A poetry reading is the logical end to a poem
Everyone read poetry before the twentieth century
Difficulty is something to aspire to
For six months, I had tried to read all of Ashbery’s published work—from 1956’s Some Trees to 2007’s A Worldly Country, more than thirty poetry books in all, as well as some detours into the essays of Reported Sightings and Selected Prose. It’s an astonishing body of work: wide-ranging, funny, wise, and always with the indelible stamp of Ashbery’s singular mind. His poetry imposes a steep learning curve on its readers—not because it’s full of allusions or theoretical traps, but because the language remains free and unstable throughout. Just when you think you have a foothold, you find yourself in a cloud. And much to his own surprise, this aesthetic has earned him nearly every major award a poet can earn—the Pulitzer to the Griffin—while he has remained steadfastly an outside presence in the poetry community. He has many imitators but no equals.
I met Ashbery in his New York apartment on a rainy January afternoon. His longtime partner, David Kermani, ushered me into the living room and took my coat. In person, Ashbery is quite a physical presence—not imposing, exactly, but grand. An illness has left him with a limp, but he moves with grace and assurance. He has startling blue eyes, which he periodically opens wide. Around his apartment, paintings by Trevor Winkfield and Jane Freilicher adorn the walls, books sit stacked on the floor, and, in an alcove room, a postcard of Parmigianino’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror has been propped above Ashbery’s typewriter.
We sat down in the living room facing the Hudson River, and for the next few hours Ashbery and I discussed his work. After the sun had gone down, Ashbery told me he would be meeting the poets James Tate and Dara Wier for dinner in about an hour, so I excused myself and went down to the street to hail a cab.
THE BELIEVER: I’ve heard that you’re interested in twentieth-century classical music, which often isn’t linear. I wonder how much that informs your writing?
JOHN ASHBERY: Probably a lot, because I was very attracted to Schoenberg and serial music when I first started writing, thanks to Frank O’Hara, actually, who discovered a lot of things before I did, a lot of things I might not have gotten to or thought worthy of taking in. I was taken with the idea that the tone row is a fixed thing that goes into music, that the music is organized around it, that the composer is not free to improvise, though of course a lot of them do, not taking it literally. That was sort of interesting to me at the same time I first tried to write a sestina, because there you’re thwarted every time you try to write the next line. The form is always there, menacing you. But I don’t like just that kind of music. I also like more conservative twentieth-century music.
I guess my poetry is indebted to music because it’s something that unfolds in a linear way and it’s not something that can be taken in immediately, like a painting. As much as I love visual art, I’ve never felt it’s been much of an influence on me. I love having it around, as you see. It’s probably the idea of not knowing yourself what’s going to come next, just as when you’re listening to a piece of music you don’t know what’s waiting around the corner.
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