One of America’s most important poets, John Ashbery has dazzled readers with the elusive pleasures of his work for over four decades. John Shoptaw heightens those pleasures by discovering the inner and outer workings of this incomparable poet. In readings attuned to the textual, sexual, and historical specificities of Ashbery’s poetic project, from Some Trees through the vast summation of Flow Chart, Shoptaw introduces readers to the poet’s processes of production.
The first reader with full access to Ashbery’s manuscripts and source materials, he is able to reveal the poet at work. He shows us, for instance, how Ashbery built “Europe” and “The Skaters” upon children’s books picked up at a Paris quai and how he drew on his own unpublished lyrics for the long dialogue “Fantasia on The Nut-Brown Maid.” Shoptaw argues that Ashbery’s poems are less self-referential or nonrepresentational than misrepresentative: fractious assemblies of odd details, cryptic substitutions, and artful and artless discourses. He traces Ashbery’s misrepresentative poetics to diverse sources—Walt Whitman, Raymond Roussel, W. H. Auden, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, Jackson Pollock, and Elliott Carter, among others. Ashbery’s poetry, as Shoptaw demonstrates, is inevitably “homotextual” while refraining from taking homosexuality as a topic.
Ashbery disorients his poems with unexpected silences, lapses or wrong turns in arguments, mock confessions, and sudden abstractions. As this book reveals, Ashbery’s misrepresentations yield a richer and stranger representation of ordinary experience. Ashbery takes his paradoxical stand on the outside looking out of an American culture and history we recognize as our own.