Homage to a bad boy.

Author:Hammer, Langdon

WHEN IT CAME to choosing the Yale Younger Poet for 1956, W. H. Auden didn't like the submissions, and it seemed that the prize might go without a winner until, at the last minute, he read a manuscript by John Ashbery. Auden went with Ashbery's Some Trees, but there's a slightly baffled, worried tone to the introduction he wrote for the book.

"From Rimbaud down to Mr. Ashbery," Auden wrote, "an important school of modern poets has been concerned with the discovery that, in childhood largely, in dreams and daydreams entirely, the imaginative life of the human individual stubbornly continues to live by the old magical notions," which, in the absence of the shared myths of antiquity, depend on "the unique particulars of the individual's personal history." For Auden, the problem with this inspiration was its idiosyncrasy, and he used Rimbaud's Illuminations to describe it: "Where Wordsworth had asked the question 'What is the language really used by men?' Rimbaud substituted the question 'What is the language really used by the imagining mind?' "Auden was suspicious of the French poet's seemingly private world of discourse, and, bringing Ashbery's poetry forward as the latest example of it, he wondered: "Is it now possible to write poetry?"

Over a triumphant, steadily unfolding career, Ashbery has settled that question time and again, while challenging readers to rethink what it means to write poetry and how to represent "the imagining mind" in language. Of the poetic influences Ashbery has drawn on...

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