Ashbery, John 1927–
An American experimental poet whose best-known collections are The Tennis Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Ashbery [is] a very difficult and perhaps impossible poet … Some Trees is made up of poems which display a great deal of irresponsible yet often engaging imagination. With one half of the mind feeling like a mystified but somehow willing accomplice, and the other half becoming more and more skeptical, one follows the bright, faddish jargon Ashbery talks with considerable obscure brightness, trying patiently, with some engagement, to decide which of several possible meanings each poem intends. The poems have over them a kind of idling arbitrariness, offering their elements as a profound conjunction of secrecies one can't quite define or evaluate. One doesn't feel, however, that Mr. Ashbery has been at great pains to fabricate these puzzles; on the contrary, this manner of writing seems perfectly natural to him, which must, I suppose, qualify him as an original of some sort…. Wallace Stevens … presides over Some Trees in many of his most tiresomely precious surface mannerisms, and little of his incomparable linguistic surety and tact. Though Mr. Ashbery enjoys a real facility with language, and is able to handle difficult forms, like the pantoum and the sestina, with remarkable ease, his poems amount to nothing more than rather cute and momentarily interesting games, like those of a gifted and very childish child who, during "creative play period," wrote a book of poems instead of making finger paintings. If one had no acquaintance with other poetry than Mr. Ashbery's, one would believe there were nothing more to the art than a vague, somewhat precious and connoisseurish liking for words and the puzzle interest of working them into difficult patterns.
James Dickey, "John Ashbery" (1957), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 58-60.
John Ashbery is one of the most original of contemporary poets. His … poems … are full of startling metaphors and fresh juxtapositions of words and perceptions. He keeps pushing the limits of language; he lives on the most thinly held, the most dangerous, frontiers. His impatience with the merely remembered phrase is evident in every line, though he occasionally uses a cliché to evoke a standard response which he then swamps with irony….
Ashbery's weakness is a curious opaqueness, at times, that comes from tenuousness or paucity of subject matter. But he comments—tangentially—on many familiar themes….
Technically, Ashbery is in debt to projective verse, for he works in free forms even when he invokes the "spirit" of the sonnet, canzone, or pantoum.
Stephen Stepanchev, "John Ashbery," in his American Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 188-90.
John Ashbery is the Sphinx of the generation. Not only are all of his poems enigmas or simply impossible to understand but they appear to promise esoteric wisdom one finds nowhere else in American poetry. Fellow poets, critics and students admit to despair at ever discovering the key (if one exists) to the riddle of the poems in The Tennis Court Oath (1962) and Rivers and Mountains (1966)…. Each [single poem] proves cryptic, puzzling, unique.
One quality most of Ashbery's poems share, on the other hand, is something like the peculiar excitement one feels when stepping with Alice behind the Looking Glass into a reality bizarre yet familiar in which the "marvelous" is as near as one's breakfast coffee cup or one's shoes being shined by an angel in the barbershop. In an Ashbery poem the marvelous is, in fact,...
(The entire section contains 3461 words.)
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