“Collected Poems, 1956-1987“ by John Ashbery


Ashbery, John. Collected Poems, 1956-1987. New York: Library of America, 2008.

Book Review, by Andrew Field

John Ashbery re-describes reality through the ever-changing vivacity of his ideas. His poems are chronicles of what happens when one of the most fertile imaginations of our time creates landscapes of ideas on the page. In order to understand Ashbery, we need to pay attention to the originality of his ideas, the way in which one idea magically and manically (maniacally?) replaces the next, in this ever-shifting quicksand dance of cognition, perception, thought, imagination, memory. What he is doing is creating rooms, gardens, cities, fields of imaginative thought. When we enter these rooms, we need to stay alert, even as the enormity of the poet’s imaginative garden/city does everything within its power to distract us (almost?) into new forms of attention. (“The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully,” wrote Stevens.) Reading Ashbery is therefore a dangerous ecstasy, for it propels us into a terrifyingly shifting world of “snapped off” perceptions, and the poem itself is constantly equilibrating itself, even as its chaos turns (in his best works) into something uncanny, lyrical, somehow ordered and somehow new.