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An English poet’s Byzantine journey

John Ash - Pose Serious wide

When I wrote the review below of John Ash’s “Parthian Stations” for the Economist, I deliberately tried to foster the idea that Ash represented a new “Istanbul school” of poetry. I meant it to refer to the work of Ash and a circle of writer friends and acquaintances who have come together in our old Ottoman-era part of the heart of Istanbul, and whose writings draw inspiration from ancient and modern, east and west, and the multiple religious faiths in our crossroads city. Seven years later, a Google search shows that “Istanbul school of poetry” now scores several hits as an idea in blogs and newspaper articles, and someone (no, it wasn’t me!) even posted that “Istanbul school” idea in Wikipedia (here). One of the first references is in a broader story I did on ‘The Poets of Istanbul’ for the very first edition of Turkey’s Today’s Zaman in January 2007 (here, scroll to p.17). Fingers crossed that we’ll see even more Istanbul poets’ work in the coming years.

Poetic inspiration

A Byzantine journey

Feb 15th, 2007

Parthian StationsBACK in the days when John Ash was a rising English poet of the New York School, critics either loved his stiletto wit or loathed it as “camp disdain”. Mr Ash’s new book, “The Parthian Stations”, shows how a decade of living in Istanbul, studying the heritage of Byzantium and travelling in the Middle East has sharpened both his eye and the claws of his feline black comedy. Meanwhile, any disdain he may have felt in the past at the politics he observes around him has matured into a deep and incisive anger.

“The Parthian Stations”—named after a caravan route between the Mediterranean and India that was described by a Basra geographer in the 1st century BC—displays Mr Ash’s talent for integrating contemporary Middle Eastern events into a classic English poetic frame. He condemns the ruler of Syria, for instance, for retaining the holes made by bullets fired during the 1982 Hama massacre—and then building a hotel on the bulldozed remains of the ancient city centre.


Out of crushed bones and corrupted
flesh a white, pyramidal hotel
rose in balconied stages. Cursed.

When Mr Ash’s 2004 collection, “To the City”, came out, Poetry, a leading American literary magazine, said that he “could be the best English poet of his generation”. Now he may also be the doyen of a new “Istanbul School”.

Several English-speaking poets are publishing work that, like Mr Ash’s, use the city as a vivid background against which to weave together themes of East and West. There is the easy fluidity of Sidney Wade of Florida, the wry melancholy of Mel Kenne of Texas and the keen eye of Alabama’s late Daniel Pendergrass for the theatre of the streets. James Wilde, a Canadian, writes savagely of war, Edward Foster pens gay odes and George Messo, an Englishman, is working on an epic.

By day, many of these poets teach English in Turkey’s burgeoning private colleges. Some meet regularly, others share a new literary periodical and two recently produced a Turkey supplement for the Atlanta Review. Several translate Turkish verse into English. Turkish respect for poetry goes back to Ottoman times, when, according to Walter Andrews, a translator, “almost everyone, from the ruler to the peasant, from the religious scholar to the rake and drunkard, aspired to be a poet.”

Tony Frazer, whose Shearsman Books is one of a number of publishers now interested in poems about Turkey, believes that the country exerts a unique and powerful influence. He gives the counter-example of expatriate British and American poets in Germany, who “might as well be in Leicester or Peoria for all the impact that Germany has had on their work.”

The son of a schoolteacher, Mr Ash, 58, lived until 20 years ago in his hometown, Manchester. Just as he was achieving recognition in Britain he left for America as a protégé of John Ashbery, a leader of the avant-garde New York School.

In his new book, Mr Ash writes that he moved to Istanbul partly to be in a land of Muslim calls to prayer, “to shuck responsibility, to imagine I was not Western, not Christian and free.” He found a new patron, Selçuk Altun, a Turkish banker-turned-novelist who supported him for three years. Istanbul recalls Paris of a century ago, a place where expatriate writers can find liberty, affordable living and exotic surroundings. However, Mr Ash, who likes to sip aniseed-flavoured raki instead of absinthe, rejects the comparison. “I just like cities on the verge of chaos,” he says. “Istanbul was one of the few places that wouldn’t seem boring after New York.”

His book is by turns autobiographical and whimsical. The narratives are accessible, whether meditating on the spontaneity with which he writes or on the sudden death of his sister. Above all, Mr Ash engages with Istanbul, the former Constantinople—“an antechamber of Asia a place of distances and perspectives”.

A voracious reader, with a passion for Byzantine history, Mr Ash takes a long (and not altogether favourable) view of America’s role in the region’s conflicts.

The auguries, the inaugurations
Proceed at vast expense, banquet after banquet.
A fire of the mind is invoked, and this is what
We must live with as the century raises itself
On crippled limbs to proclaim victory.
Neither Alexander nor Trajan combined
Such arrogance with ignorance
But, in the end, what difference does it make?
Persepolis burned, and Fallujah is emptied.

Original article from the Economist’s books section here