Ashbery Is Eighty

The most influential and impressive living American poet, John Ashbery, turns 80 today. I missed his - was it 75th? - birthday in Paris a few years back - time is speeding up. Yet still the New York School master is, thankfully, abundantly with us (his latest collection, A Worldly Country, came out this year, in the UK from Carcanet). So: happy birthday, Mr. Ashbery. My poem for you is below.

It may seem churlish to say so, but many (most?) British and Irish poets and critics just don't get this most versatile, fluent and loquacious of American poets - and in the process, miss not just a passenger, but the conductor and whole train of current American poetics and poetry. In Ashbery, WCW's American grain is rubbed smooth with French verse, an appreciation of abstraction in art and talk, and a big city insouciance that is both lyrically pleasing and intellectually perplexing. A few years ago, that most traditional of lyrical craftsmen, Seamus Heaney, told me he didn't think Ashbery wrote "real poetry" - because it was not rooted in experience. Instead, it is dandified, swift-moving, self-regarding, modern, and, of course, able to apprehend artifice as the end branch of the tree of life, not something wholly unnatural to the human condition.

Play is games, and games are artificial - but so are symbols, so are words. Poetry meets the human world by making things up, and ruffling the leaves a little in the process. Ashbery's fluid stroll through the urbanity of the world and its languages is no less grounded in experience than any farmer's. And his poems sing as do those of more remote bards. Of course, it is Ashbery's near-uncanny mastery of his words, his poetry - the signature of bardic power - that in effect frightens those gate-keepers who consider decorum in poetry - its governed articulation - the measure of its command. In this way, he is closer to Dylan Thomas and that brand of Forties eloquence than is often noted.

Ashbery is a great poet - Frost, Pound, Auden, Stevens, Eliot, Lowell - some other great Americans not mentioned here so far, are renewed and redelighted in his company. Along with Frank O'Hara, his way with words is overwhelming, like the sea's crashing roll can be. I think, to survive his oceanic impress one must surf on the crest of his saying, to loll on his elegant swerves, winning the coast at last, unaccosted.

As an amusing addendum, one way of gauging Ashbery's current crisis of reception (theirs not his) in the UK, consider how The Guardian treats his major birthday today - a small (but balanced) note on the back page of their Review section, to be sure - but, the week's poem is by Alice Oswald, that most conspicuously English of contemporary British poets, whose crafted, concise, energetic Hughes-like nature poems, while wonderful, are, in a sense, often a refined counter-claim to the Ashberyian oeuvre (though her long river poem in its flow, is, arguably, a tributary of, if not tribute to, JA).
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