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I’ve always found it difficult to say just what I think is happening in John Ashbery’s poetry, even when I recognize that I’ve undergone something through the course of reading. With Ashbery, I find myself becoming conscious of how I construct meaning from language, and I understand this self-reflexivity as a “poetics as experience.” Ashbery had read or at least been aware of the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Gertrude Stein, and Wallace Stevens—all of which explore how consciousness manifests through language. I read these figures through American pragmatism, which views writing as an activity that follows perception as it moves through time. They have offered me a way to think about experience as it relates to reading and writing. Following in Ashbery’s tracks, I also read the French writer Raymond Roussel, whose work repositions reading from a hermeneutic act to a process driven by a curiosity towards the evasiveness of language. I do not intend to draw a causal relationship between these figures and Ashbery, but instead to highlight certain affinities in thinking about a “poetics as experience.”
I begin in 1962 with Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath and work through his poems up until 1979, with As We Know. To contextualize my readings, I turn towards his contemporaries’ reviews along with the literary criticism that came in the following years—including Ashbery’s own interviews and biographical materials. I suggest that Ashbery’s poetics bears no secrets but offers an experience that happens as we know. Experiences occur simultaneously in Ashbery’s poetry through his transitions of attention as they reverberate through time. This has taught me how to listen, not only to the interplay of language, but also to myself as I read through his forking paths. I can say for certain that after reading Ashbery nothing has changed, except for the way I see myself in relation to the world.
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Zondervan, Alexander Ibo, "Chutes and Ladders: John Ashbery's Poetics as Experience" (2019). Senior Projects Spring 2019. 88.
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