This may not be the opening gambit most readers expect from a poet who’s won every major award in the pantheon, but John Ashbery often defies expectations: These Kmart-tinged words launch his poem “Wolf Ridge.”
There are few laudatory adjectives that critics haven’t applied to Ashbery’s 26 books of poetry; “dazzling,” “sublime,” and the like become shopworn. His 1975 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won an unprecedented triple crown, garnering the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Prize, and the Pulitzer. This fall will provide a matching trifecta for Ashbery lovers. From September 14 to 16, Bard College will host a celebration honoring the poet’s 80th birthday. In November, Ecco will release Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, and literary magazine Conjunctions (based at Bard) will devote some 150 pages of its 49th issue to Ashbery and his work.
“John has been a contributor and dear friend for almost as long as Conjunctions has been going,” says editor Bradford Morrow. “I’ll never forget the exceptionally moving first lines of the first poem he ever sent me for publication—‘To have been loved once by someone–surely / There is a permanent good in that.’ He’s a colleague at Bard and, to my mind, the most influential, important poet alive. His poetry investigates voice and what can be voiced in its every gesture. It soars, shimmers, and bristles with both street smarts and hieratic wisdom.”
Ashbery divides his time between a Manhattan apartment and a magisterial Victorian home in Hudson. His partner of 37 years, David Kermani, a slight, dark-haired man with a seemingly permanent smile, opens the door to an alternate universe. He ushers his guests through the oak-paneled entryway, past a huge stained-glass window of striking amber and butterscotch hues, and into a formal dining room lined with deeply textured maroon wallpaper. Like the woodwork, beveled mirrors, and tile fireplaces, it’s original to the house. The careful arrangements of porcelain geishas, trompe l’oeil plates, and Little Orphan Annie teacups are pure Ashbery.
The eclectic mix of architectural classicism and vintage curios mirrors the juxtapositions of high and low diction in Ashbery’s poems. The late Jim Ryan, curator of the nearby Olana State Historic Site, once told Kermani, “Someday this house is going to be seen as a major work by John Ashbery.” Kermani ran with the concept, publishing an essay called “In Context: ‘Created Spaces’ as a New Resource in Ashbery Studies” in LIT magazine, in which he described these live-in collages as “a kind of physical poetry.”
“Of course, John won’t say any of this is conscious, just the way he won’t discuss the meaning of his poems. He’ll just tell you he wants to provide a congenial atmosphere for himself,” Kermani says, leading the way through a butler’s pantry with a well-stocked bar and into the kitchen. This room is distinctly unmuseumlike: Its center table is piled high with junk mail and newspapers, and there’s a microwave squatting on top of a coal stove. In front of it stands the poet, in his stocking feet. If he’s surprised to be so interrupted, he covers it gracefully.
Ashbery is a large man, with a handsome, square face and a corona of silky white hair. He’s wearing a light blue shirt that brings out the tint of his eyes. He walks with some stiffness, but when he speaks, his gentle, mellifluous voice is that of a much younger man.
In the parlor, Ashbery settles into a favorite upholstered chair with antimacassars on both arms. He and Kermani bought some of the house’s original furniture from the former owners when they took possession in 1978. “Just from having sat in the same place for 80 years, it has a kind of authority,” he says, flashing a gap-toothed smile. Is he alluding to his own recent 80th birthday? Ashbery certainly exudes authority, but no one would accuse him of remaining in the same place.
Born in Rochester, he studied at Harvard and Columbia, then spent a decade in Paris, where he worked as a translator (sometimes under the nom de plume Jonas Berry) and wrote about art for the International Herald Tribune. He also wrote poems, in fits and starts. In 1956, his collection Some Trees was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Series.
Ashbery and his peers, including Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, were dubbed the New York School of poets. “We didn’t think of ourselves as a school,” he insists. “We were a group of friends who wrote largely for each other, since we didn’t have any other audience and didn’t expect to.” Gallery owner and publisher John Myers chose the label, hoping the luster of New York School painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning would shine on “his poets.”
Fifty years later, Ashbery is still on the cultural vanguard. Along with Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Isabella Rosselini, and other hipster celebrities, he performed live narration for Guy Maddin’s silent art film Brand Upon the Brain at New York’s Village East Theater last year; he and Maddin now plan to collaborate on a screenplay.
Movie references abound in his poems, which also employ such cinematic devices as intercutting, montage, and flashbacks. He’s just as conversant with music, favoring contemporary classical and avant-garde composers. John Cage’s I Ching-based “Music of Changes” was “very influential when I heard it in my early 20s,” he relates. “I once heard John Cage talking to someone about music, and he said, ‘Beethoven was wrong.’ Several years later, having thought about this, I asked Cage what he’d meant. Cage replied, ‘He was wrong!’”
