Ben Hickman’s new book on John Ashbery is a must for anyone who is interested in this most prolific and central of contemporary American poets. And, perhaps even more importantly, it offers a highly convincing and inviting introduction to how Ashbery’s work is closely related to his reading of British poetry. As Ben Hickman puts it in his introduction:
The centrality of poets like Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Lovell Beddoes and John Clare to Ashbery’s achievements, along with near-contemporaries like Nicholas Moore, F.T. Prince and W.H. Auden, show a poet reading in a manner quite foreign to most other American poets of his time, both from mainstream and avant-garde movements.
In this context it is interesting to recall J.H. Prynne’s comments from 1968 about J.V. Cunningham’s appraisal of Wallace Stevens:
Cunningham has also more recently described how Stevens’ preoccupation with the dialectic interaction of self and environment is “the residue of the teaching of Royce, William James, and Santayana” and has argued that his finest achievements like ‘Sunday Morning’ are in “the nineteenth century rhetorical style…of Wordsworth’s Prelude, Keats’ Ode to Autumn, Tennyson’s Ulysses”. One might wish to add to this sketched list: the ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ and ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ of Yeats, for example, or maybe Charles Olson’s ‘The Kingfishers’ and (with important reservations) John Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters’.
Ben Hickman’s book on Ashbery is available from Edinburgh University Press and Michael Schmidt’s blurb on the back is a serious boost for this new book: