Cosmopolitan Erotics in John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath (1962)

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John Ashbery’s early sixties collection of poems The Tennis Court Oath is a material outcome of the American poet’s stay in France as a Fullbright scholar and an art critic of the Paris Herald Tribune. As had many of his modernist forebears in American literature earlier on in the century, Ashbery spent some years between the late 1950s and early ‘60s in Paris as an expatriate writer, but with a difference. It appears from his many comments on the expatriate tradition among modernist American artists in Paris in the first half of the 20th century that Europe no longer provides the transnational topos for the American writer as a mythic primal scene for his or her reclaiming an ‘American home and identity’ away from home. But even more important is perhaps Ashbery’s questioning of a dichotomy typical of much critical thinking about American modernism, namely that between a so-called ‘nativist’ and a so-called ‘internationalist avant-garde’ tradition in American modernist literature. According to Ashbery, late 20th century American artists in European exile are doubly alienated, or as he puts it in his own words, “[t]hey are not expatriates, but apatrides”. What he means by that is that the American writer abroad is faced with an “inability to identify anywhere”. The implications of such a position are, of course, far-reaching insofar as it no longer makes sense to categorize the expatriate writer as part of any literary tradition whether national or international.
In this paper I shall argue that Ashbery’s characterization of the position of the postwar expatriate American literary artist as ‘apatride’ may be seen as a symptom of an emergent devolution of mainstream American literary culture. For, while the institutionalization of modernist poetics by New Criticism had tended to efface the opposition between ’avant-garde internationalism’ and ‘nativism’ in American poetry, both traditions were still to a very large degree exclusionary of the poetic voices of blacks, women and homosexuals and other minorities. Though affluence and increased urbanization of American society had led to greater cultural visibility for these groups in the immediate postwar period, their relation to mainstream American literary culture still remained relatively marginal. As I shall demonstrate in my paper, the only way in which a homosexual poet like John Ashbery was able to affirm a gay identity position was through a postmodernist poetics, which mimes, while at the same time parodies any national or international, mainstream or avant-garde poetic tradition. Thus, Ashbery may be said to emerge as a ‘funny’ kind of poetic cosmopolite.
Antal sider6
StatusUdgivet - 2009
BegivenhedCosmopolitan America: The United States in Transition - University of Copenhagen, København, Danmark
Varighed: 28 maj 200930 maj 2009


KonferenceCosmopolitan America
LokationUniversity of Copenhagen