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John Ashbery: Collected Poems, 1956-1987 (Library of America, No. 187) Hardcover – October 2, 2008
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Starred Review. The first half of a projected two-volume set, this major book, the first collection from Library of America by a living poet, offers a view of Ashbery's artistic development over many decades. Ashbery, now 80, is celebrated for his varied, often elliptical style, which, though verging on the incomprehensible at times, has consistently delighted readers and critics. This volume contains all of Ashbery's books up through 1987's April Galleons; it begins with the Yale Younger Poets Prize–winning Some Trees (1956), chosen by Auden, and includes Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), which won all three major American book awards. Other notable inclusions are the complete text of The Vermont Notebook, with illustrations by Joe Brainard, and an ample group of uncollected poems. Watching Ashbery's art grow from the slippery romanticism and verbal hijinks of the early poems through the philosophical, if sideways, inquiry of the '70s, to the chattier, colloquial period inaugurated in the early '80s, is arresting. Though Ashbery has confounded and inspired in seemingly equal measure, he is, according to both his admirers and critics, the towering figure in contemporary American poetry. This volume follows on the heels of this past April's Notes from the Air: Collected Later Poems. (Oct).
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aSince the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955, we have been in the Age of Ashbery.a
Since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955, we have been in the Age of Ashbery.
?Since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955, we have been in the Age of Ashbery.?
Top customer reviews
Ashbery's own selection from this time period (up to '87) is available, paperback, for less. That's nice, the poet's own selection tells you something; but this volume is everything he wrote in till then including uncollected material, a very detailed chronolgy of his life, 23 pages of notes on the poems and it is in the agreeable Library of America format.
America has produced an uncanny amount of great poetry for some reason, and this fellow will be in the inner circle. $27? Go for it.
....Returning after a few mos more reading, it's become a favorite. If you find the poems that are easy, use a bookmark (never write in a book) then branch out...like Tom Waits tunes...
I read in the NYBR review of this book a few weeks ago that Ashbery has said he would be horrified if he thought that folks were just browsing thru his poetry stoned!
My two favorites within this volume are the ""Houseboat Days," which hit at the more relaxed and free-flowing later poetry including those collections released after the purview of this book, and "The Tennis Court Oath," which is about Ashbery's days in Paris and contain what many see as his most challenging work. Overall, this is an excellent way into the work of John Ashbery and is to be savored.
Ashbery's stature is demonstrated by, among many other ways, this volume of his Collected Poems from 1956 -- 1987 in the Library of America (LOA) series. Ashbery is the first living poet to be honored with a complete volume in the LOA. A second projected LOA volume will cover Ashbery's poetry subsequent to 1987. The Library of America was founded in 1979 to preserve the best of American writing in uniform, accessible editions. It is a series that celebrates America in poetry, history, fiction, philosophy, travel writing, journalism, and more. Ashbery richly deserves his place in it. Ashbery was born in 1927 and was raised in upstate New York. He attended Harvard and Columbia and lived for ten years (1955 -- 1965) in Paris.
This volume consists of over 450 poems. It includes the twelve books Ashbery published between 1956 ("Some Trees") and 1987 ("April Galleons") together with over 60 uncollected poems. Ashbery's first book, "Some Trees" received the Yale Younger Poets Prize. It was romantic in character and made much more use of formal verse forms than did his subsequent work. For example, an excellent early poem in the volume, "The Painter" is written in the highly traditional and formal poetic form called a sestina. (A sestina consists of six six-line stanzas and one three-line stanza with a strict structure in the words which end the lines in each stanza.)
Beyond the first book, Ashbery's work is varied and difficult. It is rarely metered or rhymed. The poems tend to be meditative, in the form of the writer conversing with himself. The poems are seemingly disjointed, with abrupt changes in persons, tenses, and with sometimes startling, incongrous figures. The language passes back and forth from beautiful and original, to colloquial, with frequent cliched or commonplace figures thrown in for effect. Most of the poems resist paraphrase. The poetry explores serious themes, such as love, sexuality, death, the nature of writing, the beauty and variety of the physical world around us, place, childhood. The poems allude freely to art, music, history and literature. For all their modernity, there is a sense of nostalgia in many poems. Inevitably the reader will encounter frustration with this volume. In part, I think Ashbery's goal is to help the reader see things in a new, direct way without the intermediary of stereotypes. The poems are serious, but Ashbery wants to show that seriousness includes playfulness and sometimes whimsy. The poems need to be read both carefully but lightly, to allow the images and lines flow over the reader. When some of the poems appear opaque or even uninteresting -- as many of them will -- the best thing to do is to avoid straining over them and to pass on. This is a long, chronological volume, and there is something to be said from reading it from cover to cover. But it is best read slowly and in small doses.
The central collection in the book "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" is a good place to start as an alternative to reading the book through. This collection won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976, an astonishing achievement. The long title poem consists of Ashbery's reflections on a painting of that name by the Renaissance painter Parmigianino (c. 1524) which in an art museum in Vienna. This celebrated long poem tends, surprisingly, to be more accessible on first blush than does much of Ashbery. The following collection of poems "Houseboat Days" (1977) is almost equally as well-known and is a good way to continue exploring Ashbery's poetry.
The most difficult poems in the book are in an early volume called "The Tennis Court Oath" (1962) which was largely written during Ashbery's stay in Paris. The work is written in a collage style in which sections from different sources are sometimes pasted together in a manner similar to that used by the beat writer William S. Burroughs who also was living in Paris at the time. Subsequent to this collection, Ashbery began the process of modifying the difficulties of his work, a process than has continued through his long career.
My favorite collections in this volume were "Three Poems" (1972) and "The Vermont Notebook" (1975). The former work consists of three lengthy and highly intense prose poems called "The New Spirit", "Theme" and "Recital" to Ashbery's companion, David. The latter book, published in the same year as "Self-Portrait" is a fond look at life in Vermont accompanied by drawings by Joe Brainard. Both these collections will reward reading.
The collections published after "Houseboat Days" tend to be more mixed and laid-back in character than the earlier volumes. A poem called "The Songs we Know Best" in the collection "A Wave" (1984) derives from the poet's repeated hearings of a rock song called "Reunited" which he disliked but couldn't get out of his head. This poem is written in rhyme and meter, unlike most of its companions. Among the many poems in the latter volumes, "Alone in the Lumber Business" , Ashbery's use of Japanese forms in "37 Haikus" and the "Haibuns", and the prose poem "Description of a Masque" seem to warrant mention in this brief overview. The long poem "The Skaters" from the "Rivers and Mountains" collection (1966) is difficult but also is worth singling out for attention.
In an interview he gave to LOA upon publication of the volume, Ashbery mentioned his own little-known favorites from his poems: "He" (from Some Trees); "Idaho" (The Tennis Court Oath); Eclogue(Some Trees); "Rain" (The Tennis Court Oath);"The Chateau Hardware" (The Double Dream of Spring); "Description of a Masque" (A Wave), "Alone in the Lumber Business" (April Galleons) and "The Young Prince and the Young Princess" (uncollected). Ashbery also expresses his fondness for the long poem "Clepsydra" in the "Rivers and Mountains" collection. Readers wishing to browse may wish to look at these selected poems in addition to the poems in "Self-Portrait" and "Houseboat Days".
This is a volume to be read slowly and lightly and over time. A key is to avoid getting angry with oneself or with Ashbery for the many things in this book that will appear almost unintelligible. I am grateful to the Library of America for making this volume available to many readers. I look forward to the second LOA volume of John Ashbery's poetry.