Not a Live Tribe

Alphabetical order is useful for miscellaneous collections of items such as indexes, directories, dictionaries and encyclopedias, address books, and musings and bits of lore (Voltaire’s Alphabet of Wit, for example).  Elsewhere it serves a pedagogical purpose, as in children’s readers and old collections (medieval bestiaries, botanical compendia).  John Ashbery’s latest volume, Planisphere: New Poems, contains 99 poems arranged alphabetically by title; the rationale for this organization is not, however, immediately evident.  Might the alphabet have served as the inspiration for the collection?  Probably not, since K, Q, and X have no corresponding poem, and most letters are overrepresented.  Moreover, the fact that some poems were published previously in magazines suggests gestation over time and discrete composition rather than an initial governing intent.  Might the author have been attracted by the possibilities of correlation between meaning and alphabetical order, the latter bringing out relationships, insights that enrich the whole?  Possibly, if the reader’s imagination is thereby activated fruitfully.  Might Ashbery, instead, have decided on the arrangement for its very arbitrariness, its lack of inherent grounding—rational order imposed on miscellaneous material?  This is quite likely, given the characteristics of his poetry—almost aleatory, marked...

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