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Interview with John Ashbery
Nicholas Wroe, The Guardian, Saturday 23rd April 2005Previous interview with John Ashbery... Next interview with John Ashbery...
A farmer's son, John Ashbery learned about poetry from an encyclopedia and progressed to student magazines. Part of an avant-garde New York scene in the 50s, he left the city for Paris where he worked as an art critic. His early work was barely reviewed, but his originality and range soon won him admirers and he went on to win major prizes. His latest book is published this month.
In 1976 John Ashbery made a remarkable breakthrough to mainstream audiences. His collection of poems Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won three prestigious awards, beginning with the inaugural American National Book Critics Circle Award. As someone whose work had until then been routinely described as deliberately obscure, he was an unexpected winner. "It was a great surprise," he recalls. "Then it became common knowledge, months before the official announcement, that I was going to win the Pulitzer poetry prize as well." Between them came the National Book Award, which he did not believe he could win "because I was going to win the Pulitzer. I went to the National Book Award presentation ceremony anyway, and when my name was read out [as winner] I was caught in probably the only spontaneous photograph of me that exists. But it obviously made people think I was someone to be reckoned with."
The final section of the book's title poem is representative and if the sounds, textures and images conjured can be alluring, it remains challenging and radical stuff:
We have seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant. One feels too confined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the ease of its
Parameter. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.
But with his triple crown of awards Ashbery was transported from the avant-garde to the front rank of American literary life, a position he has continued to occupy for three decades. Supporters include the critic Harold Bloom, who recently identified Ashbery's As We Know (1979) as the book of poetry published in the past 25 years that has meant most to him: "He is our major poet since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955".
In some sense it is a familiar career trajectory. The critic and poet Mark Ford has written about Ashbery and his circle and says he "did have a very slow start, but he was always conscious of how avant-garde work and avant-garde writers are often neglected early on". Bloom's advocacy was important, in Ford's view, as was the supportive group Ashbery had around him. "It's true that until he was into his 40s he didn't have much of a profile, but the people who are now known as the New York School were an important coterie who always believed in him."
The New York School, comprising Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler, came together as friends in the 1940s. "For a long time we were our own, very small audience," Ashbery says. "And we had no idea that we were the New York School. The idea that people might be reading us and thinking about us in that way would have seemed very far-fetched."
He admits they had a shared artistic outlook in that they were all dissatisfied with the then poetry establishment, had a leaning towards French and other European writers and set out to be more experimental than the academic poetry of the 40s and 50s. "And we all somehow ended up in New York when the arts were in a state of high ferment and were very exciting. People like Pollock and de Kooning were changing their worlds. We knew John Cage. We wanted to approximate something similar in poetry but it seemed unlikely there would ever be an audience for what we were doing."
Ashbery's 25th volume of poetry, Where Shall I Wander, is published in the UK by Carcanet this month. The doyenne of American critics, Helen Vendler, was dismissive of his early work - "wilful flashiness" - but has subsequently come to value him more. She says the new book "is rich in grimly funny images of the dance of approaching death".
"What is to be gained by writing this way?", Vendler asks of a section of his poem "Broken Tulips":
Another's narrative supplants the crawling
stock-market quotes: Like all good things
life tends to go on too long, and when we smile
in mute annoyance, pauses for a moment.
Rains bathe the rainbow,
and the shape of night is an empty cylinder,
focused at us, urging its noncompliance
closer along the way we chose to go.
"In answer, we need only imagine the poem done conventionally," she continues. "A first-person narrator evokes his erotic anxiety, his sense of spring, his feeling of taedium vitae, his foreboding of a failure of spring, and his fear of death. These topics are so worn one can hardly think of writing about them - and yet what else stirs feeling in our hearts? 'Make it new' - Pound's old command - is still as talismanic as ever."
But as Vendler has moved towards Ashbery, others have turned away. Alan Jenkins, deputy editor and former poetry editor of the TLS, where many of Ashbery's poems are first seen, says "Some Trees (1956) is one of my favourite poetry books. But for me he has become a bit samey. There are still some pleasures to be had, but I don't find the same sense of excitement. In those earlier books he developed a new voice and incorporated perhaps not very exciting aspects of American life that hadn't got into American poetry much before that. He suggested the weirdness and surreal oddness of American suburbia."
