2000.
Physical Description:
viii, 245 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library PS3501.S475 Z69 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



David Herd provides a critical language for a ppreciating the beauty and complexity of Ashbery's writing. Presenting the poet in all his forms--avant-garde, nostalgic, sublime, and camp--he demonstrates that the inventiveness of Ashbery's work has always been underpinned by the poet's desire to fit the poem to its occasion. Tracing Ashbery's development from his origins in the dazzling artistic world of 1950s New York, Herd portrays Ashbery as both an American pragmatist writing in the spirit of William James, and a committed literary internationalist learning from Boris Pasternak and the Russian avant-garde. His poetry is shown to be alive to such culturally defining issues as the growth of mass culture, the absence of God, the war in Vietnam, the emergence of AIDS, the erosion of tradition, and the decline of the avant-garde. Herd compares Ashbery's responses to the work of, among others, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O'Hara.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Herd (Univ. of Kent, UK) provides a clear, rich study of one of the most recognized living poets writing in English. This is not biography, although specific information about Ashbery's life, intellectual pursuits, residences, and literary friendships and collaborations are central to the discussion. Nor is it simply a critical narrative of five decades of Ashbery's poetry with close "new critical" analysis. Herd investigates a paradox--how does one read a poet who is both influential (famous) and perplexing (obscure)--and develops strategies for reading Ashbery's work. The poetry and ideas of Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler enter the discussion. Readers will learn about Ashbery in relation to visual arts, drama, the gay and lesbian movement, and, of course, the New York School. Herd is aware of all that has been written about his subject. In particular he discusses John Shoptaw's On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry (CH, Jun'95), admitting a debt to this book then proceeding to fault Shoptaw for his critical language and approach. Ultimately, Herd puts Ashbery in the American tradition of Whitman, not an observation that many would automatically make. Complete with a full bibliography and many footnotes, this volume is recommended for ambitious upper-division undergraduates through faculty. B. Wallenstein CUNY City College



Chapter One Two scenes: the early poetry and its backgrounds The first poem in Some Trees is `Two Scenes'. I We see us as we truly behave: From every, corner comes a distinctive offering. The train comes bearing joy; The sparks it strikes illuminate the table. Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny. For long we hadn't heard so much news, such noise. The day was warm and pleasant. "We see you in your hair, Air resting around the tips of mountains." II A fine rain anoints the canal machinery. This is perhaps a day of general honesty Without example in the world's history Though the fumes are not of a singular authority And indeed are dry as poverty. Terrific units are on an old man In the blue shadow of some paint cans As laughing cadets say, "In the evening Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is." (ST, 9) `Two Scenes' is a significant poem. It was significant at the time because, as the first poem in Ashbery's first widely distributed book, it was the piece with which he chose to introduce himself to the American reading public. It is significant in retrospect because it remains broadly representative, the poem displaying various qualities we would now call Ashberyan. Its organising principle, if that's the term, would seem to be parataxis: mountains following water-pilots following tables following trains with barely a by-your-leave. It is conspicuously polyphonic, each scene ending with another person's voice. It is also irreverently occasional. This is, monumentally, a day `Without example in the world's history', and yet the young cadets are laughing, amused perhaps by the knowingly clunky rhyming of machinery, honesty, history, authority and poverty. And because `Two Scenes' finds Ashbery already comfortable with strategies which will figure in his mature style, it follows that we learn something important about his poetry if we can establish where the light, airy, deftly occasional language of this early poem came from. What was it reacting against? How did it mean to distinguish itself? What did it mean to say to the readers who made up its poetic environment? Ashbery has been a quite severe critic of his own early poetry. Speaking of both his own writing and O'Hara's, he has observed how while Later on in the more encouraging climate of New York, we could begin to be ourselves ... much of the poetry we both wrote as undergraduates now seems marred by a certain nervous preciosity, in part a reaction to the cultivated blandness around us which also impelled us to callow aesthetic pronouncements. Ashbery arrived in New York from Harvard in the early summer of 1949. The `cultivated blandness' to which he feels he and O'Hara reacted (by which they were `impelled') thus refers to the poetry scene of the late 1940s, when, as Ashbery observes, `the kind of dream-like, more imaginative poetry of the thirties such as that of Delmore Schwartz, and Randall Jarrell, was replaced by their later work and by Lowell'. A similar shift, he has observed, was taking place in Britain, with some of his favourite poets of the late 1930s and 1940s, notably Nicholas Moore and F.T. Prince, slipping into obscurity in the wake of the rise of Larkin.     