The early poems of John Ashbery must be read, in part, as a meditation on the plight of labor, particularly white-collar labor, in the postwar United States. Beginning with a very early poem, “The Instruction Manual” (1956), and its exploration of the ambiguous class position of white-collar workers, the essay tracks themes and formalizations of both labor and management as they continue in Ashbery’s highly experimental second book, The Tennis Court Oath (1962). In this book the standpoint of the earlier poem gives way to an explosion of shifting voices as Ashbery’s distinctive use of free indirect discourse and other techniques of point of view registers the contemporary breakdown in labor relations and the crisis for established modes of management. In Ashbery’s mature style of the 1970s, this chaotic play of voices yields to a comparatively measured technology of point of view, which reflects the new modes of management that followed the crises of the 1960s and 1970s.

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