Professor M Wynn Thomas of the University of Wales, Swansea, identifies some factors that combined in Ashbery's dramatic elevation in the mid-70s. Apart from Bloom's advocacy, which provided academic credibility, Robert Lowell's death in 1977 prompted a search for the new great American poet and Ashbery's work was susceptible to a succession of critical theories. "Take postmodernism. Is his work a libertarian, democratic, catholic approach to the world that its champions claim? Or is it, as others say, the corrupt aesthetic of capitalist consumerism? You could argue that it is both." Thomas teaches Ashbery to undergraduates, and says their response is mixed: "Some are bemused but there are always one or two who are passionate about him and students are generally attracted to his omnivorous aesthetic. There are references to advertising which are then mixed with references to Dante and he doesn't prepare you for the shifts in tone and register and the bringing together of words from different vocabularies."
As an aesthete Ashbery is a paradoxical figure in that he seems willing to incorporate virtually everything. For many years he was an art critic and, as one friend puts it, "what he doesn't know about movies you could write on a postage stamp". He also has an extensive knowledge of music beyond the standard repertory. Leon Botstein is president of Bard College, 100 miles north of New York City, where Ashbery has taught since 1990. Botstein is also a conductor and says: "I have done lots of rare opera but it was John who put me onto Chausson's Le Roi Arthus which I went on to record. His taste and discernment is extraordinary and the breadth of interests is absolutely remarkable."
If the range of his references has left some readers baffled, and frustrated by the lack of clearly discernable meanings, Ashbery has stated that "a poem that communicates something that's already known to a reader is not really communicating anything to him, and in fact shows a lack of respect". Vendler has suggested that for Ashbery, "a change of mood is the chief principle of form... every poem is unique, recording a unique interval of consciousness", while in a review of David Herd's study John Ashbery and American Poetry (2000), Robert Potts said that the book offered "not a reading of Ashbery but a way of reading Ashbery, and a critical language more appropriate to Ashbery's peculiarities than pre-packaged approaches, which merely make Ashbery reflect their own concerns".
Ashbery and his partner of more than 30 years, David Kermani (who is also his bibliographer) oscillate between a home in Hudson, near Bard, and a Manhattan apartment. Their Hudson house was built for a 19th-century coke merchant and its careful restoration, its art, furniture and stained glass windows have been the subject of newspaper and magazine features. Kermani, speaking to a local paper a few years ago, said the house is "filled with all of the objects and collections that are, I don't want to say part of the work, but are reflected in the work. It's all the same sensibility."
Ashbery appears to have had a highly developed and sophisticated taste since childhood. He remembers reading a feature in Life Magazine about a major Dada and Surrealism show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936 when he was only nine. "It was tremendously exciting and although I probably didn't say I wanted to be a surrealist when I grew up, it did take me in that direction. I started taking painting classes and looked at books about surrealism."
He was born in July 1927 on a farm in Rochester, upstate New York. His father, Chester, grew fruit and his mother, Helen, taught biology. His brother, Richard, three years younger than him, died aged nine of leukaemia in 1939. Ashbery says his parents were not particularity literary and his early exposure to poetry came via a 1912 edition of a children's encyclopedia which included anthology pieces from minor Victorian poets. "They were the sort of thing a child would recite to his parents in the parlour," he explains. "I always had a soft spot for them while acknowledging what they were."
The most important intellectual influence on his young life - everyone knew he was a bright child and he won a wartime radio show called Quiz Kids - was his grandfather, Henry Lawrence, a professor of physics at Rochester University with whom Ashbery lived for some time. "I was the first grandchild and he sort of took me over and gave me books. He could read Greek and had sets of Victorian novels and poetry. He was a very cultivated Victorian gentleman who had been born during the Civil War and was completely self-made. When he was a kid he had walked to school without shoes."
Ashbery attended the local primary school but then became a boarder at the exclusive Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. He was told he had won a scholarship but learned later that his fees had been paid by a wealthy neighbour whose sons attended the school. While at Deerfield a friend, unbeknownst to Ashbery, sent some of his poems to Poetry, a prestigious magazine, under a pseudonym. When they printed two of them Ashbery was caused some unexpected anxiety as he had sent the same poems to the magazine and worried they might think the was a plagiarist.
While his interests weren't exactly frowned upon - "no one really paid much attention to them at home or at school" - he has spoken about how his brother was more likely to have grown up to be the son his parents wanted. "He was interested in sports and life on the farm, and he would probably have taken it over from my father. He would probably have been straight, and married and had children, and not been the disappointment that I undoubtedly was to my parents."
Ashbery says he became aware of his sexuality when very young. "I also had crushes on girls, but that just didn't seem to happen for me. Then just before I went to college my mother discovered I was gay from finding some letters I had written to a friend. She was obviously extremely upset but she somehow blocked it out and it was never referred to again."
In 1945 he went to Harvard to read English. Robert Hunter, now retired from teaching English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, roomed with him in their first year. "I came from a very small town in South Dakota and John was the most brilliant person I'd ever met. He was also very funny and while we were serious about literature we also spent a lot of time at the movies or drinking beer. In terms of taste he was always at least one step ahead of me, but even in this he was good fun. I remember going to see the Martha Graham dance troupe with John and we ended up getting the giggles."
Ashbery published poetry in the Harvard Advocate and eventually joined the editorial board along with Kenneth Koch, Robert Bly and Donald Hall. Hall says: "the most important thing about John, and his relationship with the other poets around Harvard, was that almost without exception we looked upon him as the best of us. Such generosities were uncommon." Hall also remembers the other editors once chiding Ashbery for not publishing in the magazine for a while and coercing him into going back to his room to get a poem. He emerged half an hour later with a poem which was published. A couple of weeks later Hall asked Ashbery whether he had gone back to his room to write it. Ashbery said he had. "Fifty years later I happened to see John in New York and I repeated that story to him and his comment was, 'I took longer then'."
Ashbery, who wrote his undergraduate dissertation on Auden, says he knew early on that he wouldn't be able to make a living from poetry and so he took an MA at Columbia, writing a thesis on Henry Green, intending to go into teaching. "But I realised I didn't want to be a professor. I wanted to write poetry and so I got a very menial job in publishing in New York where basically I was a typist." He worked at the Oxford University Press and then McGraw-Hill from 1951-55 during which time he had plays put on off-Broadway and wrote a novel, A Nest of Ninnies, with James Schuyler which was published in 1969.
His first collection of poetry, Turandot and Other Poems (1953) was printed in an edition of only 300 copies. "I suppose it was some kind of breakthrough," he says, "but it wasn't until a few years later with my second collection Some Trees (1956) that I felt I might have a larger audience. But they only printed 800 copies of that and it took 10 years to sell out."
Some Trees, which Ashbery says was influenced by the work of Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore, won a competition judged by Auden for inclusion in the Yale young poets series and Auden wrote a foreword. Ashbery says in terms of short-term career development the Auden link was of limited value. "The few people who followed poetry would know about it, but it wasn't like winning an Oscar." Many years later he learned that Auden hadn't wanted to award a prize but was told he wouldn't get paid for judging unless he did. "In his foreword he didn't really talk about the poetry itself and while he was my favourite poet and I find a lot of things in my work that derive from him, I do understand that he might not have been able to like my work."
By the time Some Trees was actually published Ashbery was in France on a Fulbright scholarship and remained there, on and off, for the next 10 years. He acknowledges that the move to Paris was a self-consciously romantic literary adventure but says also that in the mid- 50s "I was dying to get out of America which was at the height of the McCarthy era and the Korean War which I might have been drafted to but wasn't. I was also in a dead end job."
After a year in France Ashbery returned to take some graduate classes in French at New York University before "hoodwinking" his parents that he had more academic work to do in Paris on a thesis about the experimental writer Raymond Roussel. He returned to Paris in 1958, soon abandoned formal academic life and "just stayed on as best I could" for the next seven years. His primary income came from art criticism for the Herald Tribune and specialist art journals.
"I wrote two reviews a week. They were short and only paid five dollars but with that and a little bit of translating I barely made a living." He now says it is "depressing that I used all that energy when I could have been writing things I really wanted to write. But I feel quite proud of quite a lot of those pieces, despite the fact that I wouldn't have written any of them unless I had to somehow cobble together a living."
He says his journalistic productivity didn't affect his ability to write poetry. "I never spent that much time writing poetry. Even now I don't and I could if I wanted to. And being in Paris and writing about art was very stimulating in its own way. I always liked the idea of being a foreigner and indeed in America I have often felt like a foreigner." Ashbery lived for a time with the French writer Pierre Martory who he says "had an enormous influence on my life. It was very comforting that the things that irritated me about France he also found irritating."
