Sunday, January 21, 2007


John Ashbery's new collection speaks from the haunted, ambiguous cities of the twenty-first century. These are the landscapes of the worldly country we have created, both ominous and absurd. Perspectives dissolve into dazzle. The clock is ticking: we are on the wrong set and the cameras are rolling. Ashbery's supple, vigorous idiom conjures an unpredictable world, astonished by moments of piercing directness: the pause to share a winter pear, the sudden apprehension that the places we left fallow 'will be cultivated by another'. A Worldly Country tells us where we are, now exhilarating, now vertiginous; full of heartbreak and (as always with Ashbery) full of every kind of mirth, from the most sombre to the most enchanted.


'Wallace Stevens once remarked that while we possess the great poems of heaven and hell, the great poems of the earth remain to be written. Ashbery is writing those poems' - Boston Review

Stemming in part from Mallarme and in part from Whitman, Ashbery's work creates a tension in which the fine networks of linguistic reverie are balanced by the strong sense of American tradition.' - Peter Ackroyd, Times Literary Supplement

'This is what real achievement in a contemporary poet consists of: he has laid down guidelines and made his mark on the language of the tribe.' - John Bayley, New York Review of Books

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


January 14, 2007
Questions for John Ashbery
Well Versed

Your new collection of poems, “A Worldly Country,” reminds us of the demanding nature of your work and your resistance to personal confession. Do you think Americans are too enamored of their own life stories?

Yes, I do. In my case, it is things that I don’t know yet that most interest me. My own autobiography is so uninteresting to me I have always thought it surely wouldn’t interest anyone else.

As one of America’s most celebrated poets, you can’t really find your own life boring.

I thought other people would find it boring. My mother was always telling me not to talk about myself or put myself forward. That’s where I got this idea. Whenever I went to visit a friend, she would say, “Don’t wear out your welcome.” I always worried about this throughout life: is my welcome wearing out at this particular moment?

Which hasn’t kept you from publishing a very large quantity of poems, more than 20 collections in all.

If I wrote much more, would anybody read it? Does anybody read it now? There can be such a thing as too much poetry, and I try not to write it.

That’s very considerate of you, and I assume there are at least a few hundred of your own poems that you have chosen not to publish.

Well, that’s what everyone is talking about with Elizabeth Bishop.

You’re referring to the controversy that erupted last year when her leftover poems and rough drafts suddenly appeared in a book of their own, a generation after her death.

Various critics argued that she should have destroyed them since she didn’t want them published. I think she just hadn’t made up her mind. Some writing you don’t like that much at the time you write it, but you don’t want to destroy it either, because maybe someone will come along sometime and find it more interesting than you think it is.

Are you saying you won’t mind if all your scribbles and random jottings are brought out in a book after your death?

No, I won’t mind. I think it will be understood that I didn’t publish them myself if they are published posthumously.

Your name is practically synonymous with bohemia’s last flourish in New York in the ’50s, and I am wondering if you feel much nostalgia for those years.

I left the country in 1955 and stayed away for 10 years, in France. So I missed out on a very crucial period. I am still trying to piece together things that happened while I was gone, like the Everly Brothers, for instance.

Of all the main members of the so-called New York School of poetry — Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch and Barbara Guest — you’re the only one who is still alive. Do you think of them often?

I do. I had a dream not long ago about James Schuyler, who seemed to be kind of nudging me to see if I had finished writing the introduction to a reissue of his selected poems, which is coming out soon, actually.

In the past few years, poetry sales have reportedly been climbing, perhaps because a poem appeals to shortened attention spans.

That’s true. It doesn’t take so long to read a poem, and if you need a quick fix or consolation, you can get it.

Where do you turn for consolation?

Probably to a movie, something with Barbara Stanwyck.

Although you have won dozens of awards and accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur grant, you have never been asked to serve as poet laureate of the U.S. Is that a snub?

I really don’t think I’m poet-laureate material.

It’s not something you would like to do?

I don’t think so. To be poet laureate you have to have a program for spreading the word of poetry. I’m just willing to let it spread by itself.



"If only for this new emotion he's invented -- "flagrant" longing to be perpetually "out of the know" -- Ashbery's new book is worth reading, as it tirelessly bucks the tide and challenges our habits of thinking and feeling."

--from ARRAS: little reviews


The Corrupt Text

The child is feather to the man;
mice don't brood. The swiftest race
to the pie. In the sky an encomium
rewards all who notice it.
This isn't the way I meant to live
but I must or will have to move.

In broader streets the video preference
startles a dozing anomaly — "Come again?"
I just did. I want it to be all clean
and tasting of only distance and water.
There is a stairway in my pocket
and pheasants on the railway
and all I ever had was to be yours,
your instructor. Again I fell for it,
his pencil sharpener. Over time that
made him quite difficult and complicated.

Now is only sun, sunstrife and sea.

© 2001 John Ashbery

Monday, January 15, 2007


Kenneth Koch: Do you think the kind of art you and I like and create might be called “evasive”? Do you think we like the feeling of ambiguity and multiple possibilities partly or wholly because we don’t want to be pinned down to anything we’ve done or are about to do?

John Ashbery: Possibly. But I think that if we like things that are evasive it’s because there’s no point in pursuing something that is standing still. Anything that is standing still might as well be dead.

–from “A Conversation with Kenneth Koch”, Selected Prose by John Ashbery, edited by Eugene Richie.


