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1927-2017

John Ashbery

By Paul Muldoon

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SODUS

A corruption of assorodus, a Cayuga term meaning “silver wave,” your birthplace confirmed your calling as a Lake Poet, caged as you were in that house on Lake Road till poetry extended you a wing. A white wing, surely, in anticipation of the whitecap of your hair, spume setting off the unfathomable blue of your eyes. The word “whitecap” was first used by Ben Franklin in a celebrated letter on oil and troubled water. That was in 1773, when the term assorodus still had some currency.

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When John Ashbery’s Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems was awarded the 2008 Griffin International Prize for Excellence in Poetry, the judges remarked that “his is one of the best and most intense poetry productions of the twentieth century,” the term “productions” making it seem that an Ashbery might be some class of an automobile—an Audi, an Acura, an Ashbery. The Griffin judges also handed down the decision that “the pleasure of reading John Ashbery’s poetry defies explanation.” Now, it may be all very well for the Griffin judges to beg off explaining why his poetry is so pleasurable. An introducer of John Ashbery at the Paris Review revel is obliged to do better, or to try to, particularly when the Hadada Award is at stake. The Hadada ibis is a bird that Ashbery has already written on, in his typically foresightful way, under the guise of writing about Marianne Moore:

And her mode of direct address can be misleading: towards the end of “To Statecraft Embalmed” you become aware that she is no longer addressing an ibis, or even you, the reader; for the last minute she has been gazing absently at something terribly important just over your left ear.

At the risk of having you gazing absently at something terribly important just over my left ear, and at the risk of suggesting that there is such a thing as a typical Ashbery poem, since each is somehow sui generis, I’m nonetheless going to spend about five minutes pointing to one recent-ish piece and seeing what generalizations we might impute from it. It’s a poem chosen at random from A Worldly Country, which I take to be his 25th book collection of poetry. The fact that this might indeed be his 25th collection may explain in part why the Griffin Prize judges use the word “productions,” as if they were indeed witnessing the latest model to come off an assembly line from an assembler of lines. The poem is entitled “Lacrymae Rerun,” and the title alone is an indicator of the sophistication we’re dealing with in John Ashbery. It’s a play, of course, on Virgil’s phrase lacrimae rerum, a phrase uttered by Aeneas as he looks at a mural in a Carthaginian temple and weeps at images of the gory details of warfare and speaks of his own tears as “tears for the things of the world.” The pun in “lacrymae rerun” sends me back to the first time I heard John Ashbery read. It was in 1981, in a town called Gorey, in County Wexford, Ireland. I’ve just used the term “gory detail” as prompting Aeneas’s tears and it should come as no surprise that when Paul Funge, founder of the Gorey Arts Week, was casting about for a name for his new magazine based in that same town he would come up with the name “The Gorey Detail.” That interest in wordplay is deeply instilled in us and it’s one of the reasons the judges of the Griffin Prize, along with the rest of us, take such “pleasure in reading” John Ashbery. But word-play, however delightful, is not quite enough in and of itself to sustain the delight in John Ashbery’s poetry so many of us have had for so long. Wordplay is most effective when it’s at the service of something beyond itself. The term “rerun” in “Lacrymae Rerun” is a telling one. It reminds us that the context in which Aeneas weeps is the context of a work of visual art and it helps to make sense of the final line of the poem:

Was ever anything

crosshatched so ripe with despair.

The technique of “crosshatching” is used by artists to “shade an area with intersecting sets of parallel lines” (OED) and give the illusion of depth. In some sense, one of the difficulties perceived by readers, or would-be readers, of Ashbery has been the sense that his poems give the illusion of surface and are somehow lacking depth, at least not a depth that we can decently expect to plumb. That was part of my own difficulty, listening to John Ashbery read almost thirty years ago, when I came away with a sense of beauty and bafflement to which the judges of the Griffin Prize are referring—unconsciously, I’m pretty sure—when they announce that “John Ashbery’s poetry defies explanation,” a phrase that breaks away like a calving iceberg from the glacier of the whole sentence: “The pleasure of reading John Ashbery’s poetry defies explanation.” Indeed, in the first paragraph of the first of his Norton Lectures, given at Harvard, John Ashbery rather bemusedly addresses this dilemna:

There seems to be a feeling in the academic world that there’s something interesting about my poetry, though little agreement as to its ultimate worth and considerable confusion about what, if anything, it means.

What’s happened over the course of those thirty years, for myself and many other readers, is that Ashbery’s poems have instructed us in how to read them. What may have seemed merely baffling thirty years ago now seems perfectly judged to be redolent of, and ready for, the even more baffling world we now inhabit. It’s akin to what Wallace Stevens, a major influence on Ashbery, described in “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” as “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” The “rerun” in “Lacrymae Rerun” refers as much to the visual medium of the television show, another visual medium that is notable for its ability to deal with “reality” or, as I heard it described the other day, “actuality.” The Ashbery poem is a commodious thing, expanding to take in a commodified world in which everything and anything may turn up. “Anything” does indeed turn up in “Lacrymae Rerun” as “was ever anything/ crosshatched so ripe with despair.” In addition to confirming that Ashbery might be aware that a poem the title of which plays on the phrase lacrymae rerum might include a reference to a thing—“anything”—one of Ashbery’s most perceptive readers, John Shoptaw, would make rather a lot of a phrase like “so ripe with despair,” seeing there what he has elsewhere taken to be a central component in John Ashbery’s work, what he refers to in his great study of Ashbery, On the Outside Looking Out, as his “misrepresentative poetics”:

While Ashbery’s poetry is as representative and inclusive as Whitman’s, it is also as misrepresentative, exclusive, and restrained as Emily Dickinson’s. In her own statement of misrepresentative poetics, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—/ Success in Circuit lies,” Dickinson misrepresents the judicial oath to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” a distortion compounded by a pun on “lies,” a variation on the idiom “to slant the truth,” and even a circumferential play on “Circuit court.” I mean misrepresentation as an alternative to various interpretative strategies that treat Ashbery’s poetry as purely non-representational, self-referential, nonsensical, parodic, or deconstructive. Ashbery’s poetry is all these things, but his misrepresentations do not as a consequence rule out meaning, expression, and representation; they renovate them.

Shoptaw’s way of reading Ashbery is based on an alertness to “crypt words,” a term he borrows from a description by Ashbery, given in the course of a 1983 interview, of his own method:

I just wrote a poem this morning in which I used the word “borders” but changed it to “boarders.” The original word literally had a marginal existence and isn’t spoken, is perhaps what you might call a crypt word.

In the case of the phrase “crosshatched so ripe with despair” from “Lacrymae Rerun,” one crypt word in “despair” is “pear,” in the fruit sense. A pear is, among other things, the subject of many still life paintings, or drawings in which the methods of crosshatching would be used, a pear that, like so many other fruit, might be described as “ripe for picking.” That “ripe” is distorted in “Lacrymae Rerun” into the phrase “so ripe for despair,” itself a misreading of the more common phrase “rife with despair.” Another crypt word is “pair” in the “couple” sense given, that conflict between couples, or a couple of armies, particularly when they’re at cross purposes, is what causes lacrymae rerum to flow. An engagement with pairings is evident from any number of John Ashbery’s titles, be it The Double Dream of Spring (1970) through As We Know (1979), the volume which includes “Litany,” a poem in which a right and a left hand column are meant to be read simultaneously, to Shadow Train (1981) and the double sestina in 1991’s Flow Chart. The fluidity which might almost be said to be John Ashbery’s chief subject, is also encapsulated in that title, Flow Chart, though we’ve been conscious of it from Rivers and Mountains (1966) through A Wave (1984) to April Galleons (1987) to Girls on the Run, the 1999 collection influenced by the “outsider” artist, Henry Darger, author of the 15,000 page illustrated novel The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. John Ashbery has also traveled in the realms of the surreal, as is evidenced by the title of his 1992 collection, Hotel Lautreamont. As well as including the double pun on l’autre (the other) and l’auteur (the author), Comte de Lautreamont was, of course, the pen name of the Uruguayan-born French poet Isodore Ducasse whose Les Chants de Maldoror (1868-69) is often cited as the first surrealist book. It’s in Les Chants de Maldoror that we find the line often quoted by Andre Breton as a classic example of Surrealism, where Lautreamont describes a boy being “as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” It’s the kind of “chance meeting” we associate with Dadaism or, we call it at the Paris Review, Hadadaism. Such distortions are the staple of 20th- and 21st-century art, of course, but have been discernible as far back as the 1791 painting of The Tennis Court Oath by Jacques-Louis David on which Ashbery drew for the title of his 1962 collection, a painting notable for its leading the eye straight into a brick wall, to Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the 1975 collection for which John Ashbery won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and which was based on Parmigianino’s painting of that same title. Or, maybe not. As John Ashbery himself reflected, the idea that his poem was based on something “seems to have given people the idea that I was actually dealing with a subject matter in some recognizable way, and this was a great relief; but I think really it’s just as random and unorganized as my other poetry is.” It would have been on the strength of the success only three years earlier of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror that, in 1981, I made the 150 mile trip from Belfast to Gorey with the sole purpose of hearing John Ashbery read. As I suggested earlier, over those thirty years John Ashbery has achieved something quite remarkable. Like Henry Darger, like Comte de Lautreamont, he has taken a notion of the cutting-edge and made it, in the best sense, a commonplace. As you might deduce from the various comments I’ve quoted, no one would be more horrified than John Ashbery himself if he were to be charged with making the marginal mainstream. It’s his very tirelessness before the possibility of being tethered that has, paradoxically, secured for him the position of most significant U.S. poet writing today. It brought him not only the prizes I’ve already mentioned but the National Humanities Medal, conferred by President Obama, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the rank of Officier de la Legion d’honneur presented by the Republic of France, the Robert Frost Medal, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and, of course, his membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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It happened to be a beautiful time of season, spring or fall, the air was digestible,

