A captivating experiment in traditional poetic form, from one of the most untraditional American poets ever to set pen to paper
At first glance, John Ashbery’s Shadow Train seems to embrace the constraints of traditional poetic form—but closer reading reveals that this work is Ashbery at his revolutionary best. In fifty poems, each consisting solely of four connected quatrains, Ashbery apparently plays by the rules while simultaneously violating every single one. Over and over again, the familiar, almost sonnet-like sixteen-line form creates an outline of a poem within which, one would expect, poetry is meant to arrive—as a station waits for a train. And yet, as with many of the world’s greatest poems, the act of creating poetry also relies on the reading and the reader—in other words, as this collection’s signature poem “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” puts it, “the poem is / you.”
In Shadow Train, Ashbery demonstrates how language influences our experience of reality, creating it and sustaining it while also remaining mysterious and ineffable: constantly arriving, but impossible to catch.