Tuesday, January 16, 2007

In Praise of John Ashbery

The ever alert Frank Wilson, vice president of the FIS, draws my attention to a strange little interview with John Ashbery. I interviewed Ashbery years ago. I asked him about the criticism that he was a poet who did not think. 'Well, I think I think, but I don't thinking thinking is what it is thought to be.' Here, in this New York Times interview, he is asked if he feels any nostalgia for the NY Bohemia of the fifties. 'I left the country in 1955,' he replies, 'and stayed away for 10 years, in France. So I missed out on a very crucial period. I am still trying to piece together things that happened while I was gone, like the Everly Brothers, for instance.' Anyway, this is just an excuse to say that this man has written some of the most beautiful English of our time and the music of poems like The Skaters and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror as well as collections like Houseboat Days and Vermont Notebook runs through my head daily, making my world brighter, more astounding and easier to live in.
From Houseboat Days:
'The roar of time plunging unchecked through the sluices
Of the days.'


  1. Perhaps an angel is everything we have forgotten.

    This Ashberyism always helps to get through the day.

  2. Bryan or Anon, could you recommend one collection of Ashbery's you think would be a good place to start. I don't read a lot of poetry, but I like the sound of this guy. I could do with something to get me through the day or even to help me get used to the fact that I exist (not to mention the existence everything else, especially you, Anon!)

  3. Neil, I think there's a Penguin Selected Poems. Carcanet is his main publisher over here. Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror is a long poem which tells you all you need to know about Ashbery. He writes too much so there are weaker poems. Houseboat Days and Vermont Notebook are magnificent. The Skaters is very early and appears either in The Double Dream of Spring or Rivers and Mountains. Here's one of my favourites to be going on with:

    'The Ecclesiast'

    "Worse than the sunflower," she had said.
    But the new dimension of truth had only recently
    Burst in on us. Now it was to be condemned.
    And in vagrant shadow her mothball truth is eaten.
    In cool, like-it-or-not shadow the humdrum is consumed.
    Tired housewives begat it some decades ago,
    A small piece of truth that is it was honey to the lips
    Was also millions of miles from filling the place reserved for it.
    You see how honey crumbles your universe
    Which seems like an institution – how many walls?

    Then everything, in her belief, was to be submerged
    And soon. There was no life you could live out to its end
    And no attitude which, in the end, would save you.
    The monkish and the frivolous alike were to be trapped
    in death's capacious claw
    But listen while I tell you about the wallpaper –
    There was a key to everything in that oak forest
    But a sad one. Ever since childhood there
    Has been this special meaning to everything.
    You smile at your friend's joke, but only later, through tears.

    For the shoe pinches, even though it fits perfectly.
    Apples were made to be gathered, also the whole host of the
    world’s ailments and troubles.
    There is no time like the present for giving in to this temptation.
    Once the harvest is in and the animals put away for the winter
    To stand at the uncomprehending window cultivating the desert
    With salt tears which will never do anyone any good.
    My dearest I am as a galleon on salt billows.
    Perfume my head with forgetting all around me.

    For some day these projects will return.
    The funereal voyage over ice-strewn seas is ended.
    You wake up forgetting. Already
    Daylight shakes you in the yard.
    The hands remain empty. They are constructing an osier basket
    Just now, and across the sunlight darkness is taking root anew
    In intense activity. You shall never have seen it just this way
    And that is to be your one reward.

    Fine vapors escape from whatever is doing the living.
    The night is cold and delicate and full of angels
    Pounding down the living. The factories are all lit up,
    The chime goes unheard.
    We are together at last, though far apart.

    -- John Ashbery

  4. Many thanks, Bryan. I will take the plunge. That poem is wonderful. I may need to read it quite a number of times. I think I may want to. For now, the verse beginning "For the shoe pinches..." has hit home.

  5. Thank you for this - I have been agonising what book(s) to take for a trip to Egypt in a couple of weeks. So, now 3 collections of John Ashbery's poems are coming my way via Abebooks.

  6. As it happens, Rebel, I am reading an Egyptian novel at the moment - The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany. Take that too.

  7. "Already, daylight shakes you in the Appleyard."

    Here, it is still dark.

  8. Oh Appleyard Geoffrey Hill is way better than Ashbery. Ashbery's a dross factory that sometimes accidentally makes precious metal by virtue of its volume of production.
    Some post-late Hill:

    The corrupter, the abuser, the liverish
    ravager of domestic peace. The soi-disant
    harmless eccentric. Nobody's harmless.
    Neither is comedy. Maybe the polka
    injured thousands. In this depleted time
    revive me, take me to a blue
    movie, hold my hand in the dark.

    I'm tired now the whole time and yet I wish to
    take up my bed and walk
    to Compostela, for example,
    bush-hat hung round with clamshells on return:
    or ride the Gulf Stream through to Akureyri
    and find a hot spring equal to my bulk
    sheltered by palm trees, bowered by frangipani
    or bougainvillia, wallowing in Icelandic
    Christian Poetry
    till the fish come home.

    The light -- generous -- discovers its ascent,
    gives all it can bring us.
    A haze, and at odd hours the moon also is there
    appearing sea-worn.
    But what a hope, the mild attrition
    of a dove's call, the body
    gradually winding down, becoming vacant.

    The city stands to itself, the late
    October sky a sportsdome
    of clear fall blue; Virginia creeper
    with ample cladding, warming the brick walls
    to a dark glow, a gross finery.
    When I close my eyes the sun
    beats in silent clamour against them.

    Nor is being beside oneself the cue
    for revelation, though its arrival stuns:
    like the high-piled and brilliantly
    toppled bells -- their run-of-the-change,
    tower-engulfing, average Sunday peal,
    a visitation that possesses
    foundation and frontage of the shaken air.
    Nor is emptiness alone the answer, the tomb
    itself open-mouthed.

    And these from one of his lesser books. (Some of the linebreaks might come out funny.)

    You're wrong about Updike too.

  9. Sorry, the Geoffrey Hill is old hat. It hasn't really any ability to land.