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Tom Clark reviews

100 Multiple-Choice Questions by John Ashbery

ISBN 0-9706250-0-6, 32 pages, USD $12.50
Adventures in Poetry, 50 Kenwood St. #1, Brookline, MA 02446 USA

http://www.adventuresinpoetry.com/ Tel. (617) 734 0661
This book originally appeared in Adventures in Poetry 5 (1970)


100 Multiple-Choice Questions is

  1. a vast electrical disturbance
  2. a cut-up of student examination papers
  3. tremendously funny
  4. spanking new/old stuff just out & need-to-get
  5. a work that travels at the velocity of glacial drift
  6. more complex hygronomy from the author of A Kind of Waffle

When, in the obscure depths and glib surfaces of John Ashbery’s poetry, philosophy paints its gloomy picture of the present world, we see that a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated, but only understood. Only when dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly... these words came to me in

  1. the street
  2. the form of gray tiles arranged as a rebus in a dream
  3. a seizure of earnest talk with a young girl
  4. a book
  5. the spur of a moment of surprising apprehension
  6. a fit of impatience after reading 100 Multiple-Choice Questions

If a man came up to you on the street and began quoting random lines from John Ashbery’s poetry, would you

  1. run
  2. beat him up
  3. try to hide
  4. produce a bottle of whiskey and offer him a slug
  5. try to understand
  6. pointedly ignore him

Writing in The New Yorker, Helen Vendler has described John Ashbery’s poetry as

  1. an entire range of language swallowed and then regurgitated, as by a mother bird
  2. an acceptable form of alchemy, practiced without knowing it
  3. a tap that stops leaking when one doesn’t listen to it
  4. a way to climb the dark back stairs of the soul in one’s stockinged feet
  5. a mechanical chess game which creates beautiful problems to cover over the machinations of capitalism
  6. a volume of air displaced by a shirt

John Ashbery was born and raised in

  1. Sodus, New York
  2. Hazard, Kentucky
  3. Peking, China
  4. Paris, France
  5. Poetry, Georgia
  6. Soda Springs, Idaho

A major university recently offered the opportunity to dine with John Ashbery at

  1. the Beverly Hills home of Wolfgang Puck for $20,000
  2. Wimbledon Centre Court for $1500
  3. Chez Panisse for $300
  4. McDonald’s for $5.95
  5. the slime trough of history for nothing
  6. Stone Cold Steve Austin’s house for twenty drachmas

Words in John Ashbery’s poetry may be helpfully imagined as

  1. each joining a neighbor, as through speech
  2. bridges stretched over elasticized chasms of unknowing
  3. your friends and mine
  4. hateful colored scarves
  5. the replacements for mental faculties suppressed by computerization
  6. large, grave shepherd dogs standing quietly under card tables as, outside, the snowstorm which will end all life begins

Ashbery’s early experimental work in poetry now appears

  1. the calculated cosmic pratfall of a master magician
  2. a harmless plaything of the ruling classes
  3. the most important record of human development since the Gospels
  4. a virus that takes over and uses the cells of the body
  5. an ingenious proposal for walking upside down
  6. a living yeast culture produced by a secret process known as “buzz-flash-bubble-spill”

Since the original magazine appearance of “100 Multiple-Choice Questions” in Adventures in Poetry in 1970, American poetry has

  1. regressed to a series of class tics
  2. gone to hell in a handbasket full of smiling intelligent marionettes
  3. remained stagnant, awaiting further developments
  4. educated itself, at least
  5. forgotten its way home
  6. tried its hardest to imitate a garage band

In short, 100 Multiple-Choice Questions may be said to constitute

  1. personal choice carried to its ridiculous (or sublime) extreme
  2. an argument maintained successfully to the finish, though the terms of this argument remain unknown quantities
  3. a gymnasium haunted by the power dreams of the envious
  4. an instruction manual on the uses of a medal given for services in a war fought for a bad cause
  5. so much puttering around in the garage of the mind of an idiot savant
  6. a resuscitated plastic article from the Silly Sixties.


Tom Clark was born (1941) and raised in Chicago and attended the universities of Michigan (B.A.) and Cambridge (M.A.). From England in the 1960s he edited a series of mimeograph magazines featuring a generation of younger poets who would also appear in The Paris Review during his ten-year tenure as poetry editor (1963—1973).

Tom Clark’s latest books are The Spell: A Romance (Black Sparrow) and Cold Spring: A Diary (Skanky Possum).
You can read a review of The Spell in Jacket 12,
and an excerpt from Cold Spring, also in Jacket 12


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