I have criticized John Ashbery so often for what he is, I would like to praise him for what he is not. [1] American poets have always been uncomfortable with a poetry whose designs remain in language. We are a content-minded country, where language is a McCormick reaper, an old manual typewriter, a Frank Lloyd Wright blueprint. Ashbery writes as if language were a medium. With its swooping declensions into the colloquial, its quick-change-artist’s unmasking, his poetry reminds us that the soiled, complacent manner of our poetry —its do-it-yourself Romantic style—is a slavery of our own invention. Ashbery is a tone, not an argument; and his delight in spraying graffiti on every monument has been indulged with deep puckish delight, all the while without his writing a memorable poem except on the rarest occasion.

An Ashbery poem begins in...