Four Earlier Poems
These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance
To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.
And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges
A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.
One died, and the soul was wrenched out
Of the other in life, who, walking the streets
Wrapped in an identity like a coat, sees on and on
The same corners, volumetrics, shadows
Under trees. Farther than anyone was ever
Called, through increasingly suburban airs
And ways, with autumn falling over everything:
The plush leaves the chattels in barrels
Of an obscure family being evicted
Into the way it was, and is. The other beached
Glimpses of what the other was up to:
Revelations at last. So they grew to hate and forget each other.
So I cradle this average violin that knows
Only forgotten showtunes, but argues
The possibility of free declamation anchored
To a dull refrain, the year turning over on itself
In November, with the spaces among the days
More literal, the meat more visible on the bone.
Our question of a place of origin hangs
Like smoke: how we picnicked in pine forests,
In coves with the water always seeping up, and left
Our trash, sperm and excrement everywhere, smeared
On the landscape, to make of us what we could.
My Erotic Double
He says he doesn’t feel like working today.
It’s just as well. Here in the shade
Behind the house, protected from street noises,
One can go over all kinds of old feeling,
Throw some away, keep others.
Between us gets very intense when there are
Fewer feelings around to confuse things.
Another go-round? No, but the last things
You always find to say are charming, and rescue me
Before the night does. We are afloat
On our dreams as on a barge made of ice,
Shot through with questions and fissures of starlight
That keep us awake, thinking about the dreams
As they are happening. Some occurrence. You said it.
I said it but I can hide it. But I choose not to.
Thank you. You are a very pleasant person.
Thank you. You are too.
What Is Poetry
The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow
That came when we wanted it to snow?
Beautiful images? Trying to avoid
Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving
The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it
As we believe it. In school
All the thought got combed out:
What was left was like a field.
Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.
Now open them on a thin vertical path.
It might give us — what? — some flowers soon?
The passionate are immobilized.
The case-hardened undulate over walls
of the library, in more or less expressive poses.
The equinox again, not knowing
whether to put the car in reverse
or slam on the brakes at the entrance
to the little alley. Seasons belong
to others than us. Our work keeps us
up late nights; there is no more joy
or sorrow than in what work gives.
A little boy thought the raven on the bluff
was a winged instrument; there is so little
that gives and says it gives. Others
felt themselves ostracized by the moon.
The pure joy of daily living became impacted
with the blood of fate and battles.
There’s no turning back the man says,
the one waiting to take tickets at the top
of the gangplank. Still, in the past
we could always wait a little. Indeed,
we are waiting now. That’s what happens.
Just Walking Around
—–What name do I have for you?
Certainly there is not name for you
In the sense that the stars have names
That somehow fit them. Just walking around,
An object of curiosity to some,
But you are too preoccupied
By the secret smudge in the back of your soul
To say much and wander around,
Smiling to yourself and others.
It gets to be kind of lonely
But at the same time off-putting.
Counterproductive, as you realize once again
That the longest way is the most efficient way,
The one that looped among islands, and
You always seemed to be traveling in a circle.
And now that the end is near
The segments of the trip swing open like an orange.
There is light in there and mystery and food.
Come see it.
Come not for me but it.
But if I am still there, grant that we may see each other.
The New Higher
You meant more than life to me. I lived
through you not knowing, not knowing I
I learned that you called for me. I came to
where you were living, up a stair. There
was no one there.
No one to appreciate me. The legality of it
upset a chair. Many times to celebrate
we were called together and where
we had been there was nothing there,
nothing that is anywhere. We passed
leaving no stare. When the sun was done
in an optimistic way, it was time to leave
Always Merry and Bright
Across the frontier, imperfect sympathies are twinkling,
a petite suite of lights in the gaga sky.
Most of the important things had to be obliterated
for this to happen. Does that interest you, ma jolie?
Something else would have happened in any case,
more to your liking perhaps. Yet we can’t undo the sexual posture
that comes with everything, a free gift.
Now the blades are shifting in the forest.
The ocean sighs, finding the process of striking the shore
interminable and intolerable. Let’s pretend it’s back when we were young
and cheap, and nobody followed us. Well,
that’s not entirely true: the cat followed us
home from school sometimes. Men in limousines followed us
at a discreet distance, the back seat banked with roses.
But as we got older one couldn’t take a step
without creating crowd conditions. Men dressed like reporters
in coats and hats with visors, and yes, old ladies too,
crooning about the loss they supposed we shared with them.
Forget it. It all comes undone sooner or later.
The vetch goes on growing, wondering
whether it grew any more today
Such, my friends, is life, wondered the president.
Holland Cotter: Of the hundreds of openings in the city this fall, this one will be particularly distinctive. Because the artist is the pre-eminent American poet John Ashbery, making his solo debut as professional artist at 81, with a modest but polished exhibition of two dozen small collages at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. (read more)
Much On The Cliffs: The Philosophies of John Ashbery
John Ashbery accepts lifetime achievement award at 2011 National Book Awards
John Ashbery reads “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”
10 Questions for Poet John Ashbery
Poet’s View: John Ashbery
Guernica Magazine: In a recent interview, the poet Robert Pinsky says he hates poetry that is “dumbed down.” In an earlier interview with Billy Collins, Collins emphasizes almost the opposite stance, criticizing difficult poetry as self-indulgent and perhaps hiding something. Is either of them right? Are they both right? What do you say to someone who tells you that many readers are just used to a more linear thought process than your poems convey?
John Ashbery: I guess I would have to side with Pinsky. I came of age in the mid-twentieth century when modernism was at its height. It was more or less expected that great literature (Joyce, Pound, Proust, Stein) would be hard to read, and people seemed actually to look forward to that. I remember how excited I was when my tutor at Harvard assigned me James’s Wings of the Dove, perhaps his most difficult book. My feeling was, “Gosh, this is really hard to read, but I’m sure I’ll have learned something by the time I finish.” And I did. Though it would be impossible to summarize in a few sentences. Somehow the word “accessible” never turned up in discussions of poetry in that era.
