John Ashbery was born when Pola Negri was box office, yet his poems are more in touch with the American demotic—the tongue most of us speak and few of us write—than any near-octogenarian has a right to be. He has published more than a thousand pages in the last fifteen years, almost twice as many as Wallace Stevens wrote in half a century, and Stevens was no slouch. Ashbery’s poems are like widgets manufactured to the most peculiar specifications and in such great numbers the whole world widget market has collapsed. Where Shall I Wander (a title lifted from the nursery rhyme“Goosey, goosey, gander”) begins with a typical piece of Ashberyian folderol:
We were warned about spiders, and the occasional famine.
We drove downtown to see our neighbors. None of them were home.
We nestled in yards the municipality had...