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A Full Report and Video of John Ashbery at Poets House

By Harriet Staff

At the Ploughshares blog, James Tolan reports on John Ashbery’s recent reading at Poets House, remarking at first that “[t]he food was good and conversation easy, and what was to come might be less so.” (Rumor had it that Ashbery was not well: “But he had come and was now upstairs.”) A bit more on the completely packed event (“the head count at Poets House stretched beyond 350, 368 by the last tally I heard, the largest-ever crowd for a reading in that building”):

And then they wheeled him behind a small table half-circled by the audience and everyone applauded. He seemed a great owl with his brown shirt, aquiline nose, and sharp eyes that moved over the room. I snapped his picture before he began and he turned to face me and hold my eyes. There was no smile, no grimace, no pose. There was his face watching.

And then he began to read, first from his most recent book, Planisphere, and then from a new book, Quick Question, due out in the fall from Ecco. Introductions were brief if they were at all. He offered poems the audience could easily follow in their wit and play, including one called “They Know What They Wanted,” made up entirely of movie titles that begin with “They…”

And “Sons of the Desert,” which takes its title from the Laurel and Hardy movie of the same name. He even provided a short synopsis of the movie’s storyline and added that the poem had “sort of been inspired by Antiques Roadshow.”


He read for an hour and other than a young couple who left when their infant began to chime in, none of the packed crowd downstairs, many squeezed in like me, left or shifted uncomfortably about, the laughter and focused attention of the crowd remained constant throughout and when he was done the crowd waited for him to be wheeled past before filing out themselves.

By the time I arrived at the book table, no books were left. By the time I got to the stairs, the line from where he was signing made its way down those stairs into the main lobby. By the time I gave up the stairs and took the elevator, visited and chatted my way through three glasses of gratis champagne, and caught Ashbery’s eye one more time, nodded his way and had my nod returned, he had sat and signed and talked for well past another hour.

In a world lousy with good poets, clever and kind and wonderful as they may be, precious few cast the shadow Ashbery does….

Read the full report here, and watch a video of the reading below. Photo by Lawrence Schwartzwald, and video courtesy of Reggie Harris from Poets House.

Posted in Poetry News on Friday, July 27th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.