BY Craig Burnett in Interviews | 10 SEP 04
Featured in
Issue 85

A Kind of Musical Space

An interview with John Ashbery

BY Craig Burnett in Interviews | 10 SEP 04

Years ago, while skimming one of those fat poetry anthologies you get as an undergraduate, I read, ‘In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer’. I was hooked. Odd, graceful and with a hint of something furtive, the language was transfixing.

W.H. Auden was sufficiently impressed to choose Some Trees (1956), John Ashbery’s first collection, as part of Yale’s ‘Younger Poets’ series. From the mid-1950s Ashbery lived in France, where he worked as an art critic for the International Herald Tribune. After returning to New York he worked as an editor at Art News until 1972. In 1976 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. Ashbery has written over 20 books of poetry, a volume of art criticism (Reported Sightings, 1989), and a book of lectures on lesser-known poets who have been important to him (Other Traditions, 2001). This year Carcanet published The New York Poets, a compendium of work by four friends – John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler – who met in the 1950s and became among the most influential American poets of the 20th century. Later this year Carcanet will also publish Ashbery’s Selected Prose. Since 1990 he has been Charles P. Stevenson, Jr. Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College, Hudson, New York.

Craig Burnett  Did you ever think, 50 or so years ago, when you were hanging out and writing poetry with your friends Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch, that you’d all be published together in an anthology in the 21st century?

John Ashbery  Ha! No, I wasn’t even sure we’d ever be published.

CB  Why not?

JA  Well, there was nothing to indicate that we might be. And we were writing a kind of poetry that didn’t have anything to do with the poetry of that time.

CB  So who were your heroes and bêtes noires?

JA  During World War II, and after, was a kind of glum period for American poetry, whereas in the 1930s and early ’40s a lot of experimental poetry was being written. I mean experimental compared to Robert Lowell, who came after.

CB  Did you ever meet him?

JA  Yeah, he was nice enough. I don’t think he was aware of my attitude! One poet I liked very much was Delmore Schwartz, who was his friend, or at least a drinking buddy. One of the reasons I wanted to go to Harvard was to study with him, but somehow I never did. I can’t remember why. I know that Kenneth studied with him. But Schwartz had a tendency to cancel his semester’s classes and go back to Greenwich Village and drink, and that may have been the reason. But there were a lot of other people, whose names no longer mean anything to anybody, who used to appear in the annual New Directions anthologies and the annual anthologies, edited by Oscar Williams, who was not a very good poet but an interesting anothologist. But then during World War II everybody became a ‘war poet’, and Oscar did at least one anthology of war poets who all sounded alike. Who wants to read about the war anyway, in a poem? It was bad enough that it existed. After the war things weren’t the same, and the earnestness of Lowell and Philip Larkin and the later Berryman was the dominant note. And in England you had early Auden, and then after the war you had late Auden in the United States, which was completely different and infinitely less satisfactory as far as I’m concerned. I suppose that was probably due to the fatigue of having gone through a world war. People were no longer enchanted by the ‘bright young things’.

CB  Claude Debussy said that he learned more from writers and artists than from musicians, whom he called ‘careerist’. I thought that the comment might apply to ‘the New York Poets’, that you learned more from artists and musicians than from ‘careerist’ poets like Lowell and Berryman.

JA  It was Debussy who said this? He was a careerist if ever there was one! As a matter of fact, Debussy was encouraged by Chausson, a very generous and warm person, and then they had some kind of falling out and Debussy rededicated his string quartet to someone else – maybe it was Ravel. But I’ve strayed from the path, as I so often do in poetry and conversation.

CB  I suggested that you and your friends were getting more energy from art and music than writing.

JA  Well, that’s true, but we were also reading contemporary poetry. The earlier poets that I talked about were still around and publishing stuff in Poetry magazine, which was almost the only poetry magazine for a while. Then I met Frank O’Hara, who was a musician and actually studied composing at Harvard and wrote some music, which seems to have disappeared. He once played me a piano piece called ‘sonatina that lasts about three seconds’. It lasted a little longer than that. He knew a lot about modern music – and of course there wasn’t too much in the recorded repertoire of anything – it was before the LP. I was curious about the music of Satie, which he played for me on the piano. But I’d been interested in music for a long time, since I got my first album of the Nutcracker Suite when I was about 15, and began collecting records. But I didn’t know much about contemporary music. In fact, overhearing Frank mention Poulenc at a party in Cambridge was the first time I met him.

CB  A comment about Poulenc attracted you to him?

