Other Traditions by John Ashbery. Harvard University Press, 2000. 168 pp. $22.95 (hardcover)
As Reviewed By: Ethan Paquin
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 portraiture.[private]
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 genius:
‘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 in
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.[/private]