John Ashbery turns ninety this year, an astonishing thing in itself; and the ability of old Puck to write poems as good as those he wrote half a century ago is either testimony to a well-oiled imagination or a revelation that all along he has been writing poems the way a butcher stuffs sausages. The sausages aren’t half bad—but I suspect that, like the butcher, the poet doesn’t give a hoot what critics think. Or the pigs, for that matter. A typical mid- or late- or later-than-late-Ashbery poem runs like this:

It wasn’t always this way.

Somewhere, ants were taking control

of earth’s blistered pulse.

Peanuts were jettisoned from the nacelle

of the...