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Other Traditions proves that
Ashbery's classic poem "The Instruction Manual" is more than reverie: he truly
does well at writing informative primers. This collection of essays--centered on obscure
poets Ashbery figures "have probably influenced me"--is remarkable not only for
the gentle dotage displayed by the master poet on an assortment of "minor"
bards, but for its lucidity: nowhere else, except perhaps in his interviews with John
Tranter, is Ashbery more honest and forthright.
Surely, it is a relief for a
"major" poet to open up--to try to explain the influences apparent, and
apparati employed, in his work. For readers who approach Ashbery as a trickster, as a
puzzle-crafter daring us to solve his riddles, this book may serve to humanize him, to
bring him back down to earth. Those acclimated to Ashbery's once-avant and still-talky
exploratory style will likely cherish the blend of careful historical research and
The six poets Ashbery chose to
lecture on--British poets John Clare (1793-1864), Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849) and
David Schubert (1913-1946); Americans Laura Riding (1901-1991) and John Wheelwright
(1897-1940); and French poet Raymond Roussel (1877-1933)--are part of his "other
tradition," a mode with apparently only the loosest parameters; hardly any of these
poets owe anything to each other stylistically or thematically. They all represent,
Ashbery says, "poetic jump-start[s] for times when the batteries have run down."
Were this a motivating factor for writing a book in lesser hands, the result would likely
be self-indulgent, but Ashbery's essays--as many of his poems--are soulfully insightful.
The focus always remains on this "mixed bag" of "underdog[s]," never
straying from the wondrousness of the poets' lives and creations; the spotlight never
turns completely toward Ashbery, and he never seeks it.
Ashbery is an excellent tour guide,
endearing us to this wholly unique cast of characters and illuminating both their
brilliance and relevance. Clare is shown as one of the first "lunatic" poets,
having written work before and during commitment to an asylum; his "nakedness of
vision" and "knowing exactly how and when to end a poem" hearken to,
according to the author, Whitman and Dickinson. Beddoes becomes an archetype of sorts for
the mysterious, non-canonical, self-deprecating poet ("I ought to have been among
other things a good poet"); his "immense and irresistible" Deaths' Jest
Book, a massive book of lyric poems, is seen as a "monumental pedestal without a
statue," perhaps recalling in Ashbery's mind some of his own sprawling work (see Flow
Chart and A Wave). And Roussel comes to typify Ashbery's assertion that these
six poets require "special handling," thanks in part to his elusive and quirky
'What I was writing radiated beams of
light; I shut the curtains because I was afraid the slightest chink would let the beams
from my pen escape outside. If I had left papers lying around, it
would have reached as far as China, and the bewildered crowd would have stormed the house...I lived more at that moment than
all the rest of my existence...'
Elsewhere, Ashbery points to Wheelwright as
one of the first "automatic" writers, and contends Riding "demands more
attention" than most bards (Ashbery must now be happy, for Riding has garnered
popular appeal as of late: an entire edition of Chelsea is devoted to her, and a
reissue of her collected works is due in May 2001 from Persea Books, both thanks in part,
no doubt, to Ashbery's re-kindling of interest in her work).
The problem with an otherwise solidly
written Other Traditions is the heft of historicism and lack of critical discussion
of the poets' work. Most gratingly, hardly any of their poems--whether in full or excerpt--are included in the book. Yes, this was Ashbery's intention: for us to use Other
Traditions as a reference guide, as a jump-start indeed to get out of our houses, dig
up long-lost books, and make "esoteric discoveries" for ourselves. Still, one
comes to desire the fullest portrait of these intriguing, lovable little figures possible;
even snippets of their lives' work would help in that regard.