Guernica: Can someone, say a student who’s resistant to your work, be taught how to read you? Is it an issue of negative capability?
John Ashbery: I don’t think a student who is resistant to my work ought to be taught how to read it. It’s best if he or she tries to live with it a while, leaves it, comes back to it, leaves it again, etc. That’s how I first read modernist poetry. And yes, negative capability is certainly a valuable asset.
Guernica: How do you think of your writing as experiment, which you mentioned earlier? There never seems to be a particular procedure involved unless you’re working with a form like the pantoum or the sestina.
John Ashbery: Well, the pantoum or the sestina, which we all use occasionally, are forms which take the poem really out of the hands of the poet in attempting to satisfy the constraints that are the trademark of these forms. Therefore one can allow one’s unconscious mind to go about forming the poem in a way that is even more effective than what the Surrealists practice, called “unconscious writing,” which I don’t think ever gets that far from consciousness. Having to accomplish a task that is almost mechanical is a far more effective way of liberating one’s unconscious mind to write the poem. That’s only one small example, though. In general, I think we intended to avoid the classical norms that were dominant in poetry. When we were in college, for instance, we were kind of rebelling against the academic climate by any means that we could.
Guernica: Was it useful for you to know Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler—the other young poets so often associated with you, I mean.
John Ashbery: Oh yes. When we were young, we were our only audience. We would write poems and read them to each other, and in fact, for quite a few years, I didn’t really think that anybody else was going to be interested. My first book was not at all successful. I’m talking about the Yale University one, which I think they printed 800 copies of, and it took eight years to run out. And the second one got universally panned. At that point, I kind of questioned myself: if no one is ever going to read it, should I go on writing it? Shouldn’t I do something that will affect people, some other form of art perhaps? I can’t say that I ever thought this out in any detailed form, but I perhaps gradually realized that this is what I enjoy doing most, and I was going to go on doing it. And perhaps someday somebody would like it.
Guernica: And, of course, they did.
John Ashbery: Yes, strangely. [laughing]
‘With this volume The Library of America inaugurates a collected edition of the works of America’s preeminent living poet. Long associated with the New York School that came to the fore in the 1950s, John Ashbery has charted a profoundly original course that has opened up pathways for subsequent generations of poets. At once hermetic and exuberantly curious, meditative and unnervingly funny, dreamlike and steeped in everyday realities, alive to every nuance of American speech, these are poems that constantly discover new worlds within language and its unexpected permutations.’ (Buy it)
(l. to r.) John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, Gerard Malanga, Kenneth Koch
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Nice add, thank you! ** Keatoccoli, I love broccoli, how did you know? I started a coin collection when I was a nerdy six year old, but I got bored. It’s probably worth a fortune now. Christ knows where it is. That would make an interesting episode for that reboot of ‘The Twilight Zone’: One day a very wealthy gay guy wakes up and every twink in the world has become an escort. ** Sypha, Sounds like premise for a heck of a short story or even novel? Get on that? Or maybe I should take the bait and write ‘God Jr. Jr.’? ** _Black_Acrylic, ‘Euphoric recall’: is that an actual term? It’s so nice. ** politekid, Well, hey again! I’m super seriously flummoxed and appalled in the extreme by power trips. Anarchist and all of that, obvs. (Spellcheck turned anarchist into antichrist). Yeah, do report in re: your Tate till assignment. Which till, do you know? Like entrance tickets or the guy handing out those headsets with preprogrammed tour narration or taker of the funds of postcard purchasers or … ? I like being in the Tate. Good building. I like the Tanks. I think everything I’ve liked there was in the Tanks. Or mostly. Ha ha, your ‘Waiting Room’ ‘misreading’, but, hm, Fugazi ironic? Maybe, I guess. Now I have two listen to it again. Oh, wow, 1400 entries, yeah, don’t get too excited, but … you never know. And feedback is nice, depending. Anyway, my respective votive candle is lit. Thanks for the instagram link. Yeah, it looks appealing. Darn, our movie comes out in France on the 15th, and we’ve already been told to be here just beforehand in case the press wants to talk to us or something. Well, yeah, put the text online, cool. And maybe iPhone that thing? Yeah, the blog’s stupid glitch about not seeng comments from the outside is really annoying, and I’ve talked to all the blog doctors I could, so I’m just hoping it self-heals or something. Hooray! Rock your Tuesday or vice versa. ** Steve Erickson, Oh, thanks, I’ll do that, thank you. I didn’t read that New Yorker article, but sure, it makes sense. I guess the thing is to wind the addictions down less and less unhealthily? Like, I’m sure my coffee addiction is some relic of my cocaine days. I never drank coffee until I quit cocaine. But that’s one with a simple through line. I don’t know if there’s a healthy-ish substitute for Klonopin’s effect out here somewhere. I don’t know anything about such streaming services, but … Everyone, Please listen up. Here’s a question from Steve. Can you help him out? Question: ‘Can anyone recommend streaming sites for watching TV shows on-line?’ Thanks! ** Misanthrope, I too love the pound coin. It’s kind of the perfect coin. To hold in your hand, not to turn your pocket into an anchor. Yet more phobias. You’re full of them, that’s so interesting. I wonder where they came from? Can phobias be traced back to some infinitesimal source in infancy or something? Huh. Deep breaths. Me too. ** Right. I was thinking about John Ashbery the other day, which I do fairly often, I guess, but in that case it made me want to restore this old post about him that dates from the days when he was still alive and totally kicking. See you tomorrow.