And the Occasion Changed: A Tribute to John Ashbery
[Editor’s Note: This past summer, as John Ashbery was turning 90, Daniel Brian Jones contacted a group of poets, musicians, and artists, John Ashbery included, to read excerpts from his book Flow Chart to create a complete audio recording of the book. The full audio of the project is now posted on PennSound. Amy King asked contributors to the project to provide a paragraph remembering Ashbery, who died on Sunday, September 3rd, and introduces the portfolio of tributes below.]
Sometimes it is almost unbearable that we all end, but then it may be just as difficult to know that we are here at all. Both realizations are often why I turn to poetry. Although philosophy attempts to plumb the depths of being, it usually fails to simultaneously embrace and explore the chaos of what it is to inhabit the human form and in all of its temporal guises: So since time is a human-made concept, so may poetry be a way too.
I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out, would be another, and truer, way. ("The New Spirit," from Three Poems)
Some may shudder, including the poet himself, at the suggestion that Ashbery was, for me, something of a spiritualist. Having grown up on the Bible Belt, poetry is as close as I now get to religion, and Ashbery was one of the primary poets who brought me to it. Unlike much of the proselytizing of my youth, Ashbery was not a prescriber of moral certainties, nor did he offer a dogma to subscribe to. Instead, he sought, explored, and gave space to the unknowns and uncertainties much of our habits and beliefs disregard and even dismiss as a “lack of faith” or “giving in to doubt.”
And if, on laying the book aside, we feel that it is still impossible to accomplish the impossible, we are also left with the conviction that it is the only thing worth trying to do. ("The Impossible")
He didn't create God mythologies and systems for prescriptive living. But rather, he dealt in possibility. What is right here and now that we aren't seeing? What connections are we missing through the lens of our socially agreed upon mappings (that is one way)?
Forgive me while I wax religious: He was forever interrogating what it is to be in a moment with these facts and things and culture and feelings all existing at once, BUT in this interrogation was the enlightened recognition that we are not simply co-existing but are in relation to and, therefore, like a wave, affecting everyone and everything—and vice versa. He shows us how to be more fully, to inhabit each moment intentionally and consciously, to expand it, and he makes it look as easy as breathing, as if the air itself is alchemy, and we just need to relax, breathe it in and speak past the societal overlay of what is true towards otherwise:
But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but—yourself. It is you who made this, therefore you are true. But the truth has passed on / to divide all. (“The New Spirit”)
His poems are our guides now: models of the mind searching, interrogating, a seeking in the doubt—always to some discovery. Several poets dealt in this concept: One can read it in Ashbery's early poetry-love, Laura Riding; in T.S. Eliot's premise that each new work of literature exists in relation to all other books and therefore impacts, even changes, the meaning of each; and in William Blake's concept that we are all one consciousness turned inside out into these fragments we inhabit, divided, and act seemingly separately through now.
If we are fragments of a whole, he took Whitman's cue that we contain multitudes and saw in Gertrude Stein an example of the effort to present such discoveries in ways unprecedented and unfettered by societal force and, thus, forge new connections and unexpected observations. John wasn’t trying to show us “reality,” what is; he was showing us how to discover what else is beyond that shared social overlay. Ashbery pluralizes what is: the plurality of realty. The realities right under our noses. That is the spiritual for me: Don’t tell me what to believe: Uncover our inheritances of belief systems, whether marketplace or religious, as one way—throw them into relief—by showing us how to dwell in possibility, query and inhabit it off-script.
Some wonder how both the conventional and the radical ends of the spectrum embraced one poet so fully: John mastered the art of craft and took on the big questions of being through what is often dubbed the “mundane" or the “daily." As Fred Moten puts it, he revealed "a river system of invention" we had not seen until he showed us. His poems are akin to those computer-generated pixelated scenes you stand before and have to learn to soften your focus in order see the image. His poems do that for us. Left, right, conservative, experimental—the delight that comes from discovery of what is right before us but invisible until it crystallizes and is suddenly as plain as day is an undeniable delight no matter one’s proclivities, belief system, or practices. That is part of the magic of why he is held by so many: We sense there is more, and John has shown us how to look over and over, softening, noticing, connecting, until it all suddenly appears and we are delighted by seemingly confusing new scenes and relations and the intimacy of it all. He illuminates the unfamiliar right there in the middle of what we know. The symbiotic execution of his gifts, talent, and skill is downright mystical and, not by coincidence, will continue to draw multitudes to his work.
