The Future of Private Language

John Ashbery is a familiar name to readers of contemporary American poetry and art criticism. He is, one might say, the poetry establishment and the art establishment woven into one. He has won all the honors, including a lucrative MacArthur Fellowship (which came to him, predictably, after it might have been needed). With this background, Ashbery will find Viking's new collection of his poems greeted rhapsodically in such places as The American Poetry Review and, perhaps, attacked by impolite youths in more independent sources.

To an educated public-at-large, which doesn't follow new poetry, Ashbery's assembled work offers an instructive look at a hugely successful career in an era of innovation and individualism, and it suggests the future direction of American poetry.

In 1956 Ashbery's first book, Some Trees, established the delicacy of tone and elegance of vocabulary which still, in general, mark the most satisfying efforts in his nine later volumes of verse. At his best, Ashbery is so sure of his sound and his rhythms that a purist may even admire the freer poems for their reliance on the old verities of style. In this passage from "The New Realism," for example, the immediate sense of which suffers from a lack of punctuation, he brings a welcome freshness to a eulogy. The deceased woman, a daffy gardener perfectly suited to the genre that might someday be called...

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