the fish tied in love-knots on their gurneys. Yes, and journeys.

The thing I like about these lines from “Chinese Whispers” is that all Ashbery is there. We have the sense of the ludic from the title, of course, with its reference to the game in which “while the objective is to pass around the message without it becoming garbled along the way, part of the enjoyment is that, regardless, this usually ends up happening.” The humorous effect engendered by the “gurney/journey” confusion is tempered by the fact that the gurney is often a vehicle for the journey to end all journeys.

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John Ashbery was born in 1927 in Rochester, New York, the son of Helen (née Lawrence), a biology teacher, and Chester Frederick Ashbery, a farmer. One of my favorite photos of little J. A. features an apple orchard and a horse-drawn cart on which he’s perched. The farm on which he was raised had an isolating effect on the young Ashbery. An early, further isolating, experience was the death of his brother, Richard, at the age of 8. John Ashbery was educated at Deerfield Academy, where he began writing poetry. His first ambition, though, was to be a painter: from the age of 11 until he was 15, Ashbery took weekly classes at the art museum in Rochester. The fact that John Ashbery had a parallel career as a visual artist, one particularly engaged by the collage, is relevant here. And it’s one of the reasons my tribute takes the form of fragments from impressions of, and responses to, Ashbery that I’ve made over the years. Ashbery graduated in 1949 from Harvard, where he’d met some of his closest writer friends, including Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara. After receiving an M.A. from Columbia, he worked as a copywriter in New York from 1951 to 1955. John Ashbery went to Paris on a Fulbright and lived there from the mid-1950s until 1965. In Paris, he worked as the art editor for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune and was an art critic for Art International (1960–65) and a Paris correspondent for ARTnews. After returning to the United States, he continued his career as an art critic for New York and Newsweek. From 1976 to 1980, he worked as an editor at Partisan Review. In the early 1970s, Ashbery began teaching at Brooklyn College. In the 1980s, he moved to Bard College. In 2008 Ashbery was named the first poet laureate of MtvU, a division of MTV broadcast to U.S. college campuses. In other words, his career had run the gamut of 20th-century experience, from the horse-drawn tranquility of Sodus to the horse-driven tumult of the video-jockey. It’s telling, if I may suggest, that his lifespan corresponds to the period in which the average shot length of English language films has declined from about 12 seconds in 1930 to about 2.5 seconds today.

John Ashbery lived in New York City and Hudson, New York, with his beloved husband, David Kermani. He died of natural causes on September 3, 2017, at his home in Hudson, at the age of 90.

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John Ashbery is almost certainly the last American poet about whom there is anything approaching consensus. His greatness is accepted by both sides of the house—the poets who are sometimes perceived as fuddy-duddies for once falling in with those who are sometimes perceived as whack-jobs.

He himself was the first to be amazed at how a figure who so resolutely argued against convention, the quintessential outsider, came to occupy a central position in American poetry. It seems that he almost singlehandedly changed not only the rules of the game but remapped the field on which the game was played.

He managed this by developing a poetry that was absolutely equal to our later 20th-century/early 21st-century predicament. It’s a simple argument. A world that is complex requires a poetry that is complex, a world that is somewhat incoherent may actually demand a poetry that is itself incoherent, a world in which no conclusions apply may even revel in its inconclusiveness. To read a John Ashbery poem is to be scrutinized by it. It is less a recording than a recording device, a CCTV screen taking us in.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 10, 2018.

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