The Books Interview John Ashbery: A blue rinse for the language

Praised as a magical genius, cursed as an obscure joker, John Ashbery writes poetry like no one else.

Michael Glover
Saturday 13 November 1999 00:02

John Ashbery, a Biography

John Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, in 1927. He graduated from Harvard, studied French Literature at Columbia, and then moved to Paris, where he worked as an an art critic and translator. His first poems appeared in 1953, and Some Trees (1956) was featured in the Yale Younger Poets Series. He returned to New York in 1964, and has published 16 more volumes, up to Girls On the Run (Carcanet). In 1975, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Ashbery collaborated with James Schuyler on a satirical novel (A Nest of Ninnies), and co-authored a book on artist Fairfield Porter. He has homes in Hudson, New York state, and in Manhattan.

The American poet John Ashbery divides his time between two places, which amount to two quite distinctively different worlds. One is a magnificent, late-Victorian, coke merchant's house in the small town of Hudson in upstate New York; the other an apartment in a rather ugly Sixties block in Chelsea, lower Manhattan. Teeming city meets semi-rural fastness.

Ashbery's early years were spent on his father's farm, and in his grandfather's house in Rochester. His grandfather, a professor of physics who, much to his grandson's amazement, earned an obituary in the New York Times, had an enormous influence on his life, and is remembered with great affection; his own father (a poor farmer with a rather violent temperament) rather less so. The atmosphere of his grandfather's gloomy and roomy house is replicated somewhat in Ashbery's home in Hudson, which he bought for $54,000 in 1978, and has been lovingly restoring ever since.

Academically gifted as a child, Ashbery found himself at Harvard in the 1950s with Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch - all poets who have been loosely grouped together as the New York School. This was not a real "school" in the French style, with calls to action and blazing statements of intent. This was more like a bunch of like-minded young men who took against the way poetry had been written in America after the war - too desiccated and academic, they decided. They wanted it to be looser, funnier, more colloquial, and more receptive to contemporary culture.

They wrote poems for each other. They wrote poems collaboratively. Ashbery and Schuyler even wrote a rather arch, Firbankian novel together, A Nest of Ninnies. Ashbery's great moment of liberation came in 1955. He got a Fulbright Scholarship to Paris. He also had his first book of poetry accepted by the poet on whom he had written a thesis, W H Auden, then editor of the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Series.

In fact, the story is a little more complicated than it seems. Auden didn't like Ashbery's book all that much, and had passed it over. It was Auden's lover, Chester Kallman, who was particularly enthusiastic, and drew his attention back to it.

The stay in Paris stretched to nearly 10 crucially formative years. Ashbery didn't go back to live in New York until 1964. When the scholarship money ran out, he began to earn a living as an art critic, and to do a few other odd literary jobs such as translating bad thrillers under the pseudonym of Jonas Berry (think how a Parisian might pronounce his name)

The manner of writing his own poems changed dramatically, too. The fruits of that stay in Paris can be found in The Tennis Court Oath, his second collection. The language of the poems is weirdly disembodied, as though he is writing in a tongue that he is only half-inhabiting. Like Anthony Burgess in his later novels, Ashbery was suffering from not being able to hear his own tongue spoken in the street.

But in other ways Paris gave Ashbery an identity. He began a dissertation on the then little-known surrealist Raymond Roussel. Roussel's own methods of composition taught him a lot - his sheer extravagance seemed like a breath of fresh air. In other respects, Ashbery found Surrealism rather limiting.

As an art critic, Ashbery interviewed the Belgian neo-surrealist poet and artist, Henri Michaux. "What is the value of surrealism?" he asked Michaux, who kept his hand in front of his eyes throughout the interview . "It gives you la grande permission, Michaux replied. "Permission to do what, though? "Permission to be oneself, no matter how strange that self might prove to be."

In December, 1964 Ashbery was called home when his father died. He returned to America with mixed feelings. "Having lived in Paris fits you for living anywhere," he remarked, "including Paris."

In the last 35 years, John Ashbery has given himself permission to turn himself into one of the most contentious literary figures in America, admired to the skies by the likes of Harold Bloom, and loathed with an equal passion by those who dislike his manner of writing.

Ashbery professes himself mildly bewildered by this reception. Generally, he doesn't like talking about his poems, and has developed a method of response which is both disarmingly humorous and brilliantly evasive. He speaks mildly, flatly, and sometimes so tentatively that you wonder whether he might forget to conclude the sentence upon which he recently embarked. But, no, he's merely biding his time.

What sort of poet are you? I asked him. "Very modern," he replied, baldly. Which means? "That the poetry's difficult to understand, and people feel about it like they did when they saw the first Picasso of the woman with two heads or four ears or something." Did that mean that it was just a matter of time? That it would come to seem less difficult?

"I don't know," he replies with a self-deprecating sigh. "You see this is all out of my hands. I write the way I can and the way it comes to me, and hope that someone will feel like wanting to make something of it... Apparently lots of people like it since I do get invited here and there, and I get them published."

Since his return to America he has written 16 books of poems. Girls on the Run (Carcanet, pounds 6.95) was published last month. His finest single book, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), won several major awards. Its title poem is quintessential Ashbery: a long, wayward meditation upon art and time, full of characteristic gestures. There's the note of almost subversive scepticism about the speaking voice; strange plunges from high seriousness to bathos, so that the reader seems to be riding a wild though smoothly-flowing roller-coaster; and details which seem to have been snatched from some cabinet of curios.

Music does things better than words, in Ashbery's opinion. He loves and envies its power. A grand piano, lid thrown back, stands in the sun-soaked morning room of his house in Hudson, surrounded by artworks, all gifts from friends: Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, De Kooning.

He writes to music. The language of his books is informed by his roving enthusiasms for particular composers. His tastes are both eclectic and out-of-the-way. "I've always felt myself to be a rather frustrated composer who was trying to do with words what musicians are able to do with notes," he says, smiling a gat-toothed smile and widening his eyes behind his spectacles rather alarmingly. "The importance of meaning that's beyond expression in words is what I've always been attracted to."

Ashbery's new book is loosely based on the work of an obscure Belgian painter, Henry Darger, who "did menial jobs in a hospital in Chicago for most of his life. Nobody even knows how to pronounce his name because nobody knew him. He worked throughout his life on this vast illustrated book... about a gang of little girls called the Vivians who were being menaced in various ways." The poem tells their story, in a characteristically dislocated way.

Emily Dickinson once said that poetry rinses the language, I say to him. What does your poetry do? "I guess it gives a kind of blue rinse to the language," he replies.

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