Notes from the President of the Poetry Foundation
This is the first of an ongoing series of occasional and topical notes to the poetry community from Robert Polito, president of the Poetry Foundation.
Polito’s occasion here is the awarding of the National Arts Club’s Medal of Honor for Literary Achievement to John Ashbery.
“I was thrilled to be asked to celebrate John Ashbery,” Polito said. “His work eludes all the usual aesthetic categories, and at age 86 he remains so skilled at self-transformation that he still writes like he’s the new kid on the block.
“This is one of the annual seasons of literary awards. I am very proud to say that on June 9 the Poetry Foundation will be awarding the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize to another amazing poet, Nathaniel Mackey, whose serial projects in poetry and prose over the past three and a half decades are among the great wonders of our moment. We’ll be granting our inaugural Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism to the University of California Press for Robert Duncan: The Collected Later Poems and Plays and Robert Duncan: Collected Essays and Other Prose, edited by Peter Quartermain and James Maynard, respectively.
“This will only be my first Lilly Prize ceremony as president, but I attended last year when Marie Ponsot was the honoree, and the night was so festive and moving.”
Ashbery received his National Arts Club Medal during a ceremony in New York on May 5. The evening included spoken, written, and sung tributes from Polito, Paul Muldoon, Jed Perl, and Patti Smith, among others.
Here are Robert Polito’s remarks as presented for this occasion.
“A Fresh Piece of Outlook”
—For J.A., May 5, 2014
I wouldn’t try to capture it
on the page, or in a blog, the inauspicious
leavings of a day. Closer to dream
than the hum of streets, and people
who once walked along them.
That’s John Ashbery from a recent poem, “Gravy for the Prisoners,” published in the New Yorker last summer.
George Herbert once remarked on his desire always to “be new, tender, quick.” His aspiration might constitute the closest 17th-century approximation of Frank O’Hara’s otherwise unsurpassable “Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible,” from “In Memory of My Feelings.”
Both statements are, I suppose, prayers. Although I don’t ordinarily approach John Ashbery as a “religious” poet in the tradition of Herbert, and Ashbery himself steadily resists the notion of any readymade aesthetic overlap among the different poets popularly subsumed into the “New York School,” I can’t think of any other writer—any other man, really—who as vividly incarnates the virtues of freshness, curiosity, vitality, and rejuvenation sought by Herbert’s and O’Hara’s words.
I suspect I speak for every poet in this room when I say that for all of us, he is the epitome and model for how you keep your own art alive across the abrasions and joys of a lifetime. There is the surprising way, for instance, that whenever you encounter John, whether at a reading, party, or gallery opening, he has invariably just discovered a thrilling new film, novel, poet, song, or sly bit of news; and there’s the still more surprising and sublime way he manages to reinvent his poetry, poem by fresh poem, book by new book.
Here’s what we haven’t done yet.
I’ll remember that morning temperature.
Meanwhile I’m cautiously optimistic.
That’s also John Ashbery, from another new poem, “Hand with a Picture,” published a few weeks ago in the catalog for a Smithsonian exhibition, Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction.
For what hasn’t John done yet? The real wonder, though, is what he’s done recently and is doing right now.
John turned 80 in 2007, and over the seven years since then he published two collections of poems, Planisphere and Quick Question, as well as a translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations; the initial volume of his Collected Poems appeared in the Library of America (the first collection by a living poet to do so); and two other substantial books of his translations, Collected French Translations: Poetry and Collected French Translations: Prose, are just out in a beautiful matched set edited by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie. Along the way, John received a New York City Literary Honors Award from Mayor Bloomberg, a National Humanities Medal from President Obama, and the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
So it probably shouldn’t come as any surprise that a number of my favorite John Ashbery poems have been written since Quick Question, and are just starting to appear in magazines. Besides the two new poems I’ve already quoted, there’s “Breezeway,” also in the New Yorker, in which a tumble of almost-dispassionate reflections (“A breeze falls from a nearby tower, / finds no breezeway, goes away...”), slippery, shoulder-shrugging concessions (“but my voice dwindled in the roar of Hurricane Edsel”), and heartbreaking circumlocutions (“We have to live out our precise experimentation. / Otherwise there’s no dying for anybody, / no crisp rewards...”) yield to an epiphanic question, or a questionable epiphany:
Is there a Batman somewhere, who notices us
and promptly looks away, at a new catalog, say,
or another racing car expletive
coming back at Him?
And there’s “Prelude and Filibuster,” which opens, part self-help, part Proust: “Remember last month, when he was saying / doomed lovers’ syndrome uproots us all?” And the cunning “The Pie District”:
There was nothing not to like about
the new self-monitoring system. Yet strangely,
the pie district voted against it.
In these new poems, as our latest idioms (“lawyering up,” “we segued,” “the celebrity mash-up”) vie with vintage phrasing (“The fan kid’s still chewing on a Fifth Avenue bar...”), and names redolent of early 20th-century comics and advertisements—many actual (Mr. Coffee Nerves, the Gold Dust twins), others perhaps not (Dr. Stinkhandler?)—slide into 21st-century predicaments, Ashbery jumps vocal registers with a velocity vertiginous even for him. “You get Peanuts and War and Peace,” he writes, and, echoing an English nursery rhyme, “some in rags, some in jags, some in / velvet gown.”
John is legendary for his friendships. So let me finish by saying that one of the most powerful pleasures of the past few years for me has been getting to know John Ashbery and David Kermani—first through ASHLAB, a sequence of courses I co-taught at the New School with Tom Healy, Adam Fitzgerald, and Irwin Chen that proposed a digital mapping of Ashbery’s literary work via his Hudson, New York house; and now through a new project at the Poetry Foundation that will create enhanced digital publications for certain of his poetry books, as well as an online re-creation of that Hudson house, in collaboration with Tom, Adam, Irwin, and Karin Roffman.
As Ashbery writes in “Bunch of Stuff,” yet another of his majestic new poems, “Why wouldn’t you want a fresh piece / of outlook to stand in down the years?”
Watch this space for more from Robert Polito in the upcoming months.
Poet and scholar Robert Polito was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He earned his PhD from Harvard and has served as director of Creative Writing at The New School for two decades. Polito served as president of the Poetry Foundation from July 2013 through June 2015. Polito’s collections of poetry include Hollywood...