“Cannot Understand / Feels Deeply”: John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath, and Queer Affect

Author:Brian Reed Time:2019-07-09 Click:

John Ashbery’s poetry has often been read for its coded or obscured references to his sexuality. This essay argues that a book such as The Tennis Court Oath (1962) is better read, not for its encrypted autobiographical content, but for its giddy strange tone, its “queer affect.” Poems such as “Europe” and “A Last World” do not detail Ashbery’s emotions in a documentary or confessional manner; instead, they offer wildly experimental collocations of shards and fragments that enact and convey the vertigo and delight of “living queerly,” that is, departing from socially prescribed norms and scripts. The anomalous, resistant style of The Tennis Court Oath, moreover, can be partly credited to Ashbery’s encounter with the French movement Nouveau Realisme, the found-object art of such figures as Arman, Jean Tinguely, and Jacques Villeglé.



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