Thursday, July 28, 2005

Happy Birthday, John Ashbery!

BORN on JULY 28, 1927 - Listen (RealAudio)

Poem: "This Room," by John Ashbery from Your Name Here (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

This Room

The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Ashbery's Teaching Advice

My advice to younger poets is to read as much poetry of the 20th and 21st century as possible. In writing workshops I assign books of poems, but there’s never time enough to do that and attend to thestudents' poetry, which is all they’re interested in. They never take my advice. I was once telling somebody that if you don’t read what’s been written, you may end up sounding like some poet you’ve never read. This has happened. I had a student once who reminded me quite a bit of Hart Crane. He had never heard of him, of course. I suggested that he read him. Some time later, he turned in another poem that reminded me of Crane. I asked him if he’d taken my advice, and he said, ‘No, but I’m going to.’ [laughs] I just don’t think young poets today read enough poetry. They’re more into expressing themselves and their personal dramas. Sometimes the workshops turn into group therapy. I think sometimes the students are even communicating with other people in the class that they may have designs on. [laughs] I try to get them to be more objective, and I sort of propel them into the further reaches of consciousness by using assignments designed to derail their first instincts. My old favorite is the sestina. You’re interrupted at every line. What you want to say is derailed. Somehow, at the end, the students write the poem they were going to write anyway, but it turns out more satisfying because their attention was deflected from themselves for a little while. Sometimes I ask them to translate a poem from a language that I assume they don’t know, which is practically any foreign language, it turns out. Something like Finnish. I even tried Egyptian hieroglyphics once, but then I was getting a lot of eyes and fish. Sometimes I use pictures, like Max Ernst’s collages.

Friday, July 08, 2005

excerpt from Other Traditions by John Ashbery

To this question, "Who is a major, who is a minor poet?" [Auden] replies, One is sometimes tempted to think it nothing but a matter of academic fashion: a poet is major if, in the curriculum of the average college English department, there is a course devoted solely to the study of his work, and a minor if there is not." He continues:

One cannot say that a major poet writes better poems than a minor; on the contrary, the chances are that, in the course of his lifetime, the major poet will write more bad poems than the minor. Nor, equally obviously, is is a matter of the pleasure the poet gives an individual reader: I cannot enjoy one poem by Shelley and am delighted by every line of William Barnes, but I know perfectly well that Shelley is a major poet, and Barnes a minor one. To qualify as a major, a poet, it seems to me, must satisfy about three and a half of the following conditions.

1. He must write a lot.

2. His poems must show a wide range of subject matter and treatment.

3. He must exhibit an unmistakable originality of vision and style.

4. In the case of all poets, we distinguish between their juvenilia and their mature work but, in the case of the major poet, the process of maturing continues until he dies so that, if confronted by two poems of his of equal merit but written at different times, the reader can immediately say which was written first. In the case of a minor poet, on the other hand, however excellent the two poems may be, the reader cannot settle the chronology on the basis of the poems themselves.