Nationality: British. Born: Manchester, 29 June 1948. Education: University of Birmingham, B.A. in English. Career: Primary school teacher, 1969–71; research assistant, 1971–75; freelance writer and part-time lecturer, 1975–78; community artist in Manchester, 1978–79; creative writing instructor at primary schools and adult education centers in Manchester, Cheshire, Bedfordshire, and Norwich, England, 1979–85. Full-time writer, 1985—. Visiting writer, University of Iowa Writer's Program, fall 1988. Awards: Northwest Arts Association bursary, 1983; Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, 1985; Whiting Foundation award, 1986. Agent: Keith Goldsmith, Carcanet Press Ltd., 198 Sixth Avenue, New York, New York 10013. Address: c/o Carcanet Press Ltd., 4th Floor, Conavon Court, 12–16 Blackfriars Street, Manchester M3 5BQ, England.
Casino. London, Oasis, 1978.
The Bed and Other Poems. London, Oasis, 1981.
The Goodbyes. Manchester, Carcanet, 1982.
The Branching Stairs. Manchester, Carcanet, 1984.
Disbelief. Manchester, Carcanet, 1987.
The Burnt Pages. Manchester, Carcanet, 1991.
Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1996.
The Golden Hoardes: International Tourism and the Pleasure Periphery, with Louis Turner. London, Constable, 1975; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1977.
A Byzantine Journey. New York, Random House, and London, Tauris, 1995.*
Critical Studies: "Poetry after Penguin" by Michael Hulse, in Antigonish Review (Antigonish, Nova Scotia), 60, winter 1985; interview with Andrew McAllister, in Bete Noire (Hull, Humberside, England), 8–9, autumn 1989-spring 1990.* * *
With the publication of The Branching Stairs in 1984, John Ash firmly established himself as Britain's foremost younger innovative poet, an impressive achievement considering that his first published work had appeared only six years earlier. That first work, a pamphlet titled Casino, which Ash called "a kind of homage to Symbolism and the Decadence," uses a somewhat bizarre setting on the Riviera in winter for a series of imaginary portraits based on real figures—Laforgue, Baudelaire, Robert de Montesquieu, and others. The poems are unified by themes of decadence and dissipation.
In his second book, The Bed and Other Poems, and in the second part of The Branching Stairs Ash's talent frees itself from a restricted theme to lay claim to an original poetic. His poetry calls for more than its share of negative capability on the part of the reader, but the rewards in pure pleasure are munificent. He has a large imagination and uses it to full and varied effect. His is primarily a poetry of ambience and association in which the images, expressed most often in prose speech rhythms, flow thick and fast. The poems' constructs are frequently based on music, film, painting, or architecture. His English-language influences are undoubtedly American and include Wallace Stevens in his use of the exotic and William Carlos Williams in his use of the glancing yet indelible image. The poems' nostalgic tone, the "urban pastoral," and the use of dialogue and such devices as rhetorical questions, image clusters, and the extended, associative meditation can be seen in the work of Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery. Certainly, too, Auden has been a crucial writer for Ash, particularly in elegance, versatility, wit, and the sense of the social anomalies and absurdities of modern life.
Ash is one of Britain's very few "natural" poets. Whatever the work that may have gone into it, each poem appears as an immediate, autonomous, effortless construct that succeeds by constantly developing imagistic materials—"variations with the 'theme' well concealed," in Ash's phrase—to build up a sense of place, persona, style, and event. This is the technique of surrealism, and many poems are surreal, while possessing "a 'sense of reality' that deepens / when realism is abandoned." The method leads to a characteristic unwillingness to ascribe too literal a motive for actions or responses and instead emphasizes appearance, uncertainty, and multiple approaches to the same event. "It has been said," Ash once pointed out in an interview, "that poetry is not for offering solutions but for properly articulating the questions." In "Snow: A Romance," a prose poem in which the persona journeys to the South with a muse-like figure, Ash writes, "He sees resemblances everywhere. It is his trade, his survival technique." Much of the poetry is concerned with a style and way of life that represents the Midlands English yearning for the warmth and exoticism of the South, that is, the Mediterranean. At the same time Ash, like Auden, expresses a sense of foreboding, an undefined loss, and a threat by the new, the barbarian or those in authority. He is exceedingly conscious of the ruin of civilizations associated with the region. This awareness of decay extends of course to language: "O memoirs, documentaries, mountainous journal! / the text is always and in all places / irretrievably corrupted. Did you think / you could just pick up the language and use it …."
