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Interview with John Ashbery
'The Major Genius of a Minor Art'
by Bryan Appleyard
From The Times 23rd August 1984.
John Ashbery. once took a class on the subject of his own poetry. Afterwards he was rather pleased with himself., it seemed to have gone well. But then a friend took him aside and told him it had been terrible.
"They came expecting a key to your work and you presented them with a new set of
Now Ashbery shrugs at the memory of this- failure. It simply confirms something he had always known, but temporarily forgotten. He quotes painter Barnett Newman to make the point:
"Birds don't make good ornithologists".
Ashbery is a very rare bird indeed. His poetry polarizes opinion. In the United States, in spite of stubborn pockets of suspicion, he is hailed as the greatest living American poet. In Britain the suspicion has the upper hand. With a- few exceptions he tends to be reviewed with polite disquiet or, occasionally, outright dismay.
"Mr Ashbery is sophisticated, thickly referential and almost totally
impenetrable," wrote the Times Literary Supplement of his Selected Poems in 1967. Behind the accusations lies the sense that Ashbery has done something dishonourable - abandoned thought, courted wilful incomprehensibility.
And yet, even in Britain, a degree of unease always accompanies the attack. Twelve years later another critic in the TLS wrote:
"Whitman's invitation for American poets to loaf and invite their souls can't have had many responses more mysterious and more beautiful than John Ashbery's Self-Portrait In A Convex
Mirror." The point being made was that, however initially baffling his poetry may seem, it is impossible to deny the extraordinary beauty of its surface, its calm and haunting evocation of a world of fragmentary knowledge. And it was T.S. Eliot who warned all critics to beware of objecting to
"difficulty" in genuinely innovative poets. Browning, after all, was once regarded as
Now, slowly, the critical tide seems to be moving in Ashbery's direction. On both sides of the Atlantic a substantial and increasingly coherent body of opinion accepts that he is quite simply the finest poet in English of his generation.
Like almost everything else in his world, such acclaim seems to cross his path with a certain obliqueness. He is an amiable slightly -dreamy character with the studious and faintly rural appearance of a New England academic. His speech is like his poetry: unresolved for the most part, but occasionally lapsing into aphorism. He has an unsettling habit of suddenly opening his eyes in a blank stare as if stunned or hurt in I he midst of a completely innocuous chat.
We spoke in the appropriate anonymity of his room at the Savoy when he was in London to review an exhibition for Newsweek magazine. Ashbery was born in 1927 to
a farming family in Rochester, New York. He contrived during his childhood to spend as much time as possible with his grandparents. His grandfather was a Professor of physics and paid for Ashbery to take painting lessons at the museum in Rochester. Painting seemed to be the way ahead
for someone already committed to the arts until he won a Time magazine current events contest. The prize was a book of contemporary British and American poetry.
"I began reading a bit puzzled at first as everybody is when they first read modern poetry. I started with Robert Frost, Edna St Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie, but then I became interested in Auden, the first modem poet I began to feel I understood; and also imitated. It wasn't until later. at college, that I began to get on to the harder stuff like Wallace
"It doesn't seem difficult in retrospect, but at the time it was difficult to see how this stuff was poetry. Even in the case of Auden I was startled by the use of colloquial
language." Appropriately enough. Auden was among the first to recognize Ashbery's stature on the publication of his first collection, Some Trees, and Audenesque echoes still abound in his work.
Ashbery moved through a classically fine American education at Deerfield Academy, Harvard and Columbia, vaguely clutching on to the knowledge that he would have to do something to earn a living. His parents were alarmed initially at the prospect of his becoming a painter, a concern which grew at the even more worrying possibility that he would become a poet.
At Harvard he majored in English on the assumption that he would teach. but he secretly felt it was something he could never do. So, up to the age of 28, he took a menial job in publishing until he won a Fulbright Scholarship to Paris.
During the late 1950s he shuttled between Paris and New York. He could not have established a more appropriate axis. Paris, the world's artistic capital for the first half of the century, had maintained its stewardship of the avant-garde: meanwhile New York, primarily through the energy of abstract expressionist painting, was emerging as the postwar art capital. Ashbery learned French, wrote poetry and to make a living took to writing reviews and teaching, despite his
Apart from articles, two key publications emerged, Some Trees and the pamphlet Turandot. Yet he saw his prime task at the time as his work on Raymond Roussel, the nineteenth-century French writer acclaimed by Dada and Surrealism as one of their great precursors. Roussel's dislocated, fragmented world of words, with its narratives springing from elaborate but entirely fortuitous puns, can all too easily be linked to Ashbery's own delicate reformulations of the world. But Ashbery is cautious.
