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February 01, 2010


Was with you all the way until the last sentence!

Dear Michael,

I really enjoyed reading your article this morning. How delightful to begin with a picture of JA in his schnazzy leather jacket photo (which I've used as a Facebook profile photo some months ago, guitly as charged) - and then cruise down the page to end with a shot of Dylan's The Basement Tapes.

It annoys me, I must confess, when people - as they should be able to - fail to see the overwhelming merits of two American giants like Ashbery and Dylan, certainly the two that have shaped my mind most since I had half-of-one.

The Nobel remains such a paradox of an award. In literature, we all know it's the highest prize, the big crown, the thing that counts. And at the same time, we all take for granted that much more than aesthetic considerations control the august committee's royal selections. James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Andrei Bely are just among the handful of those that never received this award.

As someone therefore in deep sympathy with your point of view, I still have some caveats about your argument. Ashbery is often, it's true, dismissed for his supposed obscurity (which must be at least as famous as the poems themselves, if not more). But then if we respond, as you do, by saying they just are, like MacLeish has it, it seems to open a floodgate to a lot of pesky questions. How come's Ashbery's "isness" manages to remain vital and refreshing when a legion of imitators and other poets (and not just L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) who wanted the same effect, or argue the same effect, don't move us so? What is the Ashberyian difference, I guess I'm trying to get at. Is it just freedom, just the arbitration of his facility with language?

I like what you say about his escape from personality. In this way JA has to be the most Keatsian American poet - both disinterested and able to assume the voice of whatever he touches. But a tone persists, an undertow of loss and elegy, what a first reviewer disparagingly referred to as that brittle, whimsical voice. Sixty years after "Some Trees," that pleading whimsy with its endless engines of inventions persists. Sure does.

Another item I question is your proposal that language is nature. I can't quite tell whether you mean to be provocative or threateningly literal (in a good way). I don't think I can agree, as you seem to say, that we should no more question the elements of JA's poems then we should question the elements themselves.

One difference that Dylan talks about that always fascinated me: In nature, there is no judgment. You can look at a lilac or a mountain and say which is better. They are all perfectly themselves. Each thing is uniquely itself, refined, Hopkins-like "right." In art, like poems, I think we have to question the rightness all the time. Whether that's Some Trees, or Rivers and Mountains, or The Poem That Took the Place of the Mountain, etc. We're searching for rightness. Dickinson: Nature is a House that's haunted, Art the one that tries to be.

You also compare "The Second Coming" to JA's "Syringa." Apt. Both poems I love dearly, have for a while. Makes me all weepy to think on them. But what makes you think, per se, that we NEED context for Yeats' lyrics but can quickly dismiss of them in JA's case? I identify with the same temptation: JA's disparate, dislocated style seems to eschew distinguishing between This and That. You have to buy the whole property. No time to analyze, dissect, or plant footnotes in the text. But I would want to argue, and not for the sake of consistency, that all great poems need as little or as much context as we want to give them. I for one spent a while (I would bet you did too) before I plunged into the esoteric backlogs of Yeatsian cyclic history. But you're contrasting something in pedagogy, and maybe only something remotely in the two poems. I just wonder if it does JA's work a danger to let it adrift from our critical circumspection because the poems are themselves adrift critical-minded circumspection. I don't know the answers.

Dylan when asked by Paul Zollo about whether or not he liked Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams better, or what the difference between the songwriter styles was, responded: They're the same. Hank singing "This Land is Your Land" or Woody croaking "Your Cheatin' Heart," - Dylan thought he could see both swapping.

I think about that sometimes. Ashbery on Desolation Row or Dylan stuck in the Tennis Coat Oath. If only because they're so different from everyone else, they seem so alike.

Anyhoo, loved the post.

"But if you don't give it to Ashbery, at least give it to Dylan."

How about two-for-one special?

(Forgive the flutter of typos and inaccuracies as I sneakily scrawl this at work.)

I have yet to appreciate John Ashbery. Actually, I just don't like his poems. But that's beside the point of what I want to say.

1: who cares whether anybody gets a Nobel Prize?

2: Ashbery's receiving a Nobel would NOT mean giving it to "Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, Pound, Stein, Frost, Moore, Hughes, Sandburg, Williams, Stevens, Olson, Zukofsky, et al." No author can represent the rest. I found that particular sentence insane.

I offer these comments with best intentions. Have a good one.

Hear, hear! Agree entirely despite last sentence ambiguity. (Dylan Thomas is dead.)

Your argument for Ashbery is great. You've convinced me.

However, your mention of Dylan got my blood boiling. So what if he's written some bad lines . . . the man's a poet.

He wrote Girl From the North Country for Christ's sake.

Looking forward to your future posts.


The Nobel Prize is definitely worth having, even if it has gone to mediocrities and not gone to great writers of international fame such as Borges, Nabokov, and Graham Greene. It's worth having because you get a fantastic write-up in the paper and you get a million dollars or more from the Nobel Academy, which was set up, let's remember, by Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, who brought so much joy into the world. Anyway (you knew this was coming) thanks for the dynamite post. PS Liked the way you sneak Archie in there.

Unlike some who've commented here (and do any living writers inspire more gut-level comment than Ashbery and Dylan?), I agree that Ashbery contains multitudes. And as much as I like Dylan, it was your apt Van Morrison quote I most admired in this context.

I only wish I could've found a video of him performing "Summertime In England." The Montreux concert was the first place I heard the song and it might be my favorite stand alone Van song. Which is saying a lot.

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