Ashbery was clever to see Poe was right: poetry succeeds at what prose fiction can’t do.

We fall into the error of modern thinking by assuming all thinking in the modern era is modern thinking. 

The truth is: Modern isn’t new, but rather what follows, and is attached at the hip to, the old.

So modern isn’t even modern, and by the same reasoning, post-modern is even less modern.

The more ancient, the more new

But enough of this.

The point we want to make is that modern has nothing to do with a contemporary who happens to be clever enough to discover a small (or a large) truth.

Ashbery discovered an old truth, and if we persist in thinking that every success in poetry after 1900 is somehow a  “modern” one, we blind ourselves to how Frost or Eliot or Ashbery succeeded.

The so-called ‘avants’ flatter themselves that being modern means breaking taboos, that poets like Byron and Pope walked in fear of taboos; but this is to treat truth as a taboo, so no wonder the ‘avants’ fall short of Byron and Pope in wit, and everything else.

Ashbery’s reputation is based on a principle that never varies.  It’s a simple one, but it’s how we know Ashbery is Ashbery, and its simplicity in principle doesn’t mean it didn’t take a certain genius to discover it and persist in it—in order to rise to prominence in the crowded field of post-war American poetry.

Stop for a minute and think to yourself: what makes Ashbery Ashbery?  What is it that he provides that no one else does?

Most cannot see that it’s what poetry does that other literary genres cannot do, which makes poetry work as poetry.  The formula is too hyper-practical, too obvioius, too simple for them to see.   They think contemporary poetic interest has something to do with “new” modernism “breaking taboos,” or some other foggy notion.

Let’s set the glorious record straight.

James Joyce was already well-known before he unleashed his Finnegan’s Wake on the world; had this been his opening gambit, it surely would have doomed him to obscurity.  No fame rests on lengthy (or even moderately lengthy) works of fiction which defy sense and meaning.  The reason is simple: few have the patience to read nonsense for a very long time.  But who would deny we don’t get a certain pleasure from sweetly elegant, ambitious, and lofty nonsense, having absolutely no design upon us? 

Enter the Ashbery poem (seen in glimpses here and there, in Gertrude Stein, influenced by her professor, William James b. 1842, early Auden, or Wallace Stevens, but never persisted in so as to define a career ) which, simply because of its lyrical brevity, enabled it to succeed at its literary mission: tickling the reader’s fancy with doses of pure nonsense in small enough bites to enjoy. (Byron’s epics, or any writing that self-consciously digresses, could also be seen as an influence.)

Surely the ‘Ashbery Poem’ appeared when it did because of other so-called “modern” developments, some sub-literary, some extra-literary, some literary, etc. but even so, it is crucial we don’t confuse the conditions for something with the thing itself. 

We don’t see how even Mr. Ashbery, himself, could disagree.


  1. December 6, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    “Just not like my parents!”
    Is what people say,
    Then find that they do things
    Their grandparents’ way.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    December 6, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Kenneth Koch ‘Fresh Air’ (1956) was compared to Byron on Gallaher’s blog by Kent Johnson, recently.

    Sounds exactly like Ashbery. Like Ashbery, but better.

  3. December 6, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    By assiduous search I
    Found the Rules of Academe—
    The moral of the story?
    There is no permanent team.

    Click to access quintet-the-rules.pdf

  4. Bill said,

    December 8, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Pardon the digression, but I thought Tom Brady might enjoying seeing his English alter ego pitching in this discussion of the T.S. Eliot Prize under the name of YLanier.

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 8, 2011 at 7:09 pm


      Or Alan Cordle’s alter ego–Al is the real ‘naming names’ guy.

      I noticed YLanier led a charge against earlier naive anti-capitalist comments. Brilliant. England’s been ‘anti-capitalist’ since Wordsworth, even while they were busy taking over the planet by being ‘anti-capitalist.’ The hypocritical version of Liberalism was invented in Britain.

      My money’s on Bernard O’Donoghue, the Oxford academic, since Oxford is one of the sponsor’s clients!

      Oxford gave us the New Criticism and Language Poetry.

      Good to see you again, Bill. Thanks!


  5. tom said,

    December 12, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    It’s been real. I had a real solid troll-through here. We should talk soon. Goodbye.

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