After 1958 he spent five consecutive years in Paris. He did not have enough money to go home, and, anyway, he was afraid that if he did his parents would not give him enough money to return. His movements at this stage take on a retrospective importance as they make it clear that, far from being the overwhelmingly New York-based figure of legend, he had adopted a significantly cosmopolitan role. Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara, the two American poets with
whom he is most often associated, had, in contrast, thrown themselves joyously into New York and its life. Ashbery deeply admires their
work, but he retained a distinctly more European dimension.
At the end of 1964 his father died suddenly and he was financially forced to return to the United States. Since then it has been his more or less permanent home. His books have appeared steadily over the years, his journalism has continued to sustain him and he has taught creative writing.
In the last 20 years his reputation has grown steadily, By the early 1970s he had taken on cult status among students on this side of the Atlantic and the American literary industry had begun to grind out its blanket coverage. Specifically, the championship of the great critic Harold Bloom, one of the modern definers of the American tradition in poetry, has raised him above the heads of his contemporaries.
In America there seems to be an unspoken movement to persuade him to take up the crown of Robert Lowell as unofficial laureate. But it would hardly be his style, the main problem being his avoidance of the requisite mode either of magisterial pronouncement or anguished confession. His is neither the language of crisis nor the poetry of the privileged moment.
"When I was younger I spent a lot of time waiting around to be inspired, but now I don't believe in inspiration very much. I don't have much spare time and I've taught myself to use whatever there is and to write without worrying whether this happens to be a privileged moment or not. There are, after all, very few. I have a line in one of my poems which
goes: 'Since we have to do our business in spite of things, why not make it in spite of
The point is that Ashbery's poetry emerges as if in parallel with all of his life rather than just those bits which seem poetic:
"I don't look on poems as closed works. I feel they're probably going on all the time in my head and I occasionally snip off a
The result is a poetry which shifts from voice to voice and in and out of the sphere of "common" sense. Direct statements occur, but they are invariably changed and conditioned by their context:
"I don't find any direct statements in life. My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness come to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don't think poetry arranged in neat -patterns would reflect that situation. My poetry is disjunct, but then so is
The seeming innocence of this posture and the apparent opacity of the works have combined to produce apoplexy in some critics, who attempt to dismiss him as just another American cult figure. The problem seems to be the word "understanding".
"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. It's certainly not meant not to be read. But I enjoy only works of art with an element of surprise in them. It's probably an essential feature of any work of
But what about the accusation that he has abandoned the whole idea of thought?
"Well, I think I think, but I don't think that thinking is really what it is thought to
Unnervingly, however, Ashbery accepts that he might indeed be barking up the wrong aesthetic tree. He admires utterly different poets like Larkin -
"Poems you can tap all over with a hammer and there are no hollow places" - but is clearly amazed at their ability to write thus
"in this day and age". It is simply that Ashbery's taste and style suggest no programme or manifesto to impose on literature. He writes poetry the way he has to and is always happily surprised to find that he has any admirers at all.
"Well, poetry is a hopelessly minor art and I'm really glad it is. It's not for everybody and there's no reason why it should be. Not everybody reads poetry and certainly there are many more interesting things to
In Britain, perhaps the difficulty is that Ashbery is a truly modernist poet in a period when the ideas of modern art are being comprehensively rejected. The dislocation of the poetic 'I', begun with The Waste Land finds its most rigorous and haunting contemporary expression in his poetry. His central concern. like that of the modernists. is with what, on the one hand, it is possible to write these days and, on the other, with what can be said to be definitively and distinctively poetry. As with all the modernists, the correct question to ask of his works is not: "What is it about?" but "is it poetry?"
Ashbery, who is now 36, has seen his public image move inexorably from that of a member of the New York and Parisian avant-garde to that of established master. He accepts neither role, but aspires to no other. He draws no conclusions about the value of what he does, but will point out, if pressed, that many poets in addition to Browning have suffered irate incomprehension in their time - Keats, Eliot and so on, And he does almost snap back at his critics with the words:
"I think people who complain about modern poetry are people who never read any poetry at
Finally, for all the modesty and indirection of his commentary upon himself, it is as well to remember that he is a rotten ornithologist and to look instead at the unsurpassed beauty of the best of his poetry:
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