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Other Traditions

John Ashbery

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To purchase Other Traditions

Title: Other Traditions
Author: John Ashbery
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2000
Length: 146 pages
Availability: Other Traditions - US
Other Traditions - UK
Other Traditions - Canada
  • Based on Ashbery's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures
  • About John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Raymond Roussel, John Wheelwright, Laura Riding, and David Schubert.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nice introduction to six relatively unknown poets

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Georgia Review . Spring/2001 L.S. Klatt
London Rev. of Books . 7/6/2001 John Palatella
The New Criterion . 2/2001 David Yezzi
The New Republic . 1/1/2001 Mark Ford
The NY Rev. of Books A 30/11/2000 Charles Simic
The NY Times Book Rev. . 12/11/2000 Taylor Antrim
The Washington Post . 15/10/2000 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "Other Traditions is an entertaining and shrewd little book. To begin with, the life stories of the six poets he discusses are all amazing. Ashbery is an accomplished raconteur and the lectures are full of delightful anecdotes. (...) The lectures also provide abundant hints about Ashbery’s own method." - Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books

  • "The chapters are chronicles of disappointment, madness and suicide, all leavened by Ashbery's wit, his obvious pleasure in revealing the eccentricities of his subjects. The critical readings of the poems themselves are tougher going, as Ashbery attempts what may be impossible: the explication of the indeterminate." - Taylor Antrim, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Each of the lectures in Other Traditions provides a concise biography of the chosen poet, Ashbery's remarks on what he finds appealing in the work, and usually one or two complete poems, generally followed by a page of commentary." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       John Ashbery's Charles Eliot Norton lectures, Other Traditions, focus on six poets that, he says, "have probably influenced me". They are not the grand, well-known names who have also influenced him (about whom enough has been said or written), but rather "only certifiably minor poets". Presented in chronological order they are: John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Raymond Roussel, John Wheelwright, Laura Riding, and David Schubert.
       "What is the poetry that I notice when I write, that is behind my own poetry ?" Ashbery suggests is an interesting question. These poets are part of the answer -- and they are, indeed, a fairly interesting group.
       Among the reasons they are "certifiably minor" is the fact that they are simply not well-known -- in some cases perhaps understandably, in others less so. Ashbery's collection should at least serve to interest some readers to explore their work.
       It's an odd group he has assembled, their biographies occasionally as interesting as their poetry. Some died very young -- though Riding lived 1901-1991. Some were, in fact, actually certifiable. They were all outsiders, of sorts -- whether wealthy (Roussel) or impecunious.
       Ashbery's lectures provide brief introductions to them and their poetry. As introductions to these poets the short pieces are good. He provides engaging little biographies, as well as suggesting what is special about their poetry.
       There is Thomas Lovell Beddoes, whose Death's Jest Book "could be considered a monumental pedestal without a statue" -- but is of "stupefying originality".
       There is Raymond Roussel, about whom Ashbery wanted to write his dissertation (though he says here that "in part, this was a pretext to extract money from my parents so that I could go on living in Paris"). Though Roussel "has become fodder for critics everywhere", Ashbery's chapter is still a worthwhile introduction to the very odd man and his influence. (See also his introduction to Mark Ford's Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (see our review).)
       Roussel and Beddoes conceived elaborate, almost unplayable theatrical spectacles; the others were a bit more down to earth in their ambitions -- though not necessarily more realistic in how they wanted their poetry approached and understood. "Control freak" Laura Riding (or "Laura (Riding) Jackson" as she generally signed her name) even took Ashbery and others to task for even suggesting that she influenced them. Ashbery calmly and correctly responds:

What are we to do with a body of poetry whose author warns us that we have very little chance of understanding it, and who believes that poetry itself is a lie ? Why, misread it, of course, if it seems to merit reading, as hers so obviously does.
       John Wheelwright -- a relative, incidentally, of the narrator of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany (see our review) -- is unapproachable in yet another way: his poetry "is so difficult that even the most sympathetic reader may well end up feeling that, if this is difficulty, please pass the obscurity." But Ashbery still makes a case for his poetry, finding something in it and conveying that quite well.
       Ashbery holds David Schubert in particularly high esteem: "I myself value Schubert more than Pound or Eliot". Dead at age thirty-three, Schubert never really established himself (with Ashbery noting that he "didn't help matters by going insane and alienating the few people who knew and believed in his poetry"). Again, Ashbery offers a solid introduction to a too-little known poet and his work.

       Ashbery writes in a very approachable style, avoiding poetic jargon, trying to present the poets as much as the poetry. There are some good stories here, and some fascinating characters. He also does try to explain how these poets influenced him, though it would have been interesting if he had had more to say on that subject. Still, Other Traditions is a nice, worthwhile little volume.

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Other Traditions: Reviews: John Clare: Thomas Lovell Beddoes: Raymond Roussel: Laura Riding: John Ashbery: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American poet John Ashbery has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

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© 2001-2010 the complete review

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