PARADOXES AND OXYMORONS: 50 Lyrics by John Ashbery


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You send someone/ Down the flight of stairs to ask after/ The true course of events and the answer always/ Comes back evasive yet polite: you have only to step down. . ./ Oops, the light went out. That is the paper-thin/ But very firm dimension of ordinary education."" These lines are from ""Everyman's Library,"" and they--like dozens of similar lines in other poems-succinctly and literally characterize this book of 50 shorter lyrics. The interaction of evasion and knowledge that makes Ashbery's work so intriguing in one light, so banally coy and empty in another, is in full force here; so are Ashbery's beloved imaginary landscapes of enforced calm and partial moment. And because the poems are all only 16 lines each, Ashbery can indulge in whimsy knowing it can't linger--though his sense of comedy is usually quite unsure (in ""White Collar Crime"" or ""Or In My Throat"" or ""Caesura,"" he stumbles badly in attempts to make abstractions into pithy phrases). Still, in a number of the poems-""Drunken Americans,"" ""A Prison All the Same,"" ""The Leasing of Summer""--Ashbery has begun to correct the disquieting agelessness of his voice, the weightlessness of defused feeling. One finds something approaching scars of personality here--and, as added texture alone, they are welcome. ""Something Similar"" is a beautiful poem; and the last lines of ""The Freedom of the House"" amount to Ashberian ""testimony"" without the fancy duckings and swerves. ""It means that a disguised fate/ Is weaving a net of heat lightning on the horizon, and that this/ Will be neither bad nor good when experienced. Meanwhile/ The night has been pushed back again, but cannot say where it has been."" Mostly familiar soundings, then, with a few promising developments.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1981
Publisher: Viking