John Ashbery

September 4, 2017

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.


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  • Reply Jeff Skinner September 4, 2017 at 10:02 am

    Though this poem was taken by some as a knock on Ashbery, it was written with love and ambivalence; which is how I felt about Ashbery in general. He was the contemporary poet I kept going back to and back to. And the love far outweighed any other feelings. I met him once, at a party at Yaddo, in the tower. He walked right up to me without introduction and said, “Do you think there’s anyone here I could fall in love with?” When I told him I wasn’t entirely sure he hugged me and said, “Thanks, Zak,” and then wandered off.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet September 4, 2017 at 10:19 am

    Thanks for this, Jeffrey. He struck me as an incredibly shy person. This is such a great story. Thanks for it, and for the link to the poem.

  • Reply eileen cleary September 4, 2017 at 10:26 am

    “I haven’t got that much confidence in my writing. It’s more like hope.”
    Hearing an accomplished poet such as John Ashbery say this, gave me permission and relief to admit I feel the same way. And also, hope.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet September 4, 2017 at 10:38 am

    That permission is so important. I felt that way the first time I saw drafts of poems by Robert Frost. Drafts? I’d thought the poems just appeared perfect and whole. And when I said something apologetic to Merwin about some early poems of mine he’d read, how I was just feeling my way in the dark, he said, “That’s what we’re all doing.” So I was able to keep going.

  • Reply Nancy Eimers September 4, 2017 at 10:48 am

    “My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness come to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don’t think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation. My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life.”

    And I’m thinking of what Ashbery said of Gertrude Stein, and might as well have been (and possibly was) describing himself: how she “becomes startlingly clear for a moment, as though a change in the wind had suddenly enabled us to hear a conversation that was taking place some distance away.”

    In his poems one hears what Ashbery calls “The painful freshness of each thing being exactly itself.”

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet September 4, 2017 at 10:54 am

    These are great quotes. I especially love the one about Stein, because that’s always been my experience of reading Ashbery, those moments of sudden clarity that make me trust the coherence and keep going.

  • Reply Grace Schulman September 4, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    I’m glad, Sharon, that you give us”Some Trees,” from his first book. I heard him read it early on at Le Metro, in New York’s East Village, and I was smitten. In that book and later, he writes of poetry and painting with rare eloquence and clarity. Yes, as you say, music is where it starts — and ends, I’ll add.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet September 5, 2017 at 1:36 pm

      Yes, and ends. I heard him read just twice, that first time at Cornell, and then years later somewhere in NYC. He was much more affable by then, more comfortable, at home.

  • Reply Sheila Bender September 4, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    This stanza means so much to me today. Thank you for posting this poem:

    To tell us we are:
    That their merely being there
    Means something; that soon
    We may touch, love, explain.

  • Reply Natasha Saje September 4, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    I love “all you have to do is listen”–I learned that rather late, but once I did I much enjoyed what I heard. And I appreciate that Ashbery did not charge me a penny to reproduce his poem in my book, Windows and Doors. Since I paid all the permissions, I was worried that he/FSG would be like Random/Knopf and charge hundreds of dollars. He merely wanted acknowledgment and a copy of the book. Thanks, Nancy, for “my poetry is disjunct, but then, so is life.”

  • Reply Rich Lyons September 5, 2017 at 1:14 pm

    April Galleons is my favorite book by Ashbery. Ashbery is like Bob Dylan. I always buy his new stuff, and there is always 3-5 poems that are worth reading even if one is married to accessible-poetry only. If Ashbery is a Dada-writer, we need more of him and his ilk, given the terrible political climate in the USA.

    Richard Lyons

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet September 5, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    I’d be interested in hearing more about why he’s valuable in this political climate. This is a question that’s always on my mind, and I hear Auden saying poetry makes nothing happen, and thinking “Yes it does, yes it does.” But how and why?

  • Reply Anne Pitkin September 5, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    On PBS last night, he talked about the untranslatability of music and, if I remember, while not exactly comparing his poetry to music, made a parallel when talking about people who want to “understand” it. Years ago, I saw a poem in The New Yorker–and oh, I wish I could remember the title because, in a hard time, it so heartened me, and I didn’t “understand” why and didn’t need to. In this political climate, while there is a miasma, there is no nuance. No respect for the music of the world, and this is not new. It is just amplified by this administration. I read a piece in the NY Times Sunday about the current push for workaholism among tech entrepreneurs–as if squeezing out anything beyond the hustle were a virtue. I’m thinking out loud here about Ashberry’s influence, his “poetry of indeterminacy,” which is anathema to this harsh, hard-edged culture and heartening for the rest of us.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet September 5, 2017 at 4:03 pm

    You’re right, Anne, no nuance. No grays. And no value except money and more money. One of the things that makes me saddest right now is this mentality on full display and unapologetic–as far as you can get from the heart and grace of the Obamas. It’s as if the worst and basest of “reality” tv as assumed center stage. Unbearable. And the only consolation I find is in the arts, starting with poetry.

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