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These essays are engaging and readable, informed and informative without being pedantic. There are anecdotes, too (about Riding, most notably, who is aptly diagnosed by Ashbery as "a control freak"). We notice that half of the authors are homosexual or possibly so, most either committed suicide or had a parent who did so, three were affected by mental problems, and the majority were ardent leftists (Riding being an exception).
To this reader, the two Johns, Clare and Wheelwright, are the most immediately endearing, and David Schubert's disjunctive colloquial tone does fascinate. Some of the comments about the gang of six do shed some light into Ashbery's curious methods: Clare's mucky down-to-earthiness and Beddoes' elegant, enamelled "fleurs-du-mal" idiom both being "necessary" components of poetry, in Ashbery's view. Some of Wheelwright's elastic sonnets have a Saturday Evening Post-type folksiness that is often found in Ashbery's own poetic inventions; Schubert's poems (in Rachel Hadas's words) "seem(ing) to consist of slivers gracefully or haphazardly fitted together." An aside: Look at the first two lines of Schubert's "Happy Traveller." Couldn't that be John Ashbery? About Raymond Roussel, whose detractors accuse him of saying nothing, Ashbery mounts an impatient defence that reads like a self-defence: "If 'nothing' means a labyrinth of brilliant stories told only for themselves, then perhaps Roussel has nothing to say. Does he say it badly? Well, he writes like a mathematician."
We learn that Ashbery is not fond of E E Cummings, and he is unconvincingly semi-penitent of this "blind spot": Cummings, with his Herrick-like lucidity, his straightforward heterosexuality, and his resolute nonleftism, would not appear to fit nicely into Ashbery's pantheon. Ashbery even takes a few mischievous swipes at John Keats -- rather, he quotes George Moore doing so. Ashbery will doubtless forgive his readers if our enthusiasm for the poetry of Keats and Cummings remains undiminished.
There is much in the poetry explored by "Other Traditions" that is dark and bothersome; but there are felicities. These lectures form a fascinating kind of ars-poetica-in-prose by one of America's cleverest and most vexing of poets.
I have always had a love for, but limited knowledge of, Poetry. It was Edward Hirsch's great book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry that first introduced me to Ashbery's work. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest living poets. Therefore, I jumped at the opportunity to read Other Traditions.
Other Traditions is the book form of a series of lectures given by Ashbery on other poets. Ashbery writes about six of the lesser-known artists who have had an impact on his own life and work. All of them are fascinating. They are:
-John Clare, a master at describing nature who spent the last 27 years of his life in an Asylum.
-Thomas Lovell Beddoes, a rather death obsessed author (he ended up taking his own life) whose greatest poetry consists of fragments that must often be culled from the pages of his lengthy dramas.
-Raymond Roussel, a French author whose magnum opus is actually a book-length sentence.
-John Wheelwright, a politically engaged genius whose ultra-dense poetry even Ashbery has a hard time describing or comprehending.
-Laura Riding, a poet of great talent and intellect who chose to forsake poetry (check out the copyright page).
-David Schubert, an obscure poet who Ashbery feels is one of the greatest of the Twentieth Century.
The two that I was most pleasantly surprised by are Clare and Riding.
Clare has become (since I picked up a couple of his books) one of my favorite poets. He is a master at describing rural life. I know of no one quite like him. Ashbery's true greatness as a critic comes out when he depicts Clare as "making his rounds."
Riding, on the other hand, represents the extreme version of every author's desire for the public to read their work in a precise way--the way the author intends it to be read. Her intense combativeness and sensitivity to criticism is as endearing as it is humorous.
Other Traditions has given me a key to a whole new world of books. For that I am most grateful.
I give this book my full recommendation.
Might have been nice if that were mentioned before I one-clicked. oh well.
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