“Collected Poems: 1991-2000" by John Ashbery, edited by Mark Ford, Library of America, 819 pages, $45.
John Ashbery was born in Rochester and spent major chunks of his youth outside Rochester, in Sodus and a lakeside cottage in Putneyville. That didn’t stop him from being proclaimed one of the most influential poets of the past half century and, at the same time, the most difficult, by far, of the major poets of the “New York School” who were, so often, distinguished by cosmopolitan wit and pitiless aestheticism. Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler (who, once upon a time long ago, worked in Buffalo at Ulbrich’s) can all be read with delight intermixed with the requisite broad aesthetic grounding.
Ashbery requires more puzzling out than that. But he was also--especially in the later years covered by this book--far more available to the “common reader” of literary mythology than many would have you believe. What’s required is to read him very slowly and carefully but with quick intellectual reflexes. Lord knows he came by aestheticism rightly. In youth, he intended to become a surrealist painter and after an educational life at Deefield Academy, Harvard and Columbia, he went to Paris, stayed for 10 years and, sprung from the art editorship of the International Edition of the Herald Tribune into editing his own journals. It’s no wonder that Donald Barthelme, who once edited his own journals in Houston, was among the non-poets most enthusiastic about Ashbery’s life work. Before Ashbery’s life ended recently so shortly after his 90th birthday, he was hugely influential, hugely admired and also lumped in with all that was often derided as cloistered and dense. (Billy Collins and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he’s not.)
And yet Adam Kirsch may be wittily definitive: “John Ashbery, like God, is most easily defined by negatives. His poems have no plot or argument, no sustained mood or definite theme. They do not have meaningful titles...It is important not to ignore the radicalism of his work, the avant-garde playfulness that takes its inspiration from Dada and Surrealism.” In this second volume of his Collected Poems from the Library of America it’s exhilarating all the way through.