Self-fashioning in the poetry of Robert Lowell and John Ashbery.
My thesis focuses on the work of two American poets, John Ashbery and
Robert Lowell. I argue that both construct a personality in their work. Lowell's
construct is more obviously related to his own personality than Ashbery's is;
this is perhaps unsurprising, since writing his autobiography became Lowell's
primary poetic practice from Life Studies onwards. Yet despite Ashbery's
well-known claim that writing about the particularities of his life does not
interest him or other readers, I demonstrate that the personality in his poetry
adopts attitudes which are similar to his own.
I explore Lowell's admission in his later poetry that writing the self
involves a fictionalisation of the self that lives and acts in the real world. In
these poems, he is more keen to acknowledge the failure of his
autobiographical project than to emphasise the details of his daily existence.
Ashbery, too, takes the view that any representation of self distorts the
truth of our everyday life, but unlike Lowell, shows no angst about this in his
p~etry. I argue that, despite his cheerful acceptance of art's inability to
capture the self, he nonetheless endeavours to preserve a sense of self in
the work. My thesis demonstrates that he does not merely mimic the general
movement of consciousness at the expense of portraying the attitudes and
idiosyncrasies of a distinctive personality. At times this personality bears no
discernible relation to the poet's own, but consistently Ashbery presents his
idea of self as a personality, just as Lowell does in his work. We are struck by
the whimsical humour of Ashbery's engaging 'character', just as we
sympathise with his anxieties, fears and loneliness.
In chapter one I explore Lowell and Ashbery's belief that the self is
simultaneously defined and fictionalised by language. Chapter two moves on
to discuss the self against its society: what relationship does the textual self
have with its surroundings, and how does this relationship reflect the poets'
view of their own position within society? In chapter three I argue that Lowell
weakens the force of his confessions by encouraging the reader to rewrite his
text. Yet Ashbery, in keeping the reader on the edge of surprise, allows a
mischievous personality to reveal itself. The final chapter deals with the
subject of time. Lowell's autobiographical project is hindered by his inability to
revivify the past in his poems, yet the sense of personality in Ashbery's work
is made more acute by the appearance of an inquisitive individual who
forever needs to encounter new experiences as a stay against time's quick