Nobel Defeat

October 14th, 2013 by Editor Leave a reply »

Once again, American poet John Ashbery has missed out on the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It cannot be said that this has come as a complete surprise. On the morning of the announcment the Telegraph published a list of the top 10 ‘runners and riders’ which featured three Americans – none of whom were John Ashbery.

His name is, however, one that is bandied about every year in lists of possible recipients of the prize and he is the frequent recipient of epithets such as ‘most important living American poet’ and ‘best poet of the late 20th century’. All of which he has earned and deserves and so, to fly in the face of the Nobel committee, I would like to offer some reasons why we could all do with a little more Ashbery in our lives.

He is the antidote to the criticism, made in 2008 by the permanent secretary to the Nobel jury Horace Engdahl that American writers ‘don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature’. Though at times obtuse, Ashbery’s work is always inclusive, and it certainly never shies away from the big ideas. Take this opening sentence from ‘Spring Day’, a poem from Ashbery’s 1970 collection The Double Dream of Spring.


The immense hope, and forbearance
Trailing out of night, to sidewalks of the day
Like air breathed into a paper city, exhaled
As night returns bringing doubts

That swarm around the sleeper’s head
But are fenced off with clubs and knives, so that morning
Installs again in cold hope
The air that was yesterday, is what you are,

In so many phases the head slips from the hand. […]


The first thing you notice is non-linearity; the sentence trails through two nights to end up at yesterday. But it is the combination of this dream-time with a poised uncertainty of address which is striking. An addressee seems to be located with ‘is what you are’, but when you read it back once more this addressee dissolves as you realise it was merely ‘the air that was yesterday’. Just as in a dream, as a reader of Ashbery you are not always sure where you are, who you are and how much time has passed. It is very liberating.

In an interview once Ashbery said that ‘you should try to make your poetry as representative as possible’ which suggests to me a drive towards democratic inclusiveness. This is borne out by the poem which, instead of describing one dream, gives us the experience of dreaming. It allows you as the reader to be the dreamer. This experience of dreaming was one that fascinated Freud, inspired Breton and the surrealists and continues to influence and inform important writers such as Murakami today. So if Ashbery isn’t ‘participating in the big dialogue of literature,’ then perhaps it’s time to change the conversation.



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