The Poetic Life of John Ashbery
Author: Victoria Brownworth
September 6, 2017
“The summer demands and takes away too much. /But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.”
And so it was on the eve of Labor Day, at summer’s end, John Ashbery died. Those words from one of his great, epic poems, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirrror,” for which he’d won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976, seemed appropriately elegiac.
John Ashbery died September 3 at his home in Hudson, New York and there has perhaps been no greater passing in the world of poetry in decades. Simplistically, Ashbery was a poetic genius and one of the most imitated poets of the 20th and 21st centuries. He won every award there was to win, beginning with the Yale Younger Poets Award when he was 28 and continuing through his 80s when he won the National Book Award. In between there were the Bollingen Prize, the Robert Frost Medal, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Humanties Medal (by President Obama). Ashbery translated Rimbaud and a dozen lesser-known French poets when he’d lived in France and translated them with verve and excitement and discipline. He’d taught at Brooklyn College and at Bard, a sparkling mentor to young poets.
Ashbery had been editor of Partisan Review, an art critic for Newsweek, New York Magazine and ArtNews and hung out with Andy Warhol at The Factory. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He was poet laureate of New York state, where he’d been born in Rochester on July 28, 1927 and had lived most of his life, the last 30 years between a flat in Chelsea and a house in Hudson. Ashbery had been granted a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim and a Fulbright. By any and all likely metrics, Ashbery was the greatest living American poet for decades.
At his death, Ashbery was 90. His husband David Kermani, said he died peacefully of natural causes–a blessed, peaceful leave-taking from this earth after an incalculably full life. As he once wrote, “I like poems you can tack all over with a hammer and there are no hollow places.”
His life was like that.
Yet Ashbery’s passing means there will be no more poems from that most prolific of poets who was writing up until the day of his death. Ashbery’s passing means that it is over–that near-century of writing upon which poets and readers had come to depend, for as in his poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Ashbery declared, “I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free,” and that was, in fact, the way of him, his poetry, his life.
It is an epitaph.
I was 19 when I met John Ashbery. I had met other famous writers before him at readings and at college. My poetry instructor had won the Pulitzer Prize. An English professor had won several prestigious awards for a novel I was certain no one had actually read all the way through. And as a teenager I and my then-best friend had stalked elusive lesbian novelist Djuna Barnes outside her New York mews like characters in a Truffaut film. We’d ended up invited for tea and stale biscuits. I can conjure the taste of the hot, heavy, over-sweetness of the tea to this day at the edge of my tongue and the dustiness of the biscuits at the back of my throat.
Sense memory is so strong. Bits and pieces of things–a slightly stained and ragged damask cloth, an over-steeped Darjeeling in a fragile cup, a vague scent of tea roses overlaying everything–sense memory is itself the Rosetta stone of poetry.
John Ashbery’s poetry has always seemed to me to be evocative of sense memory first and foremost. What can you glean from an Ashbery poem? They are unequivocally sensual, even as they are maddeningly inscrutable and oddly prosaic, by turns. You read and read and sometimes you get it and more often you don’t and it doesn’t even matter because the words are at once elegant and every day, lush and linear and above all, seemingly flawless. Ashbery’s words never feel out of place nor echo wrongly back at the reader.
John Ashbery was a poet’s poet yet in no way superior about that calling. “I don’t look on poetry as closed works,”he wrote. “I feel they’re going on all the time in my head and I occasionally snip off a length.”
What I remember of John Ashbery the man is his voice and his eyes and the seeming lack of pretense in a person so famous who had impacted American poetry more dramatically than anyone save Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson or T.S. Eliot. Ashbery had a ready chuckling kind of laugh that was surprising and not a little delightful. Those eyes, though. A grey-blue, unblinking, almost too boldly staring. And when he smiled or laughed, he was gap toothed in places, like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.
I couldn’t tell you if Ashbery was handsome, then. I was very young, he was several decades older, older than my parents–no one young is good at that sort of thing, but he had a powerful presence that no doubt struck men as handsome and commanding.
What I remember most, what I remember still, is when he read a poem at the table that day, I realized I was hearing the explication of the words as they were meant to be heard and read and inhabited. Ashbery didn’t read like most poets I knew or had heard. (I was myself a young poet then, publishing and reading on the circuit with people much older then I and living and breathing poetry as one does when one is in love with the form and process and milieu of poetry. It was with my then-mentor, herself an award-winning poet and a good friend of Ashbery’s and with whom I was in love, that I was getting to meet him, like the character in one of Marilyn Hacker’s sonnets in “Life and Death and the Changing of the Seasons.”)