EXCERPT from Amy King:

Time to provide a fellow poet, who shall remain anonymous, with a too simple answer to her many-months-ago-posed question to me regarding John Ashbery. The gist of the conversation was that she didn’t get why people like Ashbery and had not received a satisfactory answer to date. I dare say the following one will far from satiate, but in lieu of solid logic, here is my mercurial answer:

I like Ashbery because many things happen in his poems via numerous observations, and hence, understandings become possible & multiple, though no one single idea must be found out or insists its way into the lap of explication for “rightness’” sake. Things become, and you may hear less than a few or far too many things becoming (& unbecoming), but my few may be different or the same as your few unless you resist for standard sense’ sake and come away with none. The draw is in the multiplicity and convergence of how things happen around, inside of, outside of, because of, in spite of, and at the same time as each other, sometimes only gravitationally speaking … a poem is a place or occasion where things happen to happen in Ashbery’s world. The reader has much responsibility, and becomes a miner in spite of her desire for a nice spoon feeding. Diamonds are easier than digging through coal, typically speaking — but oh, the digging makes the muscles tighten and release with deeper sensations…

Even the most casual of readers have been swayed by this icon. Don’t bow down to the naysayers so readily; you might eagerly find yourself swinging a pickaxe or tying a flashlight to your head. Plus, his work always sounds familiar. One gets the bizarre (or surreal) wrapped in the familiar, which can make the underlying weirdnesses (i.e. conflicts & paradoxes) we ignore daily quite palatable and comfortable even. Ashbery gives us permission to explore associations our public narrative minds refuse for seamless autobiographical stories, as though all of the thoughts colliding within our skulls aren’t really part of life, proper. They are pigeonholed as secondary detritus instead of worthwhile treasures that might inspire or edify in not-so-obvious ways.

And in answer to that age-old accusation of “he’s just trying to be difficult,” the man himself said, “It seems to me that my poetry sometimes proceeds as though an argument were suddenly derailed and something that started out clearly suddenly becomes opaque. It’s a kind of mimesis of how experience comes to me: as one is listening to someone else—a lecturer, for instance—who’s making perfect sense but suddenly slides into something that eludes one. What I am probably trying to do is illustrate opacity and how it can suddenly descend over us, rather than trying to be willfully obscure.”

For the finale, Ashbery in action:


But how can I be in this bar and also be a recluse?
The colony of ants was marching toward me, stretching
far into the distance, where they were as small as ants.
Their leader held up a twig as big as a poplar.
It was obviously supposed to be for me.
But he couldn’t say it, with a poplar in his mandibles.
Well, let’s all forget that scene and turn to one in Paris.
Ants were walking down the Champs-Elysees
in the snow, in twos and threes, conversing,
revealing a sociability one never supposed them as having.
The larger ones have almost reached the allegorical statues
of French cities on the Place de la Concorde.
“You see, I told you he was going to bolt.
Now he just sits in his attic
ordering copious plates from a nearby restaurant
as though God had meant him to be quiet…”
“You look like a portrait of Mme. de Stael by Overbeck,
that is to say a little serious and washed out.
Remember you can come to me any time
with what is bothering you, just don’t ask for money.
Day and night my home, my hearth are open to you,
you great big adorable one, you.”

The bar was unexpectedly comfortable.
I thought about staying. There was an alarm clock on it.
Patrons were invited to guess the time (the clock was always wrong).
More cheerful citizenry crowded in, singing the Marseillaise,
congratulating each other for the wrong reasons, like the color
of their socks, and taking swigs from a communal jug.
“I just love it when he gets this way,
which happens in the middle of August, when summer is on its way
out, and autumn is still just a glint in its eye,
a chronicle of hoar-frost foretold.”
“Yes and he was going to buy all the candy bars in the machine
but something happened, the walls caved in (who knew
the river had risen rapidly) and one by one people were swept away
calling endearing things to each other, using pet names.
“Achilles, meet Angus.” Then it all happened so quickly I
guess I never knew where we were going, where the pavement
was taking us. Or the sidewalk, which the English call pavement,
which is what sidewalks are made of, or so it seems.

Things got real quiet in the oubliette.
I was still reading Jean-Christophe. I’ll never finish the darn thing.
Now is the time for you to go out into the light
and congratulate whoever is left in our city. People who survived
the eclipse. But I was totally taken with you, always have been.
Light a candle in my wreath, I’ll be yours forever and will kiss you.

John Ashbery


John Ashbery wrote in an essay on Gertrude Stein, “Donald Sutherland … has quoted Miss Stein as saying, ‘If it can be done why do it?’ Stanzas in Meditation is no doubt the most successful of her attempts to do what can’t be done, to create a counterfeit of reality more real than reality. And if, on laying the book aside, we feel that it is still impossible to accomplish the impossible, we are also left with the conviction that it is the only thing worth trying to do.”


The Gods of Fairness

The failure to see God is not a problem
God has a problem with. Sure, he could see us
if he had a hankering to do so, but that’s
not the point. The point is his concern
for us and for biscuits. For the loaf
of bread that turns in the night sky over Stockholm.

Not there, over there. And I yelled them
what I had told them before. The affair is no one’s business.
The peeing man seemed not to notice either.
We came up the strand with carbuncles
and chessmen fetched from the wreck. Finally the surplus buzz
did notice, and it was fatal to our project.
We just gave up then and there, some of us dying, others walking
wearily but contentedly away. God had had his little joke,
but who was to say it wasn’t ours? Nobody, apparently,
which could be why the subject was never raised
in discussion groups in old houses along the harbor,
some of them practically falling into it.
Yet still they chatter a little ruefully: “I know
your grace’s preference.” There are times
when I even think I can read his mind,
coated with seed-pearls and diamonds.
There they are, for the taking. Take them away.
Deposit them in whatever suburban bank you choose.
Hurry, before he changes his mind — again.

But all they did was lean on their shovels, dreaming
of spring planting, and the marvellous harvests to come.

--John Ashbery, Your Name Here