Such an approach to poetry demands a lot from readers. They have to use their own imaginations to fill the gaps, as it were, and sometimes the use of multiple personae, dislocated imagery, and surreal and dream images strains attention and leads to impatience. In this respect, The Goodbyes is more demanding than The Branching Stairs, for the former seems less assured, more frenetic.
Unlike most contemporary British poets, Ash is cosmopolitan and internationalist in outlook. The culture is primarily European and the methods American-postmodernist. Though he can look backward both to childhood memories and in time to a late nineteenth-century process of dissolution and subsequent rebuilding, the idea of deconstruction is ever present, often expressed in paradoxical images and deliberately archaic words: "As tourists climb, in funiculars, to the apex of the arch, a deck of luxury apartments vanishes far off and silently, in an explosion like a burst of talc." The image is forever "there," in the subconscious, as a city (Beirut?) is deconstructed before our TV tourists' eyes.
Ash's collection Disbelief reflects not only his move to America—the structures present are mostly those of New York, where he took up residence—but an increased sureness of hand, an impressive poetic maturity. The work seems freer and simpler in execution, though no less scrupulously assembled. He is more willing to follow up the imaginative implications of moment and place without resorting to exotica and surreal efflorescence. The number of truly successful poems and prose pieces is remarkable—poems such as "A Long Encounter," "October in the Capital," "Rooflines and Riverbells," and "To Illustrate the Day" and the prose pieces "Funeral Preparations in the Provinces" and "Every Story Tells It All." The latter is a beautiful coda—and at the same time an overture—to the work in Disbelief; it is a personal essay about how the writer leads his life and about the process of writing and the imagination. Ash's love of the exotic and evocative is located more in the temporal present than in the literary past, as indicated by the list in this essay of the names of East Coast trains—Storm King, Maple Leaf, Sleepy Hollow, or Niagara Rainbow—and by the catalogue poem "The Sky My Husband."
The writing in Disbelief is punctuated by the epigrammatic, a quality also of Ash's earlier work but here less calculated to outrage or strive for effect: "We value music because of its ability to say something and not say it …" ("Every Story Tells It All"), which of course can apply to certain kinds of poetry, namely Ash's. In his poetry,
A word is spoken, an ordinary word,
and it becomes an entire landscape,—
an open and illustrated city.
Ash's approach in his previous books is broadened in the meditative strengths, supple poetics, range, and depth of The Burnt Pages. Here the sense of the past and nostalgia for the exotic are transformed via the existential moment into a more philosophical awareness of the place in our lives for the transitory and everyday, as well as the enduring:
I know I mix the present with the past
but that's how I like it:
there is no other way to go on.
While The Burnt Pages looks back at the beauty but also the decay and corruption of past civilizations—a kind of Ozymandias point of view in which the predominant idea is of the entropic nature of all things, including human works and relationships—it also looks forward to the immutable and indestructible imagination. The title poem is a brilliant expression of the paradoxical nature of knowledge as it is embodied in art. Bearing in mind the title, one would assume that it is an antipoem of the "there-are-things-that-are-important-beyond-all-this-fiddle" variety:
History reduced to dioramas,
Technique without utility.
But of course the poem itself is an artifact that may survive its maker and that literary archaeologists will brush off and pore over:
Now all things must be moving on
Past the moment of the poem
Which remains like an empty cast
For the limbs of a bronze hero—
An episode in the long history
Of backward glances.
The Burnt Pages represents a hard-won confidence in the "purity" of the individual creative imagination in the face of corruption, decay, and the obliteration of the past.
Ash's by now familiar poetics—his adoption of multiple personae, the seemingly objective accounts of ancient and contemporary real and imaginary civilizations, nostalgia for the past as seen through its great works of art, architecture, and music, and the witty and mordant view of Western suburbanism—are all present in The Burnt Pages but are given new power and depth in these marvelously allusive poems. One may still hear echoes of O'Hara, Ashbery, and Auden, but Ash has made his voice his own. His is one of the few successful examples of a North Atlantic poetry—the candid insouciance of the New York school of poets ("Another bunch of fallen gods returning from the 8th Avenue gym," begins one of the best poems of the book, "Twentieth Century") combined with the preoccupation with the past and ironic view of the European. With his Selected Poems, one now has available the best work of a poet at the height of his powers.
—Robert Vas Dias