Heavy Lifting

John Palattella

  • Other Traditions by John Ashbery
    Harvard, 168 pp, £15.50, October 2000, ISBN 0 674 00315 2
  • John Ashbery and American Poetry by David Herd
    Manchester, 245 pp, £45.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 7190 5597 0

A little over thirty years ago, John Ashbery delivered a lecture at the Yale Art School called ‘The Invisible Avant-Garde’, in which he asked whether the distinction between the avant-garde and the mainstream has become obsolete. ‘Looking back only as far as the beginning of this century,’ he remarked, ‘we see that the period of neglect for an avant-garde artist has shrunk for each generation. Picasso was painting mature masterpieces for at least ten years before he became known to even a handful of collectors.’ Since when the period of neglect ‘has grown shorter each year so that it now seems to be something like a minute. It is no longer possible, or it seems no longer possible, for an important avant-garde artist to go unrecognised.’ Ashbery’s sense of historical change is too tidy, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of his claim: the centre has absorbed the periphery and the periphery has grasped the power of the centre. ‘Is there nothing then between the extremes of Levittown and Haight-Ashbury, between an avant-garde which has become a tradition and a tradition which is no longer one?’ Ashbery hardly needed further confirmation of his thesis, but he got it eight years later when he was profiled in the New York Times Magazine under the dubious title ‘How To Be A Difficult Poet’. It was just the thing for readers in Levittown.

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