I loved how Ashbery read. I loved that he didn’t read in that flat “This-Is-Poetry” dying fall intonation so many poets adopt early and which I was fiercely trying to avoid, myself. I loved that Ashbery read so conversationally, so engagingly–it was, in point of fact, at odds with the poetry itself, which was hard to get inside so much of the time. But there he was, reading it as if it were easy-peasy Dr. Seuss rhymes.
Ashbery said, in a 2011 interview with Time Magazine, after he’d won the National Book Award, that he didn’t like poetry readings and didn’t like the sound of his own voice or even that of other poets. “I can’t stand the sound of my own voice,” he said. But his voice, his voice reading his poetry, was in fact wonderful–vivid and straightforward and immensely believable. John Ashbery reading John Ashberry gave the listener that ah-hah moment of intuiting what the words meant because of how he read them.
In high school I would listen to recorded readings of poets I loved in the library and memorize their style. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes. The way each poet reads her or his own work tells you what they want you to know about that work. Ashbery wanted you to know that he understood what he was saying and if you listened hard, you, too could get it.
This last is absolutely at odds with the poetry itself, of course, which is abstruse and complicated and what-the-hell-did-I-just-read-am-I-stupid-or-what dense. But that’s part of the delight of hearing Ashbery read–one realizes (even I understood this as a jejune 19 year old college student) that he’s not toying with the reader. He viewed those words of his on the page that could make even the most stoic of grad students tear up with how confounding they were as regular words, as words that were meant to be heard, words that were accessible and beautiful and sharply lyrical.
In a 2005 interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, Ashbery said, in response to a query about what critics asserted was his inaccessible style, “I wish that [my poems] were as accessible to as many people as possible. They are not, I wouldn’t say, private. What they are is about the privacy of all of us and the difficulty of our own thinking and coming to conclusions. And in that way they are, I think, accessible if anybody cares to access them.”
About that: In his poem “Grand Gallop” we hear the confluence of things that comprise an Ashbery poem: The sublime, the ridiculous, the mundane, the ethereal and of course, the inscrutable. “All things seem mention of themselves./And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents./Hugely, spring exists again. The weigela does its dusty thing/In fire-hammered air. And garbage cans are heaved against/The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart./And today is Monday. Today’s lunch is: Spanish omelet, lettuce and tomato salad,/Jell-O, milk and cookies [….]”
Imagine it read conversationally, so that “the weigela does its dusty thing” and “the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart” are given their full weight of moment. Is that not how we view those flowers? Is it not how we will see them ever after?
But then: “Today is Monday” and lunch. And after that we have Poetry with a capital p and a question of our place in the cosmos.
In “The Double Dream of Spring,” Ashbery is playful: “Then let yourself love all that you take delight in/Accept yourself whole, accept the heritage/That shaped you and is passed on from age to age/Down to your entity. Remain mysterious;/Rather than be pure, accept yourself as numerous.”
Ashbery was 28 when he won the Yale Younger Poet’s award and his first collection, Some Trees, was published. W.H.Auden had been the judge. Auden later “confessed that he had not understood a word of it.”
And that was how it was for the ensuing six decades: critics both grumbling and lauding the work that was like no other. Ashbery was so singular a voice, he had many imitators but his work imitated no one. The New York Times critic Stephen Koch described Ashbery’s work as “a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with a weird pulsating rhythm that fluctuates like a wave between peaks of sharp clarity and watery droughts of obscurity and languor.”
Yet not always inscrutable. In his later years, Ashbery wrote of aging with an acuteness borne of knowing. “Saying It To Keep It From Happening,” from Houseboat Days, is raw and baldly visceral in its lyricism:
Some departure from the norm
Will occur as time grows more open about it.
The consensus gradually changed; nobody
Lies about it any more. Rust dark pouring
Over the body, changing it without decay—
People with too many things on their minds, but we live
In the interstices, between a vacant stare and the ceiling,
Our lives remind us. Finally this is consciousness
And the other livers of it get off at the same stop.
How careless. Yet in the end each of us
Is seen to have traveled the same distance—it’s time
That counts, and how deeply you have invested in it,
Crossing the street of an event, as though coming out of it
The same as making it happen. You’re not sorry,
Of course, especially if this was the way it had to happen,
Yet would like an exacter share, something about time
That only a clock can tell you: how it feels, not what it
It is a long field, and we know only the far end of it,
Not the part we presumably had to go through to get there.
If it isn’t enough, take the idea
Inherent in the day, armloads of wheat and flowers
Lying around flat on handtrucks, if maybe it means more
In pertaining to you, yet what is is what happens in the end
As though you cared. The event combined with
Beams leading up to it for the look of force adapted to the
Usages of age, but it’s both there
And not there, like washing or sawdust in the sunlight,
At the back of the mind, where we live now.
The narrative and the narrator meld in that poem, as is so often the case with Ashbery’s work. Is he speaking to us, to himself, to the very poem he is writing, to a future waiting in the not-so-distant wings?
