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Ashbery: Collected Poems 1956-1987

The first volume of a projected two-volume set of the work of John Ashbery.

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If John Ashbery’s widely acclaimed status in literary circles as “the great living American poet” were ever in doubt, the recent publication of his Collected Poems 1956-1987 as part of the prestigious Library of America series would serve to cement that stature.

This is the first time this publisher has honored a preeminent living poet. Volume One of a projected two-volume set, this almost 1,000-page collection reprints Ashbery’s first dozen books and also includes 60 previous unpublished poems from the past 40 years.

Why is this publication of the work of this spry and productive 80-year-old author astonishing? This recognition occurs amid a general consensus among even his admirers that Ashbery’s poetry is “difficult” – baroquely complicated and obscure.

Poetry has always been a tough sell in the marketplace, except for those poets classified as “accessible.”

The thought of an intensely abstruse poet getting all of this attention and a loyal readership is mind-boggling.

But Ashbery has always rejected charges that his poetry is mysteriously elusive – as does this reviewer.

“Despite what everyone said, I always thought that there was something simple and penetrable in my poetry, screaming to be let out,” Ashbery remarked to a London newspaper interviewer.

For proof, consider the opening of “The Instruction Manual” from Ashbery’s 1956 collection, “Some Trees”:

As I sit looking out of the window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the
Uses of a new metal.
I look down into the street and see people, each walking with
An inner peace,
And envy them – they are so far away from me!

And this understandable distraction from a menial task leads to:

And, as my way is, I began to dream, resting my elbows on
the desk and leaning out the window a little,
Of dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers!

I’m quoting this early poem at length because Ashbery has rarely deviated in purpose from his first works. The poem’s subject is the poet’s imaginative reverie, moving from the most mundane and prosaic circumstances to flights of lyrical poetic imagination that make the mundane enticingly exotic.

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