Cover image for Chinese whispers : poems
Chinese whispers : poems
Ashbery, John, 1927-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2002]

Physical Description:
viii, 100 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3501.S475 C48 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
PS3501.S475 C48 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



Chinese Whispers is the British name of a game called Telephone in America. According to a certain "Professor Hoffmann" in his book Drawing Room Amusements (1879), "the participants are arranged in a circle, and the first player whispers a story or message to the next player, and so on round the circle. The original story is then compared with the final version, which has often changed beyond recognition." "Chinese Whispers" is also the superb title poem in this new collection of sixty-three poems by John Ashbery. In these works, as perhaps in much poetry, the verbal nucleus that is the original incitement toward a poem undergoes twists and modulations before arriving at its final form. The changes are caused not by careless listening to the speech of others, but by endlessly proliferating trains of ideas that a single word or phrase ignites in the poet's mind. These alter the face of the poem even as they contribute to it and become part of its fabric. As in a sea change the poem has been transformed, often into "something rich and strange," but the strangeness is that of thought being opened up, like a geode, to reveal unexpected facets of meaning. John Ashbery has been called "America's greatest living poet" by Harold Bloom. Now in his seventy-fifth year, he continues to write poetry that is dazzlingly inventive and original.

Author Notes

John Ashbery was born on July 28, 1927 in Rochester, New York. He received a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a master's degree in English from Columbia University. After graduating, he wrote advertising copy for Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill.

In 1955, he won the Yale Younger Poets prize for his first collection, Some Trees. While on a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, he began writing art criticism and editing small journals. After about a decade in France, he returned to New York, where he became executive editor of ARTnews and continued to work as an arts journalist. After ARTnews was sold in 1972, he taught and wrote art criticism.

He wrote several collections of poetry including Houseboat Days, Flow Chart, And the Stars Were Shining, and Turandot and Other Poems. He received a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976 for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. He also received the Antonio Feltrinelli International Prize for Poetry in 1992, the Ambassador Book Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, and the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2011. In 1993, the French government made him a Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He also translated the poems of Pierre Martory. He died on September 3, 2017 at the age of 90.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Ashbery, prolific, incisive, and bewitching, is not only a great poet, he's a philosopher and a tease. His balletic leaps from the abstract to the concrete, the inanimate to the animate, the intimate to the elusive provoke and unsettle until the reader surrenders to his elegant charm and wise humor, his sly toying with the oddities and hidden significance of colloquialisms and social convention, and his offhanded yet wistful inquiries into the nature of time and the hunger for meaning that drives our dream-drenched lives. Gallantly confiding and satirically funny, the poet pretends that he's above it all, but for all his glimmering and grace, sauciness and savoir faire, he, like everyone else, is forever fishing for clues and playing detective, anxious to tease out something timeless from the transient babble and whirl of our routines. And what he discovers and revels in is a glistening twilight beauty, lovely and ephemeral, and a deep resolve to stick around to see the sun rise and set again, to share stories, to cherish simple things, to stay attuned and spellbound. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

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

Library Journal Review

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