The Acid Tongue
The American Mirage
Selected By Toh Hsien Min
One of the minuses about reading poetry journals is that the back issues often build up, and I'm reluctant to throw them out just in case there's something in one of them I might want to refer to in the future. Now is a good time to slightly justify that inertia by picking an Acid Tongue from the Spring 1998 issue of the leading UK journal, Poetry Review. The issue title 'What Comes Next... And How To Like It: New Poetry From America' is superimposed on the very cliché of an open desert road, with a blue, near-cloudless sky above it. There are new poems by the likes of Louise Glück and James Tate, and the clear implication that American poetry is not inherently enjoyable and one has to be taught how to appreciate it. American poets: welcome to Britain.
Looking back ten years later and from a distance, the issue has hardly dated. There is still a neverending debate between English and American poetries. English poetry tries hard to like American poetry, but it is always with a kind of reserve, as though watching the concessions in a trade negotiation. The criticism is often interesting because many observers try hard to say good things while leaving enough in there to suggest that not much is right with the American poetry world.
Sean O'Brien's review of two Ashbery books, both produced by Carcanet, Wakefulness, a then-new collection, and The Mooring of Starting Out, a compilation of Ashbery's first five collections, is a case in point. It ends on a highly positive note:
But not much of the review has been given over to the beautiful and useful book, even counting a long paragraph on Ashbery's style quoting one of the earlier poems. Most of the review focusses on Wakefulness.
It is arguable that in fact the metaphor is rather consistent in leading the reader towards a mirage of meaning. The reference then to mixing of metaphors sounds like a dash of wilfulness. This sits oddly, assuming a sense of fair play, with an instinct towards academic correctness:
Clearly this is a highly euphemistic phrasing of: if you're not mad you might not be able to appreciate this.
Even when doling out some praise, O'Brien wraps it in sardonicism:
How much more effective ways are there to praise faintly than to say: you have a gift but you don't use it?
It's only in the last paragraph that the suspicion of America comes to the fore:
To be honest I can't claim to sympathise with Ashbery. I have a copy of The Mooring of Starting Out. It sits on my bookshelves beside the clutch of back Poetry Review issues.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 2 Apr 2008