Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Tennis Court Oaths: France and the Making of John Ashbery

Hot news! The glorious new issue of Prelude magazine is out in print and online.  It includes many fine things, (new work by Rae Armantrout, Felix Bernstein, Anne Tardos, Katy Lederer, Rusty Morrison, and Kaveh Akbar, and—oh boy oh boy oh boy—Anthony Madrid on rhyme in Wallace Stevens, just for starters), and an essay of mine called "Tennis Court Oaths: France and the Making of John Ashbery."  The essay takes a look at how a decade in France shaped Ashbery's poetics (his isolation mattered, and his exposure to the French literary tradition).  It also looks at how the triumph of French theory in American literature departments back in the day prepared those departments to appreciate, and canonize, Ashbery.  The essay is online here, and starts like this:

“I regret,” intoned the solemn-eyed boy, climbing the steps of the school where he attended kindergarten, “these stairs.” Many years later, when the boy had become perhaps the most lauded poet in America, he would tell an interviewer that he’d had no idea what the word “regret” meant back then, but it seemed resonant to him. What is more, by saying the word he discovered that he did, somehow, regret those stairs. Language delighted him without having to be useful, and language held the key to unexpected truths. Small wonder, then, that four years after he declared his regret, the boy would fixate on a Life magazine feature on Surrealism, the first mass media treatment of that movement in America. Poring over images of Réne Magritte’s art and a description of André Breton’s automatic writing, the young Ashbery declared himself a Surrealist at once. The moment is, to the best of my knowledge, Ashbery’s first profound encounter with French culture. And it is France that made Ashbery—that made his poetry what it is, and made, in a roundabout way, his American reputation.

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