Quite how strongly the poets of the New York School felt impelled to write against what became thought of -- owing to the poets' university affiliations, their friendship with the New Critics, and their preoccupation with matters of form -- as the academic style of the Lowell-dominated middle generation, is nowhere more apparent than in Kenneth Koch's poem `Fresh Air'. A sort of anti-manifesto for the emergent poetry of the New York School, `Fresh Air' is set in `The Poem Society', Koch staging an argument between the resident `professors' and the poets of `the new poem of the twentieth century'. The poem is explicitly antagonistic, Koch observing of the professor-poets: that they `have never smiled at the hibernation / Of bear cubs except that [they] saw in it some deep relation / To human suffering'; that they are `physically ugly', having `certain hideous black hairs' and a voice like the sound of `water leaving a vaseline bathtub'; that they are `worms'; that they are `maker[s] of comparisons'; that they insist on precision (`One more mistake and I get thrown out of the Modern Poetry/Association') while actually producing `hideous fumes' (as opposed to the `Fresh Air' of the new poets); and, just in case the reader hadn't already worked out who these `abstracted dried-up boys' with their `stale pale skunky pentameters' were, that they publish in ` Partisan, Sewanee , and Kenyon Review !'.     `Fresh Air' is both subtler than it seems and strategically simplistic. It is subtle in that, as it describes the gloomy circumstances out of which `the new poem of the twentieth century' is struggling to emerge, it tells the story of its own birth -- Koch imagining his own writing to be part of the `new poem' -- and so manifests a central aspect of the New York School aesthetic. It is simplistic in that, just as new generations of poets (especially avant-gardistes) habitually caricature the previous generation as a means of carving out a space, and working up an impulse, for their own writing, so always the relation between the generations is more complicated than the caricatures suggest. Thus for instance, the poetry editor at Partisan Review was Delmore Schwartz, and both Koch and Ashbery had gone to Harvard in large part because Schwartz taught there; Ashbery subsequently describing Schwartz as one of the writers of the 1930s who `helped to shape the poetry I was then writing' and whose work, as he sees it, has `simply been forgotten' as a consequence of the rise of Lowell. And Ashbery has generally been careful to discriminate between different phases of middle generation writing, distinguishing early Jarrell and even early Berryman from their later work. But if `Fresh Air' simplifies things for effect, what is clear from Koch's poem and Ashbery's remarks is that the New York poets were confirmed in their repulsion for the presence of Lowell. Speaking in 1965 (and so some time after the grudge had first formed) O'Hara remarked how `Lowell has ... a confessional manner which [lets him] get away with things that are really just plain bad but you're supposed to be interested in him because he's supposed to be so upset'. Three years earlier he had taken a more direct dig, opening a reading with Lowell at Wagner College, Staten Island, with a poem (`Lana Turner has collapsed'), which, as he was delighted to inform his audience, he had written on the ferry on his way to the performance. The point of the gesture was to prick the studied manner of Lowell's writing. `The audience loved it,' David Lehman reports, `Lowell looked put out.'     But if some of their early poems were `callow aesthetic' responses to poetry for which they felt deep distaste, the New York poets' reaction to the Lowell-dominated middle generation was by no means entirely negative; the very absence of a poetry scene with which they could readily identify prompting them to read widely and more actively. Ashbery has remarked of O'Hara that the first four or five years of his writing life were `a period of testing, of trying to put together a tradition to build on where none had existed', and that The poetry that meant the most to him when he began writing was either French -- Rimbaud, Mallarmé, the Surrealists ... or Russian -- Pasternak and especially Mayakovsky, from whom he picked up what James Schuyler has called the `intimate yell'.' The remark applies equally to Ashbery himself, as it does to Koch, one section of `Fresh Air' being devoted precisely to the act of putting together a tradition upon which the new poetry might be based: Who are the great poets of our time, and what are their names? Yeats of the baleful