JA  Yes. He mentioned a piece called Les Sécheresses, which means ‘the droughts’, which had been played at a concert in Cambridge, and Frank said, ‘Let’s face it, Les Sécheresses is greater than Tristan’. His way of saying it and also his accent and voice, which were very much like mine, made me turn to him and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you sound like me!’ I knew who he was because I was on the Harvard Advocate and we had published his poetry, but I had never spoken to him before. He looked intimidating, but that was actually a false impression, due to his having a broken nose, which made him look like a pugilist.

CB  A line in ‘My Heart’, one of O’Hara’s poems in the anthology, reads, ‘I want to be at least as alive as the vulgar’. How does that reflect your attitude at the time?

JA  As the vulgar’? Well, sure, I’ll buy that. Frank was always quoting Rimbaud or Mallarmé. I think it was Rimbaud who said, ‘il faut être absolument moderne’, which I took kind of to heart. And his investigations of literature were very eye-opening for me. For instance, he was wild about Ronald Firbank, who I thought was too silly to be important, but Frank made me understand how he was very important, and Firbank became one of my favourite writers. Also French poetry, Breton and the other Surrealists, at least what had been translated into English. I’m not sure whether Frank actually knew French or not, or whether he just thought he did. And, of course, painting, but it wasn’t really until we finally got to New York that we discovered the New York School of painters. But it seemed necessary to look for experimental art in places other than the poetry of the time.

CB  There have also been a lot of references to film in your poetry. I notice Mulholland Drive on your table.

JA  Yes, I loved that movie. I saw it four times as a matter of fact. I like the sort of mysterious, inevitable feel; Alice in Wonderland, falling down the rabbit hole into Los Angeles, which I’ve always found a very romantic and disturbing place, just as it was portrayed in the movie.

CB  Full of taciturn movie producers.

JA  Yes, and crazy cowboys. I love that sort of mews where Naomi Watts’ character ends up living, with the fake little Tudor cottages. I think there are a number of places like that around Hollywood, but there is one called ‘Disney Court’, which may have provided the model for the house in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Also, I love the way it starts off being fairly straightforward, then suddenly turns a corner and the characters are different from what they were before. This is something I wanted to do back when I was writing plays. I wrote one called ‘The Philosopher’, a parody of the ‘old dark house’ school of movies in the 1930s, where a bunch of heirs would assemble in a mansion for the reading of a will, none of them knowing who the others were or knowing the old uncle who had died or whatever. I left it as a one-act play, but I always wanted to write a second act in which the same characters would appear but they would be completely different people, like characters in a Beckett play but still Hollywood stereotypes, like the punch-drunk prize-fighter and the blonde chorus girl.

CB  But David Lynch beat you to it.

JA  Yes! But I gave him plenty of time to catch up.

CB  I know you like Guy Maddin’s films, and your poem ‘A Suit’ from Your Name Here (2000) has an epigraph from his film Careful (1992). What attracted you to his films?

JA  I learned about them from Peter Gizzi, a younger poet who’s a film buff. A few years ago he played me a couple of tapes of Maddin’s films, which I thought were wonderful. My favourite is Archangel (1990), which you could only get bootleg at the time. Maybe there’s a DVD now.

CB  There is a DVD with three of his films: Archangel, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) and The Heart of the World (2000).

JA  The Heart of the World is an incredible movie. It’s only six minutes long, but it’s like an anthology of the Soviet avant-garde and German Expressionism and everything. I didn’t like Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, though. But The Saddest Music in the World is a masterpiece. My favourite line is in Archangel, where the central character, a soldier named John Boles, says, ‘We’re going to beat the Huns with their guns and let the Kaiser roll!’ [Laughs]. There’s an in-joke there that I’m sure I’m one of the few people to have got – Boles was a minor leading man of the 1930s who played Shirley Temple’s daddy.

CB  When did you write your last piece of art criticism?

JA  I just wrote a short piece for an Abrams book about Jane Freilicher that’s coming out soon. My friends sometimes ask me to do these things, which I find torture. I was never happy writing art criticism, though often very happy once I’ve finished. I tended to re-read them a lot when I’d finished them, which is something I never do with my poetry. I guess I was just surprised I could turn out something to order, on time. 

CB  Was it always torture writing about art?

JA  Yes. Also, for several years I was a critic for the International Herald Tribune in Paris and wrote two articles a week. I had to go around to all the shows and then remember them once I got home and write about them and then take a copy by bus to the Herald Tribune, as of course there were no faxes or e-mail, and I couldn’t afford a taxi on what they paid me. And then I came back to the States and wrote for Art News and Newsweek magazine, and there would be deadlines and a big hole that you somehow had to fill before the next week so most of my art reviews were written, as it were, with a gun to my head. They weren’t reflected upon in tranquillity, nor were they what I particularly wanted to write. They were dictated by the actualité in the galleries and museums, which had to be dealt with.

