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Wear John Ashbery’s head at your own peril

By Harriet Staff

On the Huffington Post, Anis Shivani asks 22 poets to name who they believe is the most important contemporary poet and what influence that poet has had on his or her work. First up is H.L. Hix, who sets the tone well by pointing out the many ways that “important” can be defined and how little it actually says about the chosen poet in relation to other poets.

But “most important” in relation to poets might mean any number of things–having the widest influence, being allied with the most powerful person, having the largest audience–so the question is not about identifying which poet is most important, but about stipulating which meaning of “most important” is at stake. An answer doesn’t give information about the poet, but about the meaning of the term “most important.”

Not all influence is positive, however great the poet is, as Bob Hicok notes. Constantly feeling the “ghosting” presence of John Ashbery lurking behind much of the contents of today’s literary journals, Hicok sums up not the perils of asking the question of importance in the first place, but rather the result once the answer has been decided:

The downside of his influence is the downside of influence generally: borrowers tend to evince more of the limitations of a style than its strengths. Poets who try to wear Ashbery’s head tend to write poems that are so coy about their purpose as to have little or none. This says less about his poems and more about how we teach writing.

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Posted in Poetry News on Saturday, December 18th, 2010 by Harriet Staff.