influence, Auden of the baleful influence, Eliot of    the baleful influence (Is Eliot a great poet of our time? no one knows), Hardy, Stevens, Williams, (is    Hardy of our time?), Hopkins (is Hopkins of our time?), Rilke (is Rilke of our time?), Lorca    (is Lorca of our time?), who is still of our time? Mallarmé, Valéry, Apollinaire, Éluard, Reverdy, French poets are still of    our time, Pasternak and Mayakovsky, is Jouve of our time? All of which suggests that to grasp Ashbery's early poetry, and to understand where the new language of such poems as `Two Scenes' was coming from, it is important to understand both what the Lowell-dominated middle generation had come to mean for American poetry by the late 1940s, and what Ashbery was reading to help distinguish himself from it. In itself, of course, the fact of an antagonism between avant-garde groupings such as the New York School and the so-called academic poetry of the middle generation is hardly breaking news, the distinction having solidified as long ago as the early 1960s into the `raw' and the `cooked'. Partly, however, because of the speed with which this convenient distinction hardened into place (amalgamating, as it did, the very different poetries of the New York School, the Beats and the Black Mountain School) and partly because thinking about recent poetry has tended to be theoretical rather than historical, the antagonism between the avant-gardes and the academics has more often been assumed than detailed. Detail is warranted because, in relating the emergence of Ashbery's new language, what one is necessarily describing is the difficult birth of postmodern writing. Identified with one another from the start, leading, as Lowell put it in his elegy for Berryman, `the same life, / the generic one / our generation offered', the beginnings of the middle generation were decidely undynamic. Berryman and Jarrell were first published together, both poets appearing in the 1940 New Directions anthology Five Young American Poets . In the anthology each poet's selection is prefaced by their observations on the state of contemporary poetry. And what the prefaces demonstrate is not the youthful energy of a brave new literary movement but a profound uncertainty, the whole volume being characterised by a disorientating lack of definition. Thus, as Berryman sees it: None of the extant definitions of poetry is very useful; certainly none is adequate; and I do not propose to invent a new one. I should like to suggest what I understand the nature and the working of poetry to be by studying one of the poems in this selection. There is a curious play of confidence and insecurity in Berryman's remarks: rejecting out of hand all of the `extant definitions of poetry', but shrinking from the task of proposing a new one. Opting, instead, to provide a careful analysis of one of his own poems, Berryman feels his way towards a definition along the more cautious route of practical criticism. But nothing one could call a definition emerges, Berryman risking no more than the unremarkable observation that `Poetry provides its readers, then, with what may be called a language of experience, an idiom, of which the unit may be an entire complicated emotion or incident. The language is nor the language of prose'. As the history of rallying-calls for a new generation goes, this is one of the less galvanising.     Faced with the same lack of direction that Berryman voices, Jarrell knew where to place the blame, the problem, as he told it (in no uncertain terms), being modernism. `Modernist poetry', he contested, extorted its attraction because it was carrying the tendencies of romanticism to their necessary conclusions; now most of those conclusions have been arrived at; and how can the poet go any further? How can poems be written that are more violent? more disorganised? more obscure? more -- the adjectives throng to me -- than those that have already been written? Finding his critical style early, Jarrell's state-of-the-art account is altogether more forceful (if more broad-brushed and arguable) than Berryman's. It is all the more striking, therefore, that the keynote of his remarks is also uncertainty. Like Berryman, Jarrell can offer no new definitions, can make no predictions. Rather, [w]e have reached one of those points in the historical process at which the poet has the uncomfortable illusion of choice; when he too says, `But what was it? What am I?' ... So the poets repeat the old heartlessly, or make their guesses at the new.     