CB  Yet your art writing is really good – in fact, it’s not as tortured as a lot of writing about art. Did you enjoy going to all the exhibitions?

JA  Yes, I did. It was a way of keeping in touch with what was going on, not just in art, but who was where in Paris and what movies were showing. And naturally I got to know a lot of artists in Paris, or they got to know me because I was considered somebody worth cultivating.

CB  When you were at Art News in the 1960s, was there a lot of interaction between artists and writers?

JA  Yeah. Well, actually, the tradition of New York poets writing about art began with Frank O’Hara because he was the first poet that I know of who was recruited by Thomas Hess for Art News, and it turned out he had a lot of poet friends who needed extra money, or just some money, who ended up doing it too. None of us really had any knowledge of art criticism. Although Frank might have – he took being a critic very seriously, though I was always telling him not to. But I did one season of reviews in New York and then went back to France and started working at the Tribune and eventually became Paris correspondent for Art News, and then I had to come back to New York and became executive editor there. I never had a lot of close friends who were artists other than a few I already knew before I thought of doing this, like Jane and Larry Rivers and a few others. I remained a little to one side of the actual art world. And I wanted to keep trying to write poetry, and the art world could be invasive. In fact, that did happen to O’Hara, I think. His job at the Museum of Modern Art became much more demanding and he didn’t have much time for poetry, which always had to be squeezed into some left-over space.

CB  There have always been a lot of references to the visual arts in your poetry, from the title of your third book, The Double Dream of Spring (1970), which is taken from a Giorgio de Chirico painting, to Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1976), after Parmigianino, and to your most recent work. Do you think there would be so many references to art, had you not been a critic?

JA  Well, perhaps not quite as many. But I was always interested in art, even before I took up poetry.

CB  You wanted to be a painter when you were young.

JA  Yes, and I always went to exhibitions, if there were any. At the same time, I never felt as engaged by the visual arts as by music. I think of music first and poetry second. I think of the space in my poetry as a kind of musical space.

CB  In what way?

JA  You’re waiting for the next sound to happen and following it as it unwinds, which is unlike the immediate confrontation with a work of art. Visual art is not a linear unfolding in time the way music is, or cinema for that matter, which is also an influence.

CB  In one of your poems you mention music and how ‘you cannot isolate a note of it and say it is good or bad’.

JA  That’s from ‘Syringa’.

CB  ‘Orpheus liked the glad personal quality ...’

JA  Yes, that’s right. Actually, how I happened to write that poem is indicative of my method, or rather my want of method. I was settling down to write and I pulled out a record of Monteverdi’s Orfeo by chance and, without thinking, put it on the turntable. And I thought, wait a minute – Orpheus, that’s such a hackneyed subject for poetry, but maybe just for that reason one could fool around with it and come up with something. Before the moment of writing I had no idea what I was going to write, which is how I always write. So it was not something pondered in advance and written in the way that poetry probably should be written. [Laughs]

CB  In the opening poem of your most recent book, Chinese Whispers (2002), a sort of prophetess appears toward the end of one poem.

JA  The ‘old lady of my acquaintance’.

CB  Yes, and she’s predicting ‘doom and gloom’, but the speaker says that it doesn’t matter because what she predicts won’t happen. The oracle who has to be ignored is a recurring character in your poetry. In one of my favourite of your poems, ‘Worsening Situation’, the speaker gets a note of warning that ends with ‘much besides your life depends on it’, to which the response is ‘I thought nothing of it at the time’.

JA  It never occurred to me until now that there might be this interlocutor in my poetry who comes along to spoil the happily progressing poem. It must be a kind of paradigm for life, an archetype of a situation that faces us all that we are particularly aware of in childhood – of having to pick up our toys, stop reading and go out and get some fresh air. Whenever one embarks on a pleasant experience, something is invariably waiting in the wings to interrupt it. It’s as basic as that.

CB  A word that you often use in your poetry is ‘play’.

JA  I do?

CB  Yes, for example, ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’, ‘Daffy Duck in Hollywood’, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, ‘Livelong Days’.

JA  Yes, now that you mention it, I do tend to do that, but I don’t really know why. I guess it’s because I like to play.

CB  Is writing poetry play?

JA  I suppose so. Again, it’s a kind of mystery when I begin writing. It’s like playing hide-and-seek, although I don’t know whether I’m the seeker – well, I suppose that’s what I am. And nobody else is involved except me. Playing by oneself as a child is unsatisfactory, but somehow this is – playing with an invisible other.

CB  Since A Wave (1984) your poetry is consistently very funny.

JA  Maybe too funny. Maybe silly.

CB  Could it be too funny?

