Chinese Whispers is the British name of a game called Telephone in America. According to a certain "Professor Hoffmann" in his book Drawing Room Amusements (1879), "the participants are arranged in a circle, and the first player whispers a story or message to the next player, and so on round the circle. The original story is then compared with the final version, which has often changed beyond recognition." [via]
"Chinese Whispers" is also the superb title poem in this new collection of sixty-three poems by John Ashbery. In these works, as perhaps in much poetry, the verbal nucleus that is the original incitement toward a poem undergoes twists and modulations before arriving at its final form. The changes are caused not by careless listening to the speech of others, but by endlessly proliferating trains of ideas that a single word or phrase ignites in the poet's mind. These alter the face of the poem even as they contribute to it and become part of its fabric. As in a sea change the poem has been transformed, often into "something rich and strange," but the strangeness is that of thought being opened up, like a geode, to reveal unexpected facets of meaning.
John Ashbery has been called "America's greatest living poet" by Harold Bloom. Now in his seventy-fifth year, he continues to write poetry that is dazzlingly inventive and original.