What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Helen Vendler's "The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar": "The Democratic Eye"

It wasn’t until I read Helen Vendler’s wonderful “The Democratic Eye,” in the March 29, 2007 New York Review of Books, that I developed an appreciation for John Ashbery’s poetry. Prior to that I found his work damned near impenetrable. Vendler’s essay – it’s a review of Ashbery’s A Worldly Country: New Poems – provided me with a path into its inexhaustible precincts. In her piece, Vendler calls A Worldly Country “another installment of the strange diaries regularly appearing from the poet over the last fifty years.” She says,

I think of Ashbery’s shorter poems as “diaries” because so many of them have the dailiness, the occasional inconsequentiality, the fragmentary quality, the confiding candor, and the obliquity we associate with the diary form. The diarist, careless of communication (since he already has all the information necessary for the decoding of his own private pages), may remain indifferent to explicitness, to “message,” to “statement,” to “meaning.” The diary has, at its off-the-cuff best, a kind of intriguing charm: its vicissitudes (digressions, interruptions, unexplained allusions) keep later annotators busy; the elliptical text can end up occupying less space than its commentaries.

“The Democratic Eye” changed the way I approached Ashbery’s poetry. The piece went straight into my personal anthology of great book reviews. I’m pleased to see that it’s included in Vendler’s new essay collection, The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar.

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