One of our foremost (and most difficult) living poets talks about a half-dozen almost forgotten colleagues who have had an influence on his own highly influential verse.
In his newest collection of poetry, Your Name Here, Ashbery writes, “No explanations, / not from me,” and he has always been reluctant to offer exegesis of his twisting, witty, but obscure verse. Called upon to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton lectures, he does the next best thing, discussing his interest in six minor poets who have spurred his own writing. Although he offers repeated assurances in the opening lecture that he is not going to “spill the beans” about his own poetry, his choices of subject and approach to their writing is often telling. The six poets (John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Raymond Roussel, John Wheelwright, Laura Riding, and David Schubert) seem to share among themselves little more than their reputations as “minor” and (except for Clare and Roussel) are rarely read today. But Ashbery finds in them another common denominator. Clare and Beddoes are 19th-century Romantics, while the other four are 20th-century modernists, but each of them is someone for whom the mere act of versifying is its own end, with the flash of language in motion often taking precedence over “meaning”—a quality that could fairly be ascribed to Ashbery himself. Perhaps that is why the most conventional exegetical passages of these lectures are the least convincing and most pedestrian. Ashbery says of Clare’s vividly descriptive but strangely detached rural poetry, “The point is that there is no point,” a remark that could also sum up his own verse. The great strength on display here is not that of the “explainer,” but of the enthusiast: in their best passages, these lectures make the reader want to go back to the poets under discussion. And that is just what they are meant to do.
An impressive performance by a central figure in modern American poetry.