Bachelor of Arts
John Ashbery emerged in the late 1950's as an avantgarde experimentalist. His critical attention has varied remarkably since that time to the extent that he is now considered by some to be an "utterly academic poet." His early volumes, such as The Tennis Court Oath (1962), often received harsh criticism. This particular volume was simply labeled "garbage" by reviewer John Simon. Of course, Ashbery has always had his evident admirers, such as Harold Bloom, who links Ashbery wholeheartedly with his great American forefathers Emerson, Whitman and Stevens. But even Bloom's most complimentary articles on Ashbery include such statements as the one that he is at his best "when he dares to write most directly in the idiom of Stevens." At this writing, it seems that Ashbery has been widely accepted by academia, but the fact remains that no one (even Ashbery himself) has been able to define his poetic project. In fact, the ongoing critical debate may have little to offer the reader who picks up an Ashbery book for the first time. Anyone who does not dismiss his work as "garbage" and wishes to work towards a better understanding of Ashbery may have a difficult time planning a critical approach. We might begin with techniques that have been applied to more traditional poets. But the undeniably unique nature of Ashbery's work asks us to move on to an approach that accepts his work on its own terms.
Several critics have appropriately noted Ashbery's connection to traditions such as Romanticism and Abstract Expressionism. Quite often these critical accounts make generalizations about Ashbery's poetry without addressing how specific poems operate. Similarly, some critics have chosen a singular theme or motif, such as time or memory, and formed a discussion around quotations from his poems which fit these categories. What these essays often fail to mention is that any theme we find in an Ashbery poem could disappear in the next line as he moves on to something totally unrelated. While I agree that certain themes do reappear in Ashbery's poetry, I feel it would be incorrect to isolate just one or two themes as representative of Ashbery. For me, the most useful critical accounts focus on one or two poems and discuss how each poem works as a whole.
Sutherland, Shauna, ""Yes, friends, these clouds...Are...stage machinery": An Exploration of Subject in John Ashbery" (1996). Honors Papers. 542.