Ashbery often listens to music while writing or preparing to write. “Lately, I’ve been listening with a lot of interest to ‘The Art of Finger Dexterity’ by [Carl] Czerny, which was written to torture piano students,” he says. “It’s mostly silly little tunes ornamented in a very complicated way to stretch the fingers to the limits of endurance. It’s kind of beautiful because of having been written from that angle, to educate the fingers.”
The musical influence is reciprocal: Composers Ned Rorem and Elliott Carter, among many others, have composed settings for Ashbery’s verse. There’s a similar cross-pollination in visual art. Ashbery has provided texts for collaborations with Robert Mapplethorpe, Joe Brainard, and Archie Rand; Trevor Wingfield’s magazine, Sienese Shredder, recently reproduced some of the poet’s own early collages. Ashbery’s artistic vision infuses his writing as well. “Since I wanted to be a visual artist when I was a kid—I took art classes at the Museum of Rochester—I have a visual artist’s take on how a poem should be, for instance, ‘I should move a piece of this over there’; ‘This needs a certain color,’ rather than a certain word,’” he explains.
Bard colleague, poet, and longtime friend Ann Lauterbach says of Ashbery’s oeuvre, “There’s an open discussion among various art forms that goes back and forth in a kind of wonderful, rich way.” With Conjunctions’s Bradford Morrow and Peter Gizzi, she assembled an extraordinary group of guests for Bard’s upcoming celebration, choosing artists rather than academics to discuss Ashbery’s work. “John is essentially not interested in academic writing,” she observes. “He thinks in the work and through the work. Analysis and theory have so little to do with his own processes.”
Ashbery concurs: “I don’t know why I would want to analyze my own poetry. If I knew too much about it, I wouldn’t be able to write it.”
Larissa MacFarquhar’s November 2005 New Yorker profile details a day in the creative life of John Ashbery, full of the procrastinatory yet somehow essential practices most writers embrace: cups of coffee and tea, phone calls to writer friends, reading, playing significant music. “What he is trying to do is jump-start a poem by lowering a bucket down into a kind of underground stream flowing through his mind-—a stream of continuously flowing poetry, or perhaps poetic stuff would be a better way to put it. Whatever the bucket brings up will be his poem,” MacFarquhar reports.
This method has changed little over the years. “I suppose what’s changed is that when I was young, I was more intimidated by the process of writing,” says Ashbery. “I didn’t try to do it very often–maybe I felt that I’d sort of use up my artistic capital. And I would revise endlessly. As the years go by, I’ve become much more casual about writing. If I’m not pleased with something, I tend to discard it rather than reworking it to death.”
The contents of Ashbery’s bucket may confound, even enrage, some readers. Adam Kirsch wrote in the New Republic, “Ashbery, like God, is most easily defined by negatives. His poems have no plot, narrative, or situation; no consistent emotional register or tone; no sustained mood or definite theme. They do not even have meaningful titles. So complete is Ashbery’s abandonment of most of what we come to poetry for that his achievement seems, on first acquaintance, as though it must be similarly complete: a radical new extension of poetry’s means and powers, or an audacious and wildly successful hoax.”
Ashbery is aware of his reputation for inscrutability, but insists that the poems are their own explanation. In his collected lectures on poetry, Other Traditions, he wrote, “As a poet who cares very much about having an audience, I’m sorry about the confusion I have involuntarily helped to cause; in the words of W. H. Auden, ‘If I could tell you, I would let you know.’”
In addition to lecturing at Harvard, Ashbery has taught writing at Brooklyn College and Bard. “I try to figure out the way a young poet wants to write, and point him in ways that turn out to be helpful,” he says. He assigns students to write poems based on Italian rebus puzzles and Max Ernst collages, or “translate” from languages they don’t speak, such as Finnish. “I try to disorient them, really—disorientation being a state of mind from which poetry emerges,” he says. “It’s for their own good.” There’s that smile again, cracked in the center, suggesting a mischievous schoolboy.
Ashbery spent his school years in two very different households. His father owned an orchard in western New York; Ashbery still seems to shudder when recalling the man’s “terrible temper.” He spent most of his early childhood with his maternal grandparents in Rochester. His grandfather was a physics professor; gentle, bookish, and “interested in whatever was new”—X-rays, talking pictures.
