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Interview with John Ashbery

Michael Glover, The New Statesman, 23rd May 2005
Parlour Games

Michael Glover discusses modernism and interiors with 'America's greatest living poet', John Ashbery.


It began with a 10am call to John Ashbery's house in Hudson, upstate New York. "I'm afraid John is asleep at the moment," his partner, David Kermani, tells me. "He was up very late working on proofs. It's a very pernickety business." Not one but two new books by the 77-year-old American poet have just been published by Carcanet: an edition of his selected prose and a new collection of poetry (his 25th), Where Shall I Wander.

Ashbery has been publishing books of poems for almost 50 years. His first, Some Trees (1956), was chosen by W H Auden for the Yale Younger Poets series. Yet some greeted it with a mixture of bewilderment and hostility. "I have no idea most of the time what Mr Ashbery is talking about..." one critic wrote, "beyond the communication of an intolerable vagueness that looks as if it was meant for precision." Ashbery's friend and fellow poet Frank O'Hara counted: "Faultless music, originality of perception...the most beautiful first book to appear in America since [Wallace Stevens'] Harmonium.

That pattern - excessive praise from some, raucous hostility from others - became familiar. In the 1950s, Ashbery was the most important member of a group of poets known as the New York school, which challenged the stiff academism of the 1940s. Poetry, their work seemed to announce, could incorporate both high and low culture; it could be playful without any loss of seriousness.

I visit Ashbery in the late-nineteenth century coke merchant's house in Hudson that he and Kermani bought for $53,000 in 1973. They have been fixing it up ever since, and it is a wonder to behold. It is also excessively dark. Ashbery emerges from somewhere at the back with a bashful, gap-toothed smile and gives me a tour. He worked much of his life as an art critic for Newsweek and Artnews, making money to "feed the poetry habit", as he once put it - and most of the paintings in the house (including work by Alex Katz and Willem de Kooning) are gifts from old friends.

He sees me staring at a narrative painting hung behind the piano. A Mexican general seems to be dying in the arms of his comrades. "I'm especially fond of that one", he tells me. "It's one of sequence of paintings of a novel that the painter regards as a Mexican classic of twentieth-century. I liked it immediately when she told me that the man in the picture wasn't mortally wounded." He hesitates a moment. "Would you like to see my collection of American craftware in the library?" Also in the library are works by Piranesi, and even a small print by Edward Lear. But where are the books? "They called it the library because of that," Ashbery says, pointing to a modest bookcase tucked away in a corner.
 "They weren't bibliophiles," I say.
"Right."
After a cup of raspberry-flavoured iced tea in the kitchen, I follow him up the back stairs to the first floor. "This house was built with central heating," he calls over his shoulder, "gas and electricity, too. These people hedged their bets. They didn't know which utility was going to win out." Before we sit down in the parlour he shows me the bathroom. In the middle stands a huge bathtub with clawed feet, and on the ceiling is a cartouche with delicate rococo moulding. "This is my favourite place in the whole house," he says, smiling down into the tub.

The upstairs parlour is also full of curios, but here there is plenty of sunlight to see them all by - for example, propped up on the floor in front of the grate, a drawing of John as a young man by Ron Kitaj.

We sit down on the sofa. It is not easy to conduct an interview with John Ashbery, though not for the usual reasons. He is not obstructive. He doesn't tell you that areas of his life are off-limits. He does not patronise, nor does he dismiss one's fumblings with contempt. What he does do is deal in the masterfully reductive arts of humour and bathos, usually mixed together. Some poets are magniloquent dealers in literary rhetoric. Not Ashbery. He is unusually unemphatic. His voice often sounds small and hesitant. He turns big, grand, colourful things into a kind of grainy, grey homespun. When asked why Shelley had the brass neck to claim that poets were the legislators of the world, he replied rather dolefully: you have to forgive them. They get so little attention.

Given that many regard Ashbery as the greatest living American poet, why has his own reputation so often come under attack? He looks mildly bewildered and even a little hurt. "I don't really know," he says. "I have always tried to give pleasure. I suppose I should underline the fact that what I have always intended to do is to experiment. Some people wouldn't regard that as a viable aim for a poet. One is much less at ease experimenting in poetry as one is with music or art, where there is not the same accountability as in writing. When you are writing, you are, after all, saying something, and at the end you are going to be weighed and judged by what its contents is. Which you cannot do with an abstract painting. "

It is the level of abstraction in his own work that perplexes many. Is he perhaps trying to create a kind of counterfeit reality in his poetry - as the French poet Raymond Roussel, a man Ashbery admires enormously, once said of his own work? "No, I don't think so. I'm really rather trying to open up reality, I suppose, and sort of stretch it and transform it, make it partly imaginary rather than doing away with it completely, and supplanting it with someone else." He has a rather pained expression, as if to say: will that do?

I ask him about the audience for his work. Gertrude Stein once said that she wrote for herself and strangers. Does that fit him? Or does he think, like the poet Marianne Moore, that he writes in the kind of "plain American that cats and dogs can read"? "My writing is a kind of American that talented cats and dogs could read." But Ashbery also points out, echoing Wallace Stevens, that his poetry has no subject matter which is independent of the poem itself. The poem itself is the subject.

Has his way of writing changed much in the last 50 years? "Well, no, it's pretty much the same way. It consists of sitting down without any clear idea of what I want to write, and then writing for a while and stopping. And then saying: Oh look at this! What is this?" He laughs a lot after he speaks - as if his explanation might be a brilliantly evasive wheeze.

And what of the writer's favourite writers? We talk about Marianne Moore, and the way she has been misunderstood as a rather prissy, moralistic spinster, and not one of the "high modernist peaks" that Ashbery believes her to be; about Elizabeth Bishop; and about another, rather unexpected, all-time favourite: the 19th-century English poet Edward Lear.

"Why do you like him so much?" I ask. His response is unusually boisterous. "Doesn't everybody? Surely he is one of the most popular poets who ever lived?" I remind him that he once said he was so fond of the poem 'How Pleasant to know Mr Lear' that he often wished he'd written it himself. "It is a really great poem," he replies, "and it's also a very sad self-portrait of a man who sits in a beautiful study with hundreds of books on the wall, and drinks a great deal of Marsala, and never gets tipsy at all, and then when he goes out, children jeer at him...He goes out to buy pancakes and chocolate shrimps from the mill." We both laugh.

"You see, that's one of the reasons I like Lear's poetry so much. In the midst of this half-rueful, half-funny portrait of himself, he's wandering out to buy chocolate shrimps - which comes from nowhere and completely derails the poem...I guess this says something about the poetry I like, and even the kind of writing I like, that sudden shift from one direction to another."

And, not surprisingly, this sounds more than a bit like a description of the writing style of Ashbery himself.

 
Previous interview with John Ashbery... To the John Ashbery page...
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