Saturday, July 14, 2012

John Ashbery @ Poets House + Poem: Ashbery

He is 85 years old, and one of the most famous living American poets, a vital figure in mid-to-late 20th century experimental poetics, a central member of the literary coterie that came to be known as a New York School, the winner of every major US poetry prize including the Pulitzer Prize-National Book Award-National Book Critics Circle Award triad in 1975-76, a highly lauded translator of note and a former art critic, and the poet laureate of MTV. I am of course talking about John Ashbery (1927-), who read this past week at Poets House as part of their summer series and the River to River Festival. He had been scheduled to read earlier this year at Poets House, I believe, but had taken ill, and although I have seen Ashbery read many times, all over New York City, I decided under the circumstances that I ought not miss this appearance. Evidently quite a few other people did as well, and I had to join the overflow audience upstairs, to catch him on the TV monitor. And still people kept arriving! And yet Marjorie Perloff claims nobody likes or pays attention to poetry!

He was, once settled into his dovecoat downstairs and with a few sips of water, in fine form, and after Stephen Motika graciously introduced him, Ashbery read both from his most recently published book, 2009's Planisphere, and from his forthcoming one, Quick Questions. (I think I got the name right.) His poems were frequently hilarious. This is one aspect of Ashbery's poetry that I think often gets underplayed; he is one of the funniest poets writing, and his humor is not only droll and witty, but sometimes verges on verbal slapstick. Yes, there is that wistful tone, drenched in a kind of counternostalgia, that he can evoke (belatedness!), but there is also the highly comic in his work as well. He often is not that far either from Laurel and Hardy, whom he cited several times, or The Three Stooges, or Monty Python. Or the Firesign Theater, about which I knew and know nothing, but which Reggie H. told me Ashbery, and his partner, David Kermani (and Reggie too), were and are afficionados. It was initially warm downstairs, but cooled upstairs at least as Ashbery declaimed, and Poets House kindly provided sparkling wine and water afterwards, including to those who were waiting to get their book (for only one was allowed) signed. I got him to sign his translation of Arthur Rimbaud's Illuminations.

Innumerable are the Ashbery poems that I love, but here is one from one of his books that I have always found particularly beguiling, The Double Dream of Spring. It appeared a few years after he returned from his decade-long stay in France, and the poems, dreamlike in their logic (cf. Giorgio deChirico, whose painting inspired the title) but less syntactically disjunctive or overtly playful in their sentiments than his poems of the French years, marked a shift in Ashbery's work and to me pointed to a mastery of idiom that would reach its apogee in his poetry of the next decade and a half, including his most famous book, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and the difficult but I think equally beautiful book, Houseboat Days, before he shifted into his next phase, which I call "overheard chatter," and which so many younger poets I knew first encountered and have found utterly baffling. Go back to the early poems, and then the ones of the 1970s, I always say--and then Ashbery begins to make a lot more--well, if not sense, at least impact.

Here are some photos from the event, and then, "For John Clare."
The overflow room crowd, John Ashbery reading at Poets House
The overflow audience upstairs (there was a packed room downstairs too)

John Ashbery (Reggie Harris at right)
John Ashbery exiting the green room (Reggie H. at right)

Ashbery reading on the monitor
The bard of Sodus on the screen

People waiting for John Ashbery's signature
The line of people snaking up the stairwell waiting to get his autograph

John Ashbery signing books
Ashbery signing books


Kind of empty in the way it sees everything, the earth gets to its feet and salutes the sky. More of a success at it this time than most others it is. The feeling that the sky might be in the back of someone's mind. Then there is no telling how many there are. They grace everything--bush and tree--to take the roisterer's mind off his caroling--so it's like a smooth switch back. To what was aired in their previous conniption fit. There is so much to be seen everywhere that it's like not getting used to it, only there is so much it never feels new, never any different. You are standing looking at that building and you cannot take it all in, certain details are already hazy and the mind boggles. What will it all be like in five years' time when you try to remember? Will there have been boards in between the grass part and the edge of the street? As long as that couple is stopping to look in that window over there we cannot go. We feel like they have to tell us we can, but they never look our way and they are already gone, gone far into the future--the night of time. If we could look at a photograph of it and say there they are, they never really stopped but there they are. There is so much to be said, and on the surface of it very little gets said.

There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like. Being immersed in the details of rock and field and slope --letting them come to you for once, and then meeting them halfway would be so much easier--if they took an ingenuous pride in being in one's blood. Alas, we perceive them if at all as those things that were meant to be put aside-- costumes of the supporting actors or voice trilling at the end of a narrow enclosed street. You can do nothing with them. Not even offer to pay.

It is possible that finally, like coming to the end of a long, barely perceptible rise, there is mutual cohesion and interaction. The whole scene is fixed in your mind, the music all present, as though you could see each note as well as hear it. I say this because there is an uneasiness in things just now. Waiting for something to be over before you are forced to notice it. The pollarded trees scarcely bucking the wind--and yet it's keen, it makes you fall over. Clabbered sky. Seasons that pass with a rush. After all it's their time too--nothing says they aren't to make something of it. As for Jenny Wren, she cares, hopping about on her little twig like she was tryin' to tell us somethin', but that's just it, she couldn't even if she wanted to--dumb bird. But the others--and they in some way must know too--it would never occur to them to want to, even if they could take the first step of the terrible journey toward feeling somebody should act, that ends in utter confusion and hopelessness, east of the sun and west of the moon. So their comment is: "No comment." Meanwhile the whole history of probabilities is coming to life, starting in the upper left-hand corner, like a sail.

Copyright © John Ashbery, "For John Clare," from The Double Dream of Spring, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970. All rights reserved.

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