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Equal Terms

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It’s the scale of things you notice first in John Ashbery. Plenty of his poems have a way with the short line and the ‘regular’ fit. But the long line, extended into the deafening silence that’s always about to ensue – this is the Ashbery signature.

It’s an old, American question: from sea to shining sea, what is all that space about? And why are we here, if not to fill it?

Ashbery prefers the urbanity of the coast, but he has a sense of the wide and worrying expanse at his back. It’s wrong to think his poetry doesn’t go there. It spends a lot of time roaming in the middle of nowhere, but it doesn’t advertise its adventures with spurs and chaps, or commendable species identification, or intimate encounters with the void. Ashbery is more like an elegant host managing a party where the conversation is about to go dead.

He is also a great reader, generous, attentive, ready to offer his listeners a way into any of his poems. The Pennsylvania recorded poetry archive has grown a marvellous subcolony – PennSound Daily – and it’s leading at the moment with a John Ashbery week. A week is a not a long time in poetry, but even when this one is up, you can still hear a range of Ashbery’s readings, from 1966 to 2009. Mark Ford has likened Ashbery to Whitman for his willingness to involve ‘the reader on equal terms’. These pieces prove it.

Was Whitman a good reader? There is a spooky wax-cylinder recording of ‘America’, thought to have been read by the author and well worth listening to, even if it booms and scrapes like a sound-effect in an early David Lynch film.

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