Saturday, 20 March 2010

Planisphere by John Ashbery

When I read Ashbery’s later selected poems, ‘Notes from the Air’, I began to have doubts about a poet whom I had thought of as perhaps the greatest living poet in English. His poems were so open that they all began to feel as if they were about everything and nothing in particular. In fact, they all began to feel a little bit samey.

Notwithstanding this, his latest collections, ‘A Worldly Country’ and Planisphere’, have proved to be delightful reads. Clearly, Asbery does not benefit from over-exposure.

Rather than write an academic piece, I thought I’d provide a list of reactions/ thoughts which I tend to have to his poems in ‘Planisphere’. The list is non-exhaustive, but many of his poems tend to hit a number of the items on the list below.

• Modern slang/ jargon ‘maxed out’, even swears colloquially (‘For Fuck’s Sake’). Best title of poem ever: ‘um’
• Opens in middle of conversations ‘such an attractive idea’
• Epigrams which don’t refer to anything in particular – or nothing at least you’re likely to know about - but which feel totally exact
• Parody of epigrams
• Sense of imperial (turning post imperial) guilt (less so perhaps than the previous collection ‘A Worldly Country’)
• Jokey, super modernity

Spray on sex, he botanized.
That could never happen.

He is being held by Egyptian matrons.

• Direct address
• Sense of time passing, regret
• Poems feel whole but are in fact often a series of non sequiters, some of which gesture in similar directions
• Naughty bo-ho snidey observations: ‘God-fearing, ass-wearing blokes’
• Funny, playful
• A few poems have identifiable subjects
• Wit about people, time, language ‘the acrostic lost its apples’
• Self-deprecating persona
• Striking poetic effects, using personification and concretizing the abstract
• Some references to God, not exactly respectful – rueful – perhaps, but not blasphemous
• Obvious debt to later Auden, without the need to explain, but the manner, the (off) bearing the same(ish)
• Sometimes I just don’t care what it means, or if it actually means anything at all, it just feels right, like a box you can keep bringing ideas from: I’d/ expected the new bill/ to be unbreakable. Like marble./ Instead: handheld/ receivership’

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