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John Ashbery and English Poetry

Ben Hickman

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A study of how we should read one of America's most important poets

Ben Hickman argues that we must attend to Ashbery's radical conception of reading if we are to understand the originality of his writing. His study focuses on Ashbery's reading of English poets, including Andrew Marvell, John Donne, William Wordsworth, John Clare, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, and examines Ashbery's writing in terms of an 'aesthetic of inattention'. Hickman critiques the Americanisation of Ashbery's work as well as common assumptions about his Romanticism, his avant-garde Modernism and his engagement with the historical present. He demonstrates that Ashbery's generosity as a writer is closely tied to his generosity, inattention and situatedness as a reader.

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Contents

Abbreviations
Acknowledgements
Introduction
1. Lost words: Donne, Marvell and Ashberyan metaphor
2. 'The music of all present': Ashberyan description and the presence of John Clare
3. 'Always articulating these preludes': landscape, Wordsworth, 'A Wave' and after
4. 'These decibels': Eliot, Ashbery, and allusion
5. The first and most important influence: Ashbery and Auden
Bibliography
Index.

About the Author

Ben Hickman is the author of John Ashbery and English Poetry (Edinburgh, 2012) and has published numerous essays on the New York School, the New American Poetry, John Clare and others. He studied at University College, London and currently teaches at the University of Kent.

Reviews

An individual and authoritative reading of one of the great poets of our time. In discussing Ashbery, Hickman also brilliantly evokes the English poets who influenced him, from Donne through Clare and the moderns. Hickman writes with clarity and depth of knowledge. He is rooted in the American yet also, and deeply, in the British and Continental traditions which most matter to an understanding of Ashbery's and most post-Modern American and British poetry. He relocates Ashbery's poems within the zones where they actually belong and where they tell us they belong.
- Michael Schmidt, Professor of Poetry, University of Glasgow

Hickman identifies a distinctly Ashberyan "style" of reading — a "poetics of inattention" — which acts as the book’s imperative principle. He employs this conception of Ashbery’s "logic of distraction" to argue convincingly for the importance of the Metaphysical poets to Some Trees and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and is particularly authoritative in delineating W. H. Auden’s influence throughout Ashbery’s career… [M]easured, lucid and convincing in giving a very strong sense of what Ashbery has learned from each of these poets… John Ashbery and English Poetry proves to be a necessary, valuable account of this inexhaustibly various poet.

- Oli Hazzard, Times Literary Supplement

Ben Hickman’s study sets out to revolutionize our understanding of Ashbery by illuminating his multifaceted dialogue with English poetry, arguing quite convincingly that Donne, Marvell, Clare, Wordsworth, Eliot, and Auden exert at least as crucial an influence upon his poetics as American predecessors like Stevens and Pound. Because of the widespread critical tendency to cast Ashbery as a quintessentially ‘American’ poet, then, John Ashbery and English Poetry stands as an important redressal [that] issues in fresh insights, illuminating many fascinating and heretofore unacknowledged connections (both rhetorical and in terms of subject matter) between Ashbery and key English predecessors.

- Stewart Cole, University of Toronto, The Review of English Studies

This is an exhaustively researched, persuasive study of lines of influence often given short shrift in the vast, canonical scholarship on Ashbery. Hickman demonstrates clearly the limitations of major US critics (Bloom, Perloff, Vendler) who stress the Pound-Williams-Stevens lineage. By eschewing the anxieties of influence, Hickman instead portrays Ashbery as a poet reading and using other poets, specifically, the metaphysical poets John Clare, Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden. Hickman demonstrates the ways in which Ashbery's evasive, elliptical methods develop from these particularly English models… [T]he demonstration of Clare's non-narrative description as something that allows Ashbery to focus on "the history of the present" is excellent, as is his discussion of Auden's parataxis as the fundamental model for so much of Ashbery's own syntactic juxtaposition and image structuring. Perhaps most incisive is Hickman's observation that though both Eliot and Ashbery employ fragmentary poetics, they do so for vastly different purposes: Eliot to serve his external master narrative and Ashbery to allow fragmentation to become the only narrative of merit. Summing Up: Highly recommended.

- M. Willhardt, Monmouth College, American Library Association