Critical high camp: the political dimension in Ashbery's A Worldly Country

Dean Brink*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This essay argues that John Ashbery's A Worldly Country (2007), both in terms of its title and its poems, has brought the political dimension, often intimated in the tone of his earlier poems satirizing America, into the foreground. Moreover, recognizing this dimension allows criticism to overcome reductive and dismissive readings of Ashbery as simply entertaining) readings which often depend on associating his openly gay sexuality with inconsequential aestheticism. Rather, here it is argued that the campy mode evident in his voice, as it modulates and fuses various inter texts and joins disparate discursive vectors with ties to the social realm, is not simply formal semantic play designed to inhibit closure. Contrary to Susan Sontag's influential definition of camp as exhibiting an absence of critical social concern, Ashbery takes the camp mode and develops imagery and attitudinal stances that embody a heartfelt critical presence and ultimately intimates a political dimension in his poetry. It is argued that the difficulty in framing this political dimension derives from the hermeneutical focus dominating literary studies: a Saussurean legacy in post-structuralism that focuses, like New Criticism, on referential signification, so as to preserve and regulate bourgeois discursive horizons and conforming consumption. This legacy tends to inhibit us from considering social relations, firstly, in a Bakhtinian sense of reliance on implied others to prepare our critical articulations, and secondly, in a Foucaudian sense of discursive practices that are interactive and relational, often leaving the referenced object about which a discourse emerges tertiary. Similarly, insofar as we allow ourselves to be immersed in consumer societies today, we can see Ashbery's poetry as sometimes being misunderstood as vapid buffoonery, when it is more often a politely self-deprecating language satirizing American society, especially during these times of imperia list extremes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-84
Number of pages14
JournalForeign Literature Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2011


  • Bakhtinian dialogism
  • Camp
  • Discursive vectors
  • Ideology
  • John Ashbery

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