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 One that has evoked most critical irritation is The Tennis Court Oath, used for his rebarbatively withdrawn second collection.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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power