Jarrell returned to the question of what comes after modernism two years later in an article for The Nation entitled `The end of the line', this time tying the modernist demand for novelty to the Romantic commitment to originality: Romanticism ... presupposes a constant experimentalism, the indefinite attainment of originality, generation after generation, primarily by the novel extrapolation of previously exploited processes ... All these romantic tendencies are exploited to their limits; and the movement which carries out this final exploitation is what we call modernism. Then, at last, romanticism is confronted with an impasse, a critical point, a genuinely novel situation that it can only meet successfully by contriving genuinely novel means -- that is, means which are not romantic; the romantic means have already been exhausted. The tone is apocalyptic, but the problem is a real one -- one that poets since the war, whether late-, post- or even anti-modern have had in some way to negotiate -- namely, how to keep on making it new; when novelty itself has become familiar. Or as O'Hara, out-Jarrelling Jarrell, put it, `New is an old word let's get a new one.' Seeing it as his main task to make his readers face up to their postmodern condition, Jarrell makes an announcement: It Is The End Of The Line. Poets can go back and repeat the ride; they can settle in attractive, atavistic colonies along the railroad; they can repudiate the whole system, à la Yvor Winters, for some neo-classical donkey caravan of their own. But Modernism As We Know It -- the most successful and influential body of poetry of this century -- is dead. Criticism as forceful as this commands attention, so it is important to notice how Jarrell maps the postmodern scene here. Repetition (which would be continuation), separatism (along the lines of an artistic colony), and nostalgia (à la Yvor Winters) are all swiftly rejected: the only new directions `the age offers to the poet' being, as Jarrell sees it, `a fairly heartless eclecticism or a fairly solitary individuality'. The appearance of these alternative marks an important shift. In 1940 Jarrell had felt that there was only an illusion of choice, and that the poet could only guess at the new; in 1942, an opposition around which poets might begin to position themselves, by which they might redefine their task, was beginning to be formed. Jarrell's terms were insightful -- postmodern poetry still divides between the sophisticated collages of LANGUAGE poetry at the one end, and the inward gaze of confessionalism at the other -- and, while he was not himself especially attracted to either alternative, he worked hard to make the opposition stick. Writing about the New Directions anthology of 1941 (which included Nicholas Moore and F.T. Prince), he found in it `a sort of encyclopaedic contradiction', `a queer mediocre hodgepodge'. `Nowadays,' he concluded, `seeing people being consciously experimental together has the brown period smell of the Masonic ceremonies in War and Peace'.     Jarrell worked hard to establish an opposition because his generation needed one. Strong literary movements gain much of their energy through the friction of opposing the previous generation. What the early critical writings of Jarrell, Berryman and Karl Shapiro show is that they felt no such opposition. Whether because of the war, the link between aesthetic and political fundamentalisms, the neutering of its strategies by the critical procedures that had developed to explain them, or, as Jarrell implies, sheer exhaustion, modernism, as, the poets of the middle generation saw it, was finished, and something else had to be done. But in pronouncing the death of modernism, they were not defining themselves against it, only' after it, still holding, as they did, the achievements of its major writers (Eliot and Yeats in particular) in reverence. The consequence of this reverence for a movement they considered aesthetically obsolete was that if, as a generation, they were to gain impetus from opposition, then, unusually in literary history, they had to generate that opposition for themselves: witness Jarrell's criticism; Shapiro's Essay on Rime , with its bleak poetic alternatives of `ennui' and `violence'; and, most tellingly here, Berryman's decisive 1947 review, `Lowell, Thomas, & Co.'.     Focusing on Lord Weary's Castle , the point of Berryman's review was, as the title of a later piece had it, to distinguish between `Lowell and others', to which end he formulated a new opposition: Whatever the devotion of a lesser poet, it may be put as the difference between the occasional and the thematic , between the making of a few fine poems and the conversion of a whole body of material. If the first is impressive, the second is oppressive as well, troubling, overwhelming. Now Robert Lowell seems to me not only the most powerful poet who has appeared in England or America for some years, master of a freedom in the Catholic subject without peer since Hopkins, but also in the terms of this distinction, a thematic poet. (Berryman's italics) Lowell later described Berryman's review as `definitive', which it was, in various respects. The central opposition itself is strict: `theme' deriving from the Greek for deposit, and so indicating that which endures through time and resists change; thematic , poetry thus standing in clear contradistinction from poetry written for the occasion. And in this sense Lowell's early poetry, is strictly thematic , his poetry being marked from the outset by the ambition to endure through time. The opening of the volume's major poem `The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket' made this clear: A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket,- The sea was still breaking violently and night Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet, When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. The sailor dies and his name is inscribed in nothing more permanent than yellow chalk. But this is not to be Lowell's fate. With its historical subject, and its allusion to Captain Ahab, America's most enduring literary hero, the poem clearly has something monumental about it. It is in his carefully wrought sound, however, that Lowell most clearly signals his intention to survive: the repeated `c's', `k's', `t's' and `d's', deriving as they do from the oldest names on the American map, generating a percussive, consonantal music that in its sheer hardness shows a determination to endure.     