For the third week of our National Poetry Month celebration, we will be focused on the work of John Ashbery. Ashbery was born in 1927 in Rochester, New York. After studying at Harvard and Columbia, he spent several years in Paris in the 1950s on a Fulbright scholarship, and later as an art critic for the Paris Herald Tribune. His first collection, Some Trees (1956), was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Series. From 1966 to 1972 he was the executive editor of ArtNews. His collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. From 1990 until 2008 Ashbery was the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr. Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College. His latest collection, published last year, is Quick Question.
June 9, 2005
“What we have here,” the narrator of the title poem (which is in prose) of Where Shall I Wander declares, “are certain individuals intent on disarraying the public gravitas of things.” For over fifty years now Ashbery has been one of those most adept at revealing how “the public gravitas of things” can be disarrayed, challenged, neutralized, re-angled, turned inside out, or at the very least sifted and leavened.
June 14, 1984
How brave you are! Sometimes. And the injunction
Still stands, a plain white wall. More unfinished business.
But isn’t that just the nature of business, someone else said, breezily.
You can’t just pick up in the middle of it, and then leave off.
What if you do listen to it over and over, until
It becomes part of your soul, foreign matter that belongs there?
I ask you so many times to think about this rupture you are
Proceeding with, this revolution. And still time
Is draped around your shoulders. The weather report
Didn’t mention rain, and you are ass-deep in it, so?
Find other predictions.
January 18, 1990
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 no matter. We’ll use them and some day,
a great event will go unreported.
When John Bayley reviewed Ashbery’s Flow Chart in 1991, he called the poet “essentially a born-again Romantic and Victorian.” Distinguishing Ashbery from Eliot, Pound, and Williams—“all modernists in search of an exegete”—Bayley brilliantly shows how Ashbery steeps his language in “the flow of ‘ordinary’ experience,” seeming to reject any utterance too removed from everyday, throwaway speech, even while the reader’s “taste for poetry…is something Ashbery rather magnificently takes for granted.”
August 15, 1991
Inside his own head the reader may begin to think and to talk like Ashbery, in the way that a reader fifty or sixty years ago might have been reciting bits of Auden in his head, and taking up for a moment, like Walter Mitty, their appropriate mental stance.
In 1984 Helen Vendler reviewed John Ashbery’s twelfth collection of poems, A Wave. The book, she suggests, revives poetry’s oldest theme—mortality—by means of “the pure Americanness” of Ashbery’s diction.” “We register at first the clichés” in certain poems, and “these trip so easily on the tongue that we understand this drama to be something ‘everyone knows.’… To see the very coin of our conversation exposed in the palm of the poem is horrible, but mesmerizing.”
June 14, 1984
No pleasure is sweeter in the ear than something new done to the old.
February 19, 1981
Warren G. Harding invented the word “normalcy,”
And the less-known “bloviate,” meaning, one imagines,
To spout, to spew aimless verbiage. He never wanted to be president.
The “Ohio Gang” made him. He died in the Palace
Hotel in San Francisco, coming back from Alaska,
As his wife was reading to him, about him,
From The Saturday Evening Post. Poor Warren. He wasn’t a bad egg,
Just weak. He loved women and Ohio.
April 3, 1975
A pleasant smell of frying sausages
Attacks the sense, along with an old, mostly invisible
Photograph of what seems to be girls lounging around
An old fighter bomber, circa 1942 vintage.
How to explain to these girls, if indeed that’s what they are,
These Ruths, Lindas, Pats and Sheilas,
About the vast change that’s taken place
In the fabric of our society, altering the texture
Of all things in it? And yet
They somehow look as if they knew, except
That it’s so hard to see them, it’s hard to figure out
Exactly what kinds of expressions they’re wearing.
John Ashbery’s first contribution to The New York Review was this 1973 piece on two new Collected Poems, by A.R. Ammons and by John Wheelwright (a poet who died in a car crash in 1941 at the age of forty-three). The fine sensitivity and intelligence of Ashbery’s ear yield insights that quite often sound uncannily descriptive of his own poetic strategies: “The difficulty proceeds less from arcane allusions than from Wheelwright’s peculiarly elliptical turn of mind which convolutes and compresses clarities to the point of opacity. There is no more point in doing one’s homework first than there is with the Cantos: one has to wade in, grasping at what is graspable and letting the extraordinarily charged lyrical climate accustom one little by little to the at first blinding brightness or darkness.”
February 22, 1973
The pure products of America don’t always go crazy: Dr. Williams himself is a demonstration of this. But the effort of remaining both pure and American can make them look odd and harassed—a lopsided appearance characteristic of much major American poetry, whose fructifying mainstream sometimes seems to be peopled mostly by cranks (Emerson, Whitman, Pound, Stevens), while certified major poets (Frost, Eliot) somehow end up on the sidelines.