He was living in Paris in 1962 when his third volume of poetry, The Tennis Court Oath, was published. It received very lit tle review coverage and "no favourable ones at all". Mark Ford says that while Some Trees was poised between an avant-garde taking apart of poetry and an allegiance to the likes of Auden, the cut-up and collage techniques in The Tennis Court Oath were just about taking apart. "It was with Rivers and Mountains (1966) he began putting back together the poetry and ever since, even though he has experimented with things like prose poems (Three Poems, 1972), the twin columns of Litany (1979) and the very very long poem of Flow Chart (1991), they have all essentially been different ways of approaching a relatively settled, while continually evolving, style."
Rivers and Mountains was published the same year as Ashbery came home to look after his mother following the death of his father. The America he returned to was radically different to the country he had left. "It was a shock leaving Paris and Pierre, and I was extremely unhappy for a time. But I did realise something had happened in the world and the old values that I had felt were so oppressive had been somehow turned upside down and that was something I could enjoy."
He says there was also an entirely new audience for poetry. "The Beats and the hippie revolution prepared the way. I don't really like beat poetry very much but there was a general housecleaning in literature and poetry and they played their part. When I left America poetry readings were just for people like Auden. When I came back there was something on virtually every night in New York." Rivers and Mountains was shortlisted for the National Book Award and Ashbery admits to a sense of vindication. "I was glad I had hung on and not abandoned poetry. And being in this new America had a liberating effect that enabled me to go beyond the unsatisfactory experiments that made up most of The Tennis Court Oath. "
As time went on he became an increasingly public figure and lent his weight to causes such as the anti-Vietnam war movement. "I went on the huge Central Park demonstration against the war when we marched to the UN, although me and my friends did stop off at a hotel bar to have a few margaritas on the way. But I don't put things like that in my poetry because I don't feel it is efficient. I think marching is an efficient thing to do while writing poetry [about it] would be too often preaching to the choir. I don't write about my personal life either. It's not because I don't like it or am embarrassed. I just think most people have the same type of experiences; we're sort of unhappy when we are children, we fall in love and we get disillusioned when we are a little older. There is a general pattern."
Alan Jenkins says Ashbery's work was a bracing reaction to the autobiographical and confessional work of the "big American poets like Lowell in the 50s and 60s. Instead here was this kind of hum of American life. If you don't tune into it, it can be someone writing down sentences in no particular order about nothing and that can be very irritating. But if you hear it, it can be very captivating and seductive. I'm not sure that all of it becomes poetry, but when it does it is mysterious and extremely appealing."
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) was Ashbery's eighth volume of verse and at the time of publication he had given up art criticism and was teaching a poetry course at Brooklyn College. "Those prizes were very welcome. I think I was probably going to get fired from Brooklyn College as New York City was retrenching but instead I was given tenure." He went on to lecture at Harvard for a year before moving to Bard where he has been since 1990.
He has continued regularly to produce new work - apparently publishing only about a third of what he writes, with the rest going straight into his papers at Harvard - and says the poetry world operates in a parallel universe to the general public, who rarely think about poetry. "There is a thriving scene of magazines and internet sites. In the early days I got hardly any positive reviews apart from one that was written by Frank O'Hara, and he was my friend. Almost nobody liked my second book and I did wonder whether I should take up some other form of work. But I thought that I enjoyed doing them at least and I decided to do what I wanted to do."
He says while he still has sympathy for and is attracted to avant-garde art, "I've also always enjoyed more traditional art and poetry. I think there was a false division between abstract art and figurative art for instance. To like one and not the other was always ridiculous. As Schoenberg said sometime in the 1930s, 'there is still a lot of music to be written in the key of C major' and a lot of contemporary composers seem to be trying to write a new kind of music which also can sound traditional. This is kind of what I'd like to do myself. I'd like to write like Tennyson but make it new."
He says when he won the prizes it changed people's perceptions of his work: "They started to think that if they couldn't understand it there was something wrong with them. Then I think some people became a bit resentful and started saying that it's not their fault it was mine. But people without any background in literature began to read my work and I got letters saying they liked it. It was very gratifying. Despite what everyone said, I always thought that there was something simple and penetrable in my poetry screaming to be let out."
John Lawrence Ashbery
Born: Rochester, NY July 28 1927.
Education: Deerfield Academy, Mass; Harvard; Columbia; New York University.
Partner: David Kermani.
Career: 1951-54 Oxford University Press; '54-55 McGraw-Hill; '60-85 art critic; '74-90 Professor of English, Brooklyn College; '89-90 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, Harvard; 1990- Charles P Stevenson Professor, Bard College, NY.
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