But Berryman's review was definitive also because, more so than Jarrell's, the terms of his opposition gave rise to a structure of judgement capable of shaping the contemporary poetry scene. Certainly Berryman worked them hard, modulating them only slightly in his review of `Lowell and others' to speak of the difference between improvised and `deliberate' poetry. Of `improvisation' he suggests that you can see it best, after Auden's early books, in the beautiful work done by Delmore Schwartz at the decade's end in America -- to name one line of corroboration, Blackmur hung his review of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities on the word `improvised' ... But Mr. Lowell's poetry is the most decisive testimony we have had, I think, of a new period, returning to the deliberate and the formal. Improvisation is not yet rejected out of hand (some of his best friends had improvised), but equally there is no doubt that the kind of poetry Berryman now values highest is the `deliberate' and `formal'. By 1948, however, resistance to improvisation had become axiomatic for Berryman. Reviewing the British poet Henry Reed, Berryman again asserts Lowell's value antithetically. He is not altogether unimpressed by Reed, suggesting that he is `a poet whose slightest shift can contrive excitement'. His real value in this review, however, is, again, to act as other to Lowell. Berryman is explicit: Strategies and strategies. Confronted equally with difficult situations, Reed relaxed beyond relaxation and Lowell tightened beyond tightening. Reed breaks metre into anapaests, feminine endings, extra-syllabled lines of all sorts, Lowell into spondees and humped smash. Lowell's work is `difficult,' Reed's on the whole `plain,' in extreme degrees. In 1940, it is worth reiterating, it seemed to Berryman and Jarrell that the poetry scene lacked definition, that the age offered only the illusion of choice. By 1948, however, the territory has become so rigidly defined, the oppositional schema so well established, that even a poet whom, as Berryman says of Reed, he had not read `till the day before yesterday' falls immediately into place. He has to be either one thing or the other, and Reed is emphatically the other, because, as Berryman suggests, `one's strongest sense [when reading him] is of an accepting poetry' (Berryman's italics). The problem with poetry which accepted its circumstances, as Berryman now saw it, was that in failing to transcend those circumstances it would therefore fail to survive them, with the poetry's, or rather the poet's, survival being, according to the new criteria, the be all and end all. André Breton could thus be promptly dismissed because he wrote poetry Berryman doubted would `last two centuries'. Jane Lewis's problem was that, slight as her poetry was, it lacked the durability, even though `handsome' to `keep it in memory'. Only the thematic poet would reach Parnassus, because by definition (as Berryman saw it) only the thematic poem could survive the ravages of time.      Jarrell, likewise, came to see things in terms of the thematic and the occasional. William Carlos Williams's poems, which previously he had admired, now seemed to him to fail because they `do not give us a big, secure, formed, regularly rhythmed world to rest in, and we fall from one homogeneity of instant occasion into another'. While confirming the speed with which a means of discrimination had hardened into a prejudice, Jarrell complained that the occasional, improvisational art of the Abstract Expressionists could have been produced by a chimpanzee. Lowell's poetry, by contrast, and this was high praise indeed, was `more at home in the Church Triumphant than in the Church of this world': (Continues...)

Table of Contents

Abbreviationsp. vi
Acknowledgementsp. vii
Introduction: John Ashbery's sense of occasionp. 1
1 Two scenes: the early poetry and its backgroundsp. 26
2 The art of life: collaboration and the New York Schoolp. 52
3 An American in Paris: The Tennis Court Oath and the poetics of exilep. 69
4 Forms of action: experiment and declaration in Rivers and Mountains and The Double Dream of Springp. 93
5 From poetry to prose: the sceptical tradition of Three Poemsp. 124
6 John Ashbery in conversation: the communicative value of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Houseboat Daysp. 144
7 John Ashbery and friends: the poet and his communities in Shadow Train and A Wavep. 179
8 'And later, after the twister': the sense of an ending in recent Ashberyp. 207
Bibliographyp. 223
Indexp. 241

Google Preview