The first time I heard Ashbery read, he had just published a book titled Three Poems–much of it set as prose. The Viking paperback edition I just took down from my shelf cost $2.25, and some passages that spoke to me at the time are underlined: “the ugliness of waiting”; “For starting out, even just a very few steps, completely changes the nature of the journey as it was when it lay intact and folded”; “But the light continues to grow, the eternal disarray of sunrise….” I loved the lulling voice, the sprawling sentences, the way the mind moved, the sounds–just as I had when I picked up his first book, Some Trees, at the Corner Bookstore (in the middle of the block) in Ithaca, New York, and was mesmerized by the title poem. When Ashbery read at Cornell, he sat down at a bare table, read with minimal inflection and without looking up, and left without commenting. He refused to be a go-between or explicator. I once heard James Tate respond to a student who said he found Ashbery difficult: “I don’t understand why people say that. All you have to do is listen.” I don’t find it as simple as Tate did–I’m often utterly baffled, and read Ashbery most happily when I’m totally immersed in his poems, the music of his mind. But the music is where it all starts. Just listen:
These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance
To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.
And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges
A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.