A crackling, moving new collection from one of America’s greatest living poets.
In over twenty-six original books, the poems of John Ashbery have long served as signposts guiding us through the delights, woes, hypocrisies, and uncertainties of living in the modern world. With language harvested from everyday speech, fragments of pop culture, objects and figures borrowed from art and literature, his work makes light out of darkness, playing with tone and style to show how even the seemingly frivolous stuff of existence can be employed to express the deepest levels of feeling.
Commotion of the Birds showcases once again Ashbery’s mastery of a staggering range of voices and his singular lyric agility: wry, frank, contemplative, resigned, bemused, and ecstatic. The poet in this new collection is at once removed from and immersed in the terrain of his examination. Disarmingly conversational, he invites the reader to join him in looking out onto the future with humor, curiosity, and insight. The lines of these poems achieve a low-humming, thrilling point of vibration, a jostling of feathers before flight.
For more than 60 years now, Ashbery (Breezeway) has carried the flotsam and jetsam of conversational language, thought, and culture on cool, unhurried currents. The hallmarks of his style including juxtaposition, movement among a wide range of tones and affects, and the courting and resisting of a rational progression of thoughts are on full display in this new collection. Though these tactics have become commonplace in American poetry (largely thanks to Ashbery's influence), there is no doubt about his virtuosity in using them. The movement in the poems is lithe and alluring. As one poem declares: "It was so fun getting used to you./ This was as modern as it had ever been." Indeed, the gestural, multivoiced, and collagelike terrain of Ashbery's poems may resonate more with qualities that define life in the 21st century than it did with those of the previous century. And the most rewarding moments in the collection get at something more elemental and timeless, as when he writes, "You're right. The ballads are retreating/ back into the atmosphere." A reader new to Ashbery has no reason to begin here though one needs no outside knowledge of his work to read and appreciate this collection but those familiar with his oeuvre will find the work as sharp and satisfying as ever.