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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.”