In Which We Attempt To Make Our Actions More Varied Than They Actually Are

Our vital statistics department tells me that the phrase “john ashbery” consistently tops our list of search engine referrals. The only exception seems to be the occasional spate of “molly lambert nude” searches, which hardly ever, in our experience, bear fruit. We must give our readers what they want, and today they want a discussion of the interviews of John Ashbery. – WH

The One Chink In My Non-Existent Armor

by Will Hubbard

“Most reckless things are beautiful in some way and recklessness is what makes experimental art so beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing…I feel this in the work of great modern painters such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko. Everyone acknowledges them now as being major artists, and yet, does their work amount to anything? There’s a possibility that it doesn’t, although I believe in it and want it to exist. But I think that part of the strength of their art, in fact, is this doubt as to whether it may be there at all.”

– John Ashbery

This week I sat in on a taping of a live interview with John Ashbery for Slate and NYU Creative Writing’s new OPEN BOOK series of “intimate talks” with prominent writers. Mr. Ashbery arrived late, making moderators Meghan O’Rourke and Deborah Landau visibly nervous. After all, the poet, referred to as “perhaps the United States’ most prominent” in Ms. Landau’s opening remarks, has a history of despising interviews.

Though friends insist that Mr. Ashbery is normally attentive and genial, interviewers have often characterized Ashbery’s attitude during question-and-answer sessions as reserved and unfocused, his answers as spare or even evasive. And yet, since early in his career, Ashbery has insisted that his “intention is to communicate” with his readers, and that to say “something that’s already known by the reader is not really communicating anything to him and in fact shows a lack of respect.”

Since the early 1970s, Mr. Ashbery’s career has been overshadowed by a troubling paradox—he is widely regarded as a major American poet, yet the unnatural syntax and self-referentiality of his long lines make his work seem difficult, obscure, or even meaningless in the eyes of professional and amateur readers alike. Ashbery’s reviewers rarely deny the dexterity and intellectual weight of his poems, but they have always had considerable trouble finding tangible evidence to support Ashbery’s mysterious appeal.

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By 1976, with the publication of Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, for which he won all three major American awards for a collection of poetry, Mr. Ashbery had been alerted repeatedly to the communicative dilemma that surrounded his verse; in his poem, ‘The Tomb of Stuart Merrill’, he typifies the reader’s confusion: “I really would like to know what it is you do to ‘magnetize’ your poetry, where the curious reader, always a bit puzzled, comes back for a clearer insight.”

“Tracks of My Tears” – Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (mp3)

“Sally McLennane” – The Pogues (mp3)

“The Whole of the Moon” – The Waterboys (mp3)

It could be said that Ashbery’s aversion to interviews and the general evasiveness of his comments about his own poetry provide useful insight into the intention and meaning of the poems themselves. In conversation with John Herd, Ashbery spoke directly to the connection between speaking about a poem and actually composing one:

First of all, I’m sitting in a strange place with lots of lights whose meaning I don’t quite understand, and I’m talking about a poem I wrote years ago and which no longer means very much to me. I have a feeling that everything is slipping away from me as I’m trying to talk about it—a feeling I have most of the time in fact—and I think I am probably trying to call attention to this same feeling in [my] poems as well. Not because of any intrinsic importance the feeling might have, but because I feel that somebody should call attention to this. Maybe once it’s called attention to we can think about something else, which is what I’d like to do.

Not all of Mr. Ashbery’s interviews over the years have been so hostile. When in conversation with friends and colleagues like Kenneth Koch and Harry Mathews, the poet’s wit and charm shine through, making for some of the most pleasurable reads in the history of the interview form. Below is “A Conversation With Kenneth Koch” which, beyond its adroit and cheeky humor, is a virtual handbook for understanding the poetry of the New York School.

Will Hubbard is the contributing editor to This Recording. He lives in Williamsburg.

ashbery

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koch19.jpg

koch, by alex katz

PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING

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Molly versus Charles Schulz.

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