John Ashbery: The Instruction Manual

1960s: Days of Rage

“John Ashbery wrote his first poem when he was 8. It rhymed and made sense (‘The tall haystacks are great sugar mounds/ These are the fairies’ camping grounds’) and the young writer—who had that touch of laziness that sometimes goes along with precocity—came to a realization: ‘I couldn’t go on from this pinnacle.’ He went on, instead, to write poems that mostly didn’t rhyme, and didn’t make sense, either. His aim, as he later put it, was ‘to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about.’ It worked. Early on, a frustrated detractor called him ‘the Doris Day of Modernism.’ Even today a critic like Helen Vendler confesses that she’s often ‘mistaken’ about what Ashbery is up to. You can see why: It simply may not be possible to render a sophisticated explication de texte of a poem that concludes ‘It was domestic thunder,/ The color of spinach…

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