Young Ashbery adored movies. “The RKO Palace was a real palace, sort of like the Eighth Wonder of the World, with grand chairs in the lobby, ornate decorations. I won a contest to be on the ‘Quiz Kids’ radio program–the final quiz was held on the stage of the RKO,” he recounts. “The first movie I ever saw was the 1933 Alice in Wonderland, with W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty and Gary Cooper as the White Knight. I was five. It was a double bill with Disney’s Three Little Pigs—no, Frank Buck in Bring ’em Back Alive. He was a sort of adventurer and animal explorer. They showed a python swallowing a live pig. It was amazing because it was a movie—anything on the screen would have been equally amazing.”
When Ashbery turned seven, his grandfather retired and moved to a country house on Lake Ontario. “I always felt this was the end of paradise, a place I could never go back to,” Ashbery says, turning his gaze out the window.
The stately Victorian in Hudson, found after a long search which Kermani likens to “scouting for a film location,” reminded the poet of his grandfather’s house in Rochester. Kermani claims that Ashbery fell in love on the front porch, telling the realtor, “I’ll take it,” before he’d seen all of its rooms.
Ashbery describes moving into his home as a “way of reliving a pleasant childhood.” He opens his eyes very wide, a characteristic expression which seems to suggest he sees more than most people. “Not everyone goes out and tries to replicate it,” he says. “Most people would be content just to remember their childhood—I don’t know what it says about me that I wanted to live there.”
Like John Ashbery’s poetry, it says many things at once, letting each listener find his own meaning. And though Ashbery must rank among the least autobiographical of contemporary poets, such musings may bring to mind the closing lines of “A Man of Words,” from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: “Just time to reread this / And the past slips through your fingers, wishing you were there.”
From Estuaries, From Casinos
It’s almost two years now.
The theme was articulated, the brightness filled in.
And when we tell about it
No wave of recollection comes gushing back—
it’s as though the war had never happened.
There’s a smooth slightly concave space there instead:
Not the ghost of a navel. There are pointless rounds to be made.
No one who saw you at work would ever believe that.
The memories you ground down, the smashed perfection:
Look, it’s wilted, but the shape of a beautiful table remains.
There are other stories, too ambiguous even for our purposes,
but that’s another matter. We’ll use them and someday,
a great event will go unreported.
All that distance, you ask, to the sun?
Surely no one is going to remember to climb where it insists, poking about
in an abstract of everyday phrases? People have better
things to with their lives than count how many
bets have been lost, and we all know the birds were here once.
Here they totter and subside, even in surviving.
In history, the best bird catchers were brought before the king,
and he did something, though nobody knows when.
That was before you could have it all
by just turning on the tap, letting it run
in a fiery stream from house to garage—
and we sat back, content to let the letter of the thing notice us,
untroubled by the spirit, talking of the next gull to fly away
on the cement horizon, not quibbling, unspoken for.
We should all get back to the night that bore us
but since that is impossible a dream may be the only way:
dreams of school, of travel, continue to teach and unteach us
as always the heart flies a little way,
perhaps accompanying, perhaps not. Perhaps a familiar spirit,
possibly a stranger, a small enemy whose boiling point
hasn’t yet been reached, and in that time
will our desire be fleshed out, at any rate
made clearer as the time comes
to examine it and draw the rasping conclusions?
And though I feel like a fish out of water I
recognize the workmen who proceed before me,
nailing the thing down.
Who asks anything of me?
I am available, my heart pinned in a trance
to the notice board, the stone
inside me ready to speak, if that is all that can save us.
And I think one way or perhaps two; it doesn’t matter
As long as one can slip by, and easily
Into the questioning but not miasmal dark.
Look, here is a stance—
Shall you cover it, cape it? I
Don’t care he said, going down all those stairs
makes a boy of you. And I had what I want
only now I don’t want it, not having it, and yet it defers
to some, is meat and peace and a wooden footbridge
ringing the town, drawing all in after it. And explaining the way to go.
After all this I think I
feel pretty euphoric. Bells chimed, the sky healed.
The great road unrolled its vast burden,
the climate came to the rescue—it always does—
and we were shaken as in a hat and distributed on the ground.
I wish I could tell the next thing. But in dreams I can’t,
So will let this thing stand in for it, this me
I have become, this loving you either way.
From Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems by John Ashbery (Ecco, 2007).
The poem was originally published in Hotel Lautréamont (Knopf, 1992).
Ashbery has just been named poet laureate for mtvU, a subsidiary of MTV that is broadcast on university campuses.
- Jennifer May
- Author John Ashbery
- Jennifer May
- Author John Ashbery