There were many aspects of Ashbery. He fell in love with painting before poetry and he often said if he were going to be something else, it would have been that. He was friends with many painters and spent decades as an art critic. There are a few grainy black and white films of him with artists from the 1960s that can be viewed online. He also loved music, was an eclectic listener who collaborated with John Cage and others. (There’s a lovely piece in The New Yorker on Ashbery and music)
In a 2014 Guardian review of Ashbery’s French translations, critic Patrick McGuinness writes beautifully of this variant interest of Ashbery in things outside his own writing:
Ashbery is a poet of margin-quarrying, tributary-chasing curiosity, but as a translator he is far more accurate than his throwaway comments suggest. It’s as if his very exactness guaranteed his translations their unfamiliarity. This chimes with something in Ashbery’s own poems, which have what he calls, in Rimbaud, a “crystalline jumble,” and where personal pronouns (the I’s and You’s and We’s) on which we hang interpretation, are porous, interchangeable things. Ashbery’s poems track the minutiae of a consciousness that is rangy and unbounded; that, as he writes in A Wave (1984),”belongs where it is going / Not where it is”.
How much of that dearth of pronouns had to do with Ashbery’s gayness?
When I met John Ashbery, I knew he was gay and that was, of course, intensely fascinating to a young lesbian, because there weren’t many out gay writers, even then, in the late 1970s, on the cusp of the drama of the AIDS pandemic that was about to hit in a year or two. It wasn’t a topic, of course, the gayness. But it was known that all of us there were gay and that was, itself, an event for me.
In that odd Time interview, the subject of gayness is raised and dropped. Ashbery wasn’t a rude man–students revered him, fellow poets adored him. He had great affection for the work of other poets and his translations of French poets were as loving as they were disciplined and canonical. He was a poet other poets could love without resentment, because he took nothing for granted, was endlessly self-effacing and really just loved writing and wanted to be nothing else but a poet.
So when he’s almost sharp with the somewhat smug Belinda Luscombe, it’s a surprise. Luscombe says, “You grew up in an era when it was shameful to be gay. That is no longer the prevailing view.”
Ashbery seems taken aback and says, almost reflexively and with just a bit of irritation of a man who was then 85 and had been gay for decades in the years before Stonewall, “Oh really?” And he laughs his laugh and looks away for a moment and adds, “Nobody told me,” while Luscombe patters on, oblivious, as Ashbery purses his lips, furrows his brow and rearranges his face. She asks if his work would have been different had he been gay at a different time than his was.
Ashbery thinks about this, pausing. His annoyance seems to have passed but is it sadness we see on his face? Or just his sincerest reflection on a question he clearly did not expect to be asked.
“I’ve never been sure how that would have worked,” he responds. “There is a school of criticism that says that my poetry is so torturous and obscure because I’ve been trying to cover up the fact of my sexuality all these years, and I think that’s an interesting possibility and there may indeed be some truth in it. But I’m not sure how much and whether that’s the generating force in my poetry. I think I would have been attracted to this kind of poetry anyway.”
And that’s it. Luscombe moves on to ask if Ashbery–remember he’s just won the National Book Award the night before and is 85–”currently makes a living” off his poetry.
Ashbery’s response is endearing and is such an entree into him as a person. “Gosh no, heavens no, shucks no,” he says, and says, “I made a living teaching.”
As odd and grating and dismissive an interview as Luscombe’s “10 Questions for John Ashbery” is (watch the video on YouTube), the brief interview is true cinema verité and gives one a keen sense of Ashbery the old, yet still vibrant, thoughtful and winsomely funny man.
Ashbery’s gayness appears around his poetry rather than in it. He writes in “At North Farm,” “Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you, /At incredible speed, traveling day and night,/ Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes./ But will he know where to find you, /Recognize you when he sees you,/ Give you the thing he has for you?”
He lived with his husband, David Kermani, who was 20 years his junior, for over 40 years. When he was living in France in the 1960s through the early 70s, he lived with poet Pierre Martory, whose work he translated. They were together for nearly a decade.
Ashbery met Martory while he was in France on a Fulbright. Martory, a decade older than Ashbery, was slender and slight and in photographs looks gamin beside the taller and more severe-seeming Ashbery.
These long relationships suggest a comfort with his own sexuality that never is explicated in his work, yet is belied by that sudden outburst in the interview with Luscombe. That calls to mind these lines from “Meaningful Love”: “What the bad news was became apparent/ too late for us to do anything good about it./ I was offered no urgent dreaming,/ didn’t need a name or anything.”
And also, this entire poem, “How to Continue,” from Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems (2007):
Oh there once was a woman
and she kept a shop
selling trinkets to tourists
not far from a dock
who came to see what life could be
far back on the island.
