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From the Archives of Frieze: Ashbery Interview

By Harriet Staff


This week, we’re all about archives–see our recent post on a Bob Perelman feature from the archives of Jacket. We’ve only just begun to peruse the archives of Frieze, and already we’ve come upon a new-to-us 2004 interview with John Ashbery. Craig Burnett, the interviewer, introduces the exchange by describing his first encounter with Ashbery’s work:

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.

Our favorite section includes Ashbery’s take on American poetry in the 1930s and early 1940s, when, he says, “a lot of experimental poetry was being written. I mean experimental compared to Robert Lowell, who came after.” Burnett follows up by asking Ashbery if he ever met Lowell, and this is his response:

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’.

You’ll find the rest of this delightful interview online at Frieze. And for the record, Ashbery wasn’t the only student who sought Delmore Schwartz as a teacher. Check out this piece from the June issue of Poetry by a Mr. Lou Reed.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, February 8th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.