JA  I think some people think so. One of my poems, ‘Tuesday Evening’, I wrote with a rhyming dictionary, picking out the rhymes in advance and then writing the lines to suit them.

CB  It has a great opening line, ‘She plundered the fun in his hair’.

JA  Yeah, I like that, but it’s kind of yucky too. What is this thing in his hair? [Laughs] Well, that sounds like light verse. But like so much light verse, like Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll, it has a pathetic, plangent side to it. One of my favourite poems is ‘How Pleasant to know Mr Lear’: ‘How pleasant to know Mr Lear / Who’s written such volumes of stuff / Some think him ill-tempered and queer / But a few find him pleasant enough.’ [Laughs] And of course Eliot used that for ‘How Pleasant to Know Mr Eliot’. I’ve always attempted to crack jokes and make people laugh, even when I was a small child. I love outrageous puns.

CB  Some of the absurdity comes out of your interest in Surrealism, such as the line ‘A yak is a prehistoric cabbage; of that, at least, we can be sure’.

JA  It’s funny, I just read an essay on that poem [‘Notes from the Air’] in a new book that was sent to me yesterday by a poet and critic named James Longenbach. It’s quite interesting, what he says about it. [Laughs] My mother used to laugh at my jokes when nobody else did. Once when I was a child I had scarlet fever, and my mother came in every day to clean my room with Lysol, and it was at the time the song ‘That Old Feeling’ was popular. When she came in one day, I said, ‘Lysol you last night and got that old feeling’. And my mother said, ‘John, you’re so funny’. I like getting laughs.

CB  Is it a form of intimacy?

JA  It’s a form of getting beyond intimacy, or crashing the gate. I tend to do that in social situations, suddenly say something wacky and unexpected, in a way that I’m sure makes people think I’m insane, which is a possibility.

CB  In ‘The Problem of Anxiety’ you write about the stuff you leave out, ‘descriptions of pain, and sex, and how shiftily people behave toward each other’. For the most part, your poetry avoids the language of complaint or aggression. Why do you leave out those descriptions?

JA  Well, they’ve been so thoroughly covered by other poets. There is a school that I call the ‘Poetry of Pain’, you know, like confessional poetry. We already know about you and me, so let’s move on to something we haven’t discovered yet. Actually, I can’t remember how that poem begins.

CB  ‘Fifty years have passed / Since I started living in those dark towns ... ’

JA  That was in Can you hear, bird (1996). That was the second title I stole from Sigmund Freud, the other being ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’. Freud was a very good writer of titles. I meant to go back and lift some others. [JA reads the poem] Well, this poet has decided not to write about major experiences in life but has ‘saved descriptions of chicken sandwiches’, which clearly no one is in urgent need of. Also there is a glass eye, which is perhaps the eye of god on the little mantelpiece in the parlour. It’s not an apology for leaving out ‘descriptions of pain and sex’, but actually a critique of the voice for having done this. Obviously, he needs help since he can’t figure out how to get from the post office to the swings in the park. This guy’s in trouble! Like so many of my first-person poems, it’s not necessarily me. Or it is part of the time, and then isn’t. I always have this problem with ‘I’, which is why I thought I wanted to write plays. I found it easier to write dialogue for other people than to speak as myself. It’s playing again.

CB  Do you have any sense of what might be your most popular poem, based on responses at readings?

JA  It’s probably ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, though it’s too long to read at a reading. It’s not my favourite poem by any means. It’s too much like ‘poetry as we know it’, which I’ve always tried to get away from. Also, I’m kind of jealous of its popularity, as though it were a kind of rival to me in some way – ‘hey, why can’t you pay attention to me instead of this poem?’ [Laughs] But it’s not often that one is asked for a particular poem. I think I’m a kind of ‘one-hit wonder’ in the eyes of many people.

CB  Do you have favourites?

JA  I usually read from recent or unpublished work, because I want to reassure myself that it’s OK. I don’t usually read older poems, though I do have favourite ones, including the one you just mentioned, ‘Notes from the Air’ and ‘Syringa’. ‘Daffy Duck in Hollywood’ is one of my favourite poems. I’ve always been partial to Daffy, who seems like my alter ego. In one cartoon he captures the Tasmanian devil to get the reward and ends by saying, ‘I may be a coward, but I’m a greeeeeedy little coward!’

CB  How is he your alter ego?

JA  Well, when I heard that line, I thought, ‘gosh, that’s like me’, though I wouldn’t want anyone to know that. He’s bossy and self-important, and his schemes are always going awry. I mean, this is a view I can afford to take of myself, but I wouldn’t necessarily want other people to, so maybe I’d better soft-pedal it. And end this interview.

Craig Burnett is a writer and head of exhibitions at Blain|Southern Gallery, London/Berlin. He is based in London, UK.