And it was always a party there
always different but very nice
New friends to give you advice
or fall in love with you which is nice
and each grew so perfectly from the other
it was a marvel of poetry
And in this unsafe quarter
much was scary and dirty
but no one seemed to mind
the parties went on from house to house
There were friends and lovers galore
all around the store
There was moonshine in winter
and starshine in summer
and everybody was happy to have discovered
what they discovered
And then one day the ship sailed away
There were no more dreamers just sleepers
in heavy attitudes on the dock
moving as if they knew how
among the trinkets and the souvenirs
the random shops of modern furniture
and a gale came and said
it is time to take all of you away
from the tops of the trees to the little houses
on little paths so startled
And when it became time to go
they none of them would leave without the other
for they said we are all one here
and if one of us goes the other will not go
and the wind whispered it to the stars
the people all got up to go
and looked back on love.
This most accessible and beautiful and ineffably sad poem, with “And in this unsafe quarter/ much was scary and dirty/but no one seemed to mind” the gayness is at the surface–not oblique at all.
Ashbery dedicated two of his award-winning works, “Flow Chart” and “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” to Kermani. Ashbery said his most profound influences as a young poet were W.H. Auden and Arthur Rimbaud–both gay, both wildly different poets.
In his beautiful translation of Rimbaud’s “Illuminations” in 2011, Ashbery writes in his preface, “If we are absolutely modern–and we are–it’s because Rimbaud commanded us to be.”
Ashbery, well into his 80s, writing of Rimbaud, who flamed out as a poet in his 20s and was dead at 37 and still, in his emeritus years, able to feel honored by another poet and chastened, even.
There is so much to be said about John Ashbery. He didn’t like being lumped in with the New York School of poets that he helped shape because he felt constricted by that. Yet he also never seemed to believe in his own stature as a poet. He had an aura of humility that was not put on, not false. In that Luscombe interview, after declaring him to be considered America’s greatest living poet, she asks him, “Are you in fact America’s most important living poet?”
Ashbery says, “I don’t think so. Important? I get talked about a lot. For many years the jury has been out on my importance. I enjoy writing the way I do, which doesn’t please a lot of people and pleases others enormously, and I guess that’s all one can expect.”
Luscombe asks, “There’s a wide discrepancy in critical opinion as to what your work really means. Shouldn’t you straighten that out?”
Ashbery thinks a moment, then says, “Not at this stage in my career. It was a very long time before my poetry was first published and then read and then discussed. Those stages took decades, and it wasn’t until I was about 40 that I felt that I had an audience. My first book only sold 800 copies over a period of eight years. Before it came out, I was expecting to be hailed as a poet the next day in the press.” That laugh, again.
In perhaps her best question, Luscombe asks, “Do you ever read what the critics write about you and think, this is just ridiculous?”
Ashbery responds, “No, because maybe they’re right. I haven’t got that much confidence in my writing. It’s more like hope.”
And that is the portrait of the poet as a real man–honest, open, forthright, no nonsense and yet, someone one wishes to have known and feels so connected to after only a few minutes.
Ashbery talks about being old. Is death lurking in his thoughts? Ashbery, who would live another five years past that interview, says, “I’ve never not thought about death. There are not that many things to write poetry about. There’s love and there’s death and time passing and the weather outside, which is horrible today. I’m so glad I’m not writing poetry today. The weather gets to me when I write.”
Will he meet God, Luscombe asks. Again, that warm, invitational chuckle: “Episcopals are famed for their martinis, so I imagine he will hand me one when I arrive.”
One imagines that martini handed over on Sunday night. Crisp. A twist, no olives. And conversation ensuing, “I have a question about this poem…”
Ashbery once wrote, “Reading is a pleasure, but to finish reading, to come to the blank space at the end, is also a pleasure.”
To have lived a life so filled with pleasure in small things–not only in the grandiose–that is a gift. To have written so much, so enthusiastically over so many decades, that was a gift to us.
Ashbery wrote “I don’t quite understand about understanding poetry. I experience poems with pleasure: whether I understand them or not I’m not quite sure. I don’t want to read something I already know or which is going to slide down easily: there has to be some crunch, a certain amount of resilience.”
There was crunch and resilience in John Ashbery’s work. There was breadth, vision, compulsion, joy. What a life, what a wealth of achievement, what a legacy of hundreds of poems he left us.
Ashbery may have written his own eulogy in “Soonest Mended”:
This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free.
Alas, the summer’s energy wanes quickly,
A moment and it is gone. And no longer
May we make the necessary arrangements, simple as they are.
Our star was brighter perhaps when it had water in it.
No perhaps about it, though: John Ashbery’s star will forever be bright.
Photo via The Poetry Foundation