US President Barack Obama presents 2011

No, that's not the Spectator once owned by Nate Archibald (ahem--poets can watch TV, too!). Over at the UK's Spectator, JP O'Malley transcribes into interview form his two-hour phone conversation with John Ashbery! "Browsing through some of his earliest and most recent work, Ashbery, very patiently, even read me some of his poems: giving me the background to their subject matter in the process. But as he explained over the course of our long chat, trying to put ordered sense into a chaotic world, through language, is not an easy task." They talk about specific poems from Houseboat Days and the latest, Quick Question. They also chat about clichés, surrealism, and the New York School. A bit from their talk:

Aesthetics and art has always been a huge influence on your work, particularly on a collection like Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Could you speak about the differences you see between painting and poetry?

You look at a painting and say, oh there it is: I see it and I get it. But in poetry you have to follow, and really pay close attention. I’ve just remembered that you asked me earlier about the Wallace Stevens line ‘The poem must resist the intelligence/ almost successfully’. What Stevens was saying, actually, was that the poem must not resist the intelligence. But he throws the reader off with this one word, almost.

The reader thinks, oh, he’s saying the poem must not be understandable, it must resist the intelligence, what kind of bullshit is that? It’s because they are not paying attention. Poetry, especially for somebody like Wallace Stevens, deals in very fine degrees of meaning and shading, which are there if you look for them and absorb them.

Much has been made by many critics and readers alike of the term ‘you’ or ‘we’ in your poetry. Your poems never seem to really give away who that ‘you’ or ‘we’ is that you are writing about. Could you speak specifically about this shifting between voices or pronouns, in the narratives of your poems?

Yes, those have caused a great deal of trouble from day one. It must be that I ‘hear voices’ when I’m writing, but also I think because I’ve never had a very strong sense of my own self, and therefore to have other voices cropping up and speaking their mind in my poetry always seemed perfectly natural. I remember when I was writing plays the idea of writing dialogue attracted me very much because I could imagine what other people would say more easily than what I myself might say.

One thing that seems to get under people’s skin is my frequent use of the word ‘it’, without any particular attribution, and that again was something that I guess came naturally to me, maybe from seeing so much abstract art. ‘It’ is something that’s both vague and specific, and it doesn’t need to be called anything other than it, which is what it is.

When you began writing poetry would you agree that you were very sceptical of what had traditionally been the function of the lyric poem: capturing a moment in time?

When I first wrote poetry in my teens, I imitated 19th century poems, with rhyme and meter and all those wonderful things, and those poems were probably attempts to capture a moment in time. But I guess as I grew older the idea of flux supplanted that of static reflection.

Read the full interview.

Originally Published: February 4th, 2013