In addition to today being the birthday of former English poet laureate and Romantic master William Wordsworth, Boston activist William Monroe Trotter, Jazz avatar Billie Holiday, sitarist-par-excellence Ravi Shankar, and supreme ironist Donald Barthelme, as well as the anniversary of a 1712 New York slave revolt, it was, after the printing and issuance of the mayoral proclamation, John Ashbery Day in New York City. I learned this at the reading Ashbery (1927-) gave at the New School University, on the second day of the three-day festival organized by poet and critic David Lehman and others on his behalf.
The reading took place in the Tishman Auditorium (above), on W. 12th Street, an amenable, egg-shaped, post-Deco decorated venue I've been to many times for great readings and have even once had the honor of reading at. Cave Canem annually holds their prize readings there, and the New School itself brings numerous well-known and not-so-well known writers in every year. By any measure, Ashbery is one of the best known and most famous living American poets, and has received every major poetry prize available, save the Nobel. He is also one of the most prolific, with over 20 books and many more chapbooks and small-press volumes, as well as a volume of visual art criticism, a collection of belles-lettres, and a novel (with James Schuyler), and plays. His first book, Some Trees, won the Yale Younger Poet's Prize back in 1956, and he was nominated for a National Book Award just a few years ago, I believe. (For some judges, this has become almost reflexive.)
Yet there's a paradox with Ashbery, because unlike most of the other very well-known and honored poets, he has been insistently criticized and dismissed by not only some notable academic and non-academic critics, but also by some of his peers (James Dickey, Richard Howard, etc.), because of his continual experimentation with both form and content, his hermeticism and allusiveness, his humor and silliness, sometimes verging on artlessness, his use of dream logic and illogic, since his earliest work, which advanced the traditions established by British and American Modernists such as W. H. Auden (on whom he wrote a master's thesis), T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens, but with strong input from the French Surrealists, other European poets such as Rainer Rilke and Boris Pasternak, and all manner of American high, sometimes avant-garde and mass or popular culture from the era of Ashbery's childhood and adolescent development on through to today.
Ashbery is almost always called "difficult." Yet unlike most difficult poets, he traffics regularly in popular cultural material and references that high culture critics have tended to dismiss, while also writing works that defies easy formal or theoretic classification. For example, he wrote an entire book of poetry in prose, Three Poems, that is based both on Traherne's meditative poetry (an admittedly rarefied source) and the readily available self-help manuals that one can find at any bookstore. In another volume, Houseboat Days, usually regarded as one of his most "difficult," he wrote a poem that references Daffy Duck in its title but goes on to catalogue a range of recondite allusions, from Fernando de Rojas's epic to Dryden's heroic tragedy on the Mogul emperor, Aureng-Zebe. Nijinsky and Franz Kafka, among others, also appear as ghostly presences in the same volume. In another, he writes a sestina that incorporates the characters from Popeye ("Farm Implements with Rutabagas"), transposes his own lines atop a Peaches and Herb song ("It Was Raining in the Capital"), and invokes a classical Roman divination form in another ("Sortes Vergilianae"); this book's title is drawn from the beautiful, enigmatic Giorgio di Chirico painting that's emblematic of Ashbery's work, The Double Dream of Spring. Such is John Ashbery (below).
He is, as I've written before on here, one of the most influential living poets in English, particularly in countries as Canada, the UK, and Australia. In fact, he may be the most influential in terms of the effects of his aesthetic, and the number of poets whose poetics can be traced to him. Several generations of major figures show varying degrees of Ashberian influence (or counterinfluence), and at least one school of contemporary American poetry (Language) can trace its formal origins directly to him, even if its political concerns have from its beginnings been quite different. If one were seeking a "queer" poet who could be said to have truly queered, in the broadest sense, the poetic body, Ashbery would be he. A study entitled The Tribe of John discussed this topic in some depth, but it could easily be expanded upon today with at least five or six new chapters. Lehman himself is a star acolyte of Ashbery's, as is the man, James Tate (1943-), who introduced Ashbery tonight. (Strangely, Tate, shown below, looked almost twice as old as Ashbery, while Ashbery seemed to be about half a decade short of his 79 years.)
About the reading, I'll say that Ashbery was quite funny. About half the poems he read were among his best known, like "Qualm," which mentions Warren Harding and was thus very appropriate for the current political climate, "Soonest Mended," which he admitted was autobiographical, "What Is Poetry," a famous ars poetic and self-defense of his aesthetic, and "At North Farm," whose citation of the Finnish epic the Kalevala prefigures the long poem, "A Wave," in the volume it heads. He also seemed to choosing other poems randomly from his Penguin Selected. One of the first poems he read, "He," was hilarious, and my friend and fellow writer David M., who isn't a big fan of poetry readings but decided to join me this time, said he really enjoyed this poem. It's a simple lyric, structured anaphorically (the same word is the first word of each line: "he") that proceeds in dreamlike fashion, but actually tells a story. I hadn't ever thought of the poem as being comical (absurd yes, funny no) until I heard Ashbery read it, and this came through in a number of his poems, which verge on silliness by incorporate all kinds of verbal detritus, which in the best pieces, especially the more recent ones, he manages to weave into a very convincing lyrical fabric. He read one piece from his collection based on Henry Darger's paintings, Girls on the Run, which I find tiresome through and through, and repetitive of earlier, better work in Flow Chart (which he also read from, again to comic effect), then concluded with a final, fairly recent poem from Your Name Here: Poems that brought together the multiple registers of American speech, in which life's "elusiveness" and "mysteries" are both concealed and revealed, but which was also shot through with the perceptions of loss and his own mortality that have become his late career hallmarks. The standing ovation that capped the 50-minute reading (it felt shorter) was long and demonstratively heartfelt.