A Worldly Country: New Poems 

by John Ashbery

My decision to read John Ashbery's A Worldly Country: New Poems was made from this reasoning: Like the subject of Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice, Ashbery is an "eminent man of letters." He is part of the long and noble tradition of American poetry. His early poetry was recognized by W.H. Auden, and the American treasurer and defender of the Western literary canon, Harold Bloom, has called him "America's greatest living poet." He is connected with the New York School, and like so many great American writers, he once lived in Paris. He has published more poetry than you can imagine and won all of the important awards that America can bestow on its literary giants. Knowing all of this—and knowing that Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is a 20th century masterpiece—what choice did I have?

I read A Worldly Country. I read it in bed and found it as dull as reading in bed. There was nothing in it but flat words and desiccated ideas. But what readers in bed want out of poetry are deliriums and the dangers of "dancing in the sheets." We want the urgency of a hard cock, the fruit and juice of a ripe nipple. We want life thrust into the words we are reading. That is what we really want. This is not what we want: "The hat hasn't worn too well" or "Do you still need a handkerchief" or "It all happened long ago/a murky, milky precipitate."

But let's be fair, you might argue. The man has lived since 1927—80 years of being alive!—how can you expect such an old poet to be great in bed? Fine. Your point is made. But if he is too old to draw from the forces of life, then why doesn't he draw from the destructive forces of death? Where is the fear and trembling in his work? From these polite poems you'd gather that the poet had many more years to live and to write about not much at all.

You must make a choice: Pleasure your reader with life or scare him/her with death. If neither will do for you, then the reader will fall asleep.

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