BOOK REVIEW / Blue snow and green cream: 'Hotel Lautreamont' - John Ashbery: Carcanet, 7.95 pounds

HOTEL LAUTREAMONT is John Ashbery's 15th collection of poems. His first books, brought out from the mid-1950s, attracted a coterie of readers able to manage what adverse critics called an impermeable Surrealism. In 1976, after 20 years of writing and half a dozen volumes of verse, there appeared the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, its title-poem (often now named Ashbery's best) a long verse-essay using a Renaissance self-portrait to focus reflection on art and love.

At once esoteric and accessible, the book won all the American literary prizes going. The poet's audience has enlarged ever since. Hotel Lautreamont quotes on its back cover a description of Ashbery by the Times poetry critic as 'quite simply the finest poet in English of his generation'.

Probably not one of Ashbery's most distinctive or colourful collections, the new book of short poems gives testimony to his assurance and fertility. Even at its most maddening his poetry has plenty of charm, playfulness and serene good humour; and the current volume sustains a thin silvery elegance throughout. Beyond this, an Ashbery collection presents a reviewer with more extreme problems than any other poet I know. The difficulty does not lie simply with obscurity, since the drift of most of the poems is clear: it is rather in their planned resistance to observation or overview.

The book's title offers a way in. Ashbery has a decided flair with titles. One that has evoked most critical irritation is The Tennis Court Oath, used for his rebarbatively withdrawn second collection. The phrase appears to cite a famous occasion in the France of 1789, and to a drawing and painting (similarly titled) with which David commemorated the occasion. However, none of the poems in The Tennis Court Oath can be said to be elucidated by its title; nothing directly reflects or mentions either oaths or tennis courts. Baulked readers have tried to suppose a more oblique sign-posting: a revolutionary purpose in the book, or at least that political anarchism appropriate to the poet's Surrealism.

Hotel Lautreamont is as little about hotels as the earlier collection devotes itself to tennis courts; and nothing can he learned from it (as far as I can understand) about a French-speaking poet whose life is in any case almost entirely unknown. 'Lautreamont' was the name assumed for publication purposes by a 16-year-old boy who came from Montevideo to Paris in the 1860s, wrote a handful of poems in French, and died at 24. Just before he died he brought out a pamphlet recommending his own work as 'never before published nor even discovered. Perhaps not even written'.

The back cover of Hotel Lautreamont observes only that the young man spent most of his brief adult lifetime in Paris hotels. Happening to possess a very little further information doesn't necessarily help a reader to enjoy these poems. Ashbery, who spent his first professional decade living in Paris, and working as a critic of mainly Surrealist painting, may have felt a great tenderness for the image of the predecessor who a century earlier made the same transatlantic crossing to die unapplauded in exile.

Ashbery adverts to the actual only to deny its immediate utility. Hotels and poetic Romanticism feature only once in Hotel Lautreamont, in the book's first and perhaps introductory poem, 'Light Turnouts'. This touching and deft short sequence of quatrains addresses a 'Dear ghost', asking 'what shelter / in the noonday crowd? I'm going to write an hour, then read / what someone else has written'. The next verse begins: 'You've no mansion for this to happen in.' Writing and reading, voice and text, love and Lautreamont meet and join, equally ghostly in what might be called the one-night-hotel of the present instant.

His technique is postmodern in its insistence on language as functioning within a more or less absolute void. As in the toothsome phrase Houseboat Days, each poem takes as its 'mansion' a houseboat for a day, and floats above its own mesmeric and watery reflection. Comparably, the words 'The Tennis-Court Oath' and 'Hotel Lautreamont' are dislocated, dehistoricised, only making meaning if treated as a purely verbal pleasure.

Language used like this restricts itself to an excessively thin power of expression. At the precise point at which the reader might trust a poetic world or style, the poem changes gear. Urban or suburban glimpses, pastoral memories, fragmented relationships ironically recalled, grammatical or rhetorical switches from the archaic to the demotic and back again: a wallpaper landscape is held in place by recurring soft and sweet images, romantic cadences that startle and stand out - 'blue snow', 'ruby grains', 'green cream'. The only resting-points in Hotel Lautreamont derive from formal experiments like that of the title-poems, where echoic refrains shift forwards regularly with every stanza. The effect is undoubtedly haunting and original, while the poem lasts.

Ashbery's method is hard on a reviewer, because it resists both summary and quotation; it abjures terms for defining what excellence might consist of, if it existed. His originality has been the smiling patience with which he reduces an art to its effect, writes poems which are poems because they sound like poems. They work, where they work at all, by a complicity, a secular act of faith (or superstition).

Such an art has its own rules. It allows us to appreciate the artist's survival; it doesn't allow us to compare him with anybody else. Grounds for comparison are excluded by the work itself: a ghost has neither language ('the finest poet in English') nor age ('of his generation').

The hunger for disembodiment is a recurring phenomenon through cultures. The most intellectually classy of early Christian heresies was Gnosticism, which denied the real existence of bodies, or their importance (if they existed): Jesus may have been born, but he certainly didn't die. The post-modern feeling for language is similar: words may be written, but can't mean. The result in Ashbery's case is some interesting exercises du style. But real poems are being written in England, in Australia, the Caribbean and the US by at least a dozen English-speaking poets who are committed to a language that lives and dies.

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