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Pocketmags Digital Magazines
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Everyday magical thinking

US poet John Ashbery had a gift for generosity, comedy and simplicity, finds Jeremy Noel-Tod

“Itried each thing, only some were immortal and free.” These words, which begin John Ashbery’s most celebrated volume, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), were extensively quoted on social media when the poet died last autumn at the age of 90. It was not an untimely death, but the news still felt like a shiver in the natural order. Regularly described as “America’s greatest living poet,” Ashbery himself seemed to be one of the immortal things, who would defy death with his infinite jest. “Time, you old miscreant!” began a poem published when he was 75, “Slain any brontosauruses lately?”

For all the rakish insouciance of such lines, the deep appeal of Ashbery’s voice was always its I-have-foresuffered-all sagacity. “We see us as we truly behave,” begins his first book, Some Trees (1956), establishing the 29-year-old poet’s bardic willingness to speak for the one and many, like Walt Whitman before him. Venturing further, the reader encounters inexplicably gnomic images, haunted by meaning, such as “In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer.”

The volume was published with an introduction by Ashbery’s poetic hero, WH Auden, who acknowledged its strangeness with the observation: “From Rimbaud down to Mr Ashbery, an important school of modern poets has been concerned with the discovery that, in childhood largely, in dreams and daydreams entirely, the imaginative life of the human individual stubbornly continues to live by the old magical notions.” Auden was, in effect, presenting Ashbery as a young surrealist. But he was also noting that there is a sympathy in these poems with the everyday magical thinking that creates meaning in our lives.

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In Prospect's April issue: Four writers explain how our relationship with death has changed in as technological and medical advances have been made in recent years. Joanna Bourke explores how modern life is now able to live on through social media sites, Cathy Rentzenbrink explains how (referring to the case of her own brother) a “twilight zone,” in which someone is neither alive nor dead, has been created through medical advances. Michael Marmot argues that we are experiencing a change in regards to our life expectancy—over the course of a series of decades we have seen life expectancy increase, but what do recent decreases actually mean. Meanwhile, Philip Ball writes about his participation in an experiment to create a second brain from his own flesh. Elsewhere in the issues: Jane Kinninmont questions whether the Saudi Crown Price, Mohammed bin Salman, really knows what he’s doing, Daniel Howden charts how European attitudes to migrants might be changing and Jay Elwes asks: Does a Cornish mine hold the answer to questions about the UK’s green future?