During my time at Yale eight years ago, John Ashbery came to visit. He read to a packed house at Battell Chapel in the evening and spoke to a smaller group of faculty and students the next day. A friend, who was spending a semester at the university as a distinguished visiting professor, went with me to the reading. As we walked out, his response was something like: What the hell was that? The poet spoke the sound of meaning without the sense; the audience laughed, clapped, and left smiling. My friend, no idiot, wondered what he had missed.

He hadn’t missed a thing, of course. This is Ashbery’s shtick. He has one of the best ears in contemporary American poetry when he chooses to use it, but his images and lines never add up. Just when an Ashbery poem seems to be going somewhere, he jumps down a rabbit hole where he invariably finds Daffy Duck, the color azure, or popsicles. Nothing has become more...


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