Questions of influence, tradition, heritage, and their relevance to the theory and practice of literature, and particularly their significance in the establishment of individual poets’ intelligences and fields of concentration, have been of primary interest among writers for most of the twentieth century. In academic circles, these questions have been placed on a more systematic, theoretical level since the 1970’s, thanks in large part, though not exclusively, to the work of the critic Harold Bloom. John Ash’s poetry in The Burnt Pages is, among other things, a fascinating instance of what Professor Bloom has called “the anxiety of influence.” Since the poems that exemplify this anxiety are both complex and, to some extent, derivative, though in a manner that is resourceful and imaginative rather than contrived and obvious, it is appropriate to establish something of the larger cultural context by which some of the effects that Ash creates in his work can be appreciated.
As an English poet living and working and drawing much of his imaginative sustenance from the United States, and from New York City in particular, John Ash represents an instance of influence that may be superficially considered unique. Historically speaking, the tide of influence has been considered to flow from east to west. European culture in all its phases was regarded as a model upon which American artists were well advised to draw, just as in Europe the classical world of Greece and Rome was thought not merely aesthetically and artistically inspirational but also, in practical terms, a source of models and forms that would discipline the imagination and assist in rendering objective a given artist’s vision. Works by Henry James in fiction, and by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in poetry, addressed by theme and example some of the issues raised by the artistic power of Europe, a power that was expressed both in terms of tradition and also in terms of the force of tradition in the conduct and management of civilized society.
The example of Pound and Eliot with regard to matters of tradition and influence, evident in their various theoretical writings no less than in their poetic practice, is generally acknowledged for its landmark status in literary history. One reason that it has been given such a status, however, is because of the various reactions that occurred against their European preoccupations. The generation of American writers who came after Eliot and Pound found their example impossible to follow. In England, also, it became necessary to discover artistic approaches that would be departures from what had become somewhat dogmatic cultural orthodoxies. The most important example of the English reaction to Pound’s and Eliot’s assertion, in different forms, of a homogenized tradition of English and European culture is the work of W. H. Auden. Although Auden’s decision to emigrate to the United States in 1939 was not made necessarily for exclusively artistic reasons, both his presence there and his poetic practice proved immensely influential.
Auden’s example is not the only, or even the major, instance of a shift of emphasis in English poetic concerns resulting from the impact of Pound and Eliot. Their example also produced what might be termed an American strain in English poetry, originating in the work of the Pound-influenced Basil Bunting and continuing, under rather different auspices, in the poetry of Tom Raworth, Charles Tomlinson, and Lee Harwood, among others. Equally important is the rejection of this strain by many English poets, most notably Philip Larkin. In the light of these developments, the impact of Auden’s American departure has been felt less emphatically in his native country than in his adopted one. Nevertheless, Auden’s American career has continued to act as an important prototype for a number of different English poets—Thom Gunn provides a case in point—and its relevance and significance to the international dimension of poetry in English since 1945 cannot be overlooked.
In The Burnt Pages, there is a strong sense of the complex burden of poetic and other, more commonplace, and even more enervating, history. The book is the author’s sixth collection of verse; a number of his earlier works were published by the influential English poetry press Carcanet, and this is his first volume to have its initial publication in the United States. As evidence of the poet’s awareness of even literary history’s complex heritage, The Burnt Pages contains a number of echoes from Auden. For example, in “Misconception of Richness,” the figure in the poem is introduced “standing on the wrong side of the world,/ at the wrong end of the year,” words that echo Auden’s “right song for the wrong time of year.” In “World’s Floor,” there is an elaborate restatement of Auden’s dictum that “poetry makes nothing happen.” A number of the poems invoke obliquely, by their tone and their implicit interrogation of art, Auden’s...