Ann Lauterbach cites the poet, “I am John. Ashbery writes the poems.” Just as the person and poet exist in relation to one another, so too are the person and the poems complements. My students sometimes start off believing that thinking is the opposite of pleasure ("Why can't we just enjoy the work?") until someone comes along to model for you that we all, by default, ask questions of what we enjoy or don’t understand ("How does this car work? What else can it do? Was that character believable?"), so that asking itself becomes a pleasure and, in the asking, one may relax, take permission, make greater leaps and venture into the bizarre ("Do those trees use the wind in their leaves to give voice?”). He had a technical prowess and also a zest for seemingly wild explorations of the world:
For other centers of communication, so that understanding / May begin, and in doing so be undone. (“And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name”)
When Daniel Brian Jones invited the writers and musicians featured here to commemorate Ashbery’s 90th birthday by recording Flow Chart in its entirety this past summer, I doubt many of us imagined it would become a tribute that included what may be Ashbery’s final reading too. It is even, perhaps, fitting that John’s voice should be heard on the occasion of his departure: It is almost a conundrum I think he would smile about. I also thought, somehow, based on the possibilities his work opened, that the potentiality in all that he saw also carried him and he would go on endlessly. And in a way, with his poems as our guides, he does go on.
The man I knew all too briefly harbored no pretense. In the few times we met, I felt a palpable kindness. He encouraged and collaborated with younger poets; he did not remove himself as a poet of magnitude, just as his work does not remove itself from the mundane or the daily. As several of the writers here illustrate, there are far more ways to understand a person than may be known at any given moment. We just need to know how to see and, like Ashbery, keep practicing seeing. Or rather, see understanding as one way and then see otherwise in another way. Apropos, Geoffrey G. O’Brien quotes, “There is light in there, and mystery and food” (A Wave). From the gravity of light to the lightness of a person who is also mystery and poems, he is in it all. And the nachos. Now I go in search.
I saw John Ashbery read only one time, at a live showing of Guy Maddin’s film, “Branded upon the Brain.” He was reading as part of the live orchestra—one that produced many disparate sound effects—and though his voice contained his characteristic affection, the same textures of humility and subtle curiosity that I’ve heard on so many of his recordings, I remember something particularly child-like about him that night, a giddiness, almost, to become absorbed by those sounds and break in and out of them with his cues. This was when I was working at a bookstore in Morningside Heights, trafficking his books among co-workers and friends; since then they’ve lived in many homes, passed between many colleagues, friends, and loves, his lines have been spoken between many of us like strange and familiar intimations, small miracles with no possible or necessary explanation. It’s hard not to move immediately from grief to deep gratitude (it’s true the world feels altered with him gone), but this quality is something I love about his poems, their way of containing human contradiction—the way his language feels like both the ambient overgrowth of the everyday and also a transmission from a distant, unknowable place. Just like J.A. claims to have written “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name” to explain to his students what poetry is, it always seems best to just read the poems. “The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind / Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to / communicate,”—perhaps this is the poem, not the flower in the poem (“particularly delphinium”) but “the out there on the road darkness,” not the “you” but the “part of the welling that is you.” I guess what I’m trying to say is: I read your poems so often, John Ashbery, to remember what poems are, and how they work, and why I should I even write them; your voice has housed and challenged me so many times, and made me smile and laugh, and I will always always love you for it.
John came from a world of close and enduring friendships among poets and visual artists. Everyone bumped into each other and hung out together through studio visits, art openings, art reviewing, loft parties, collaborations, walks, phone calls, and out-of-town excursions. Among his friends from the early days were Frank O'Hara, Jane Freilicher, James Schuyler, Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter and his wife, Anne, and Kenneth Koch. Kenneth rushed over to Frank's apartment to retrieve his poems right after Frank died in 1966 from injuries suffered in a dune-buggy accident on Fire Island because Kenneth knew Frank was notoriously casual about organizing and filing his work and he wanted none of it lost. James Schuyler's letters to John during the time John lived in Paris are a compendium of wacky humor and playfulness combined with bulletins from the art world, urgent commentary on current movies, and Schuyler's everyday longing for a missing-in-action chum. After John returned from Europe and began teaching, he seemed to radiate, quietly, this ambience of inclusion toward his students, attending their parties, arriving at the beginning of their art openings, being gracious and grateful when they showed up for his readings, inviting them into his circle of old friends and to their gatherings. Within his poetry, too, "A Wave," for instance, is the same sense of inclusion, and even if you were just starting out in poetry and were stranded on the Outer Banks as a hopeless imitator of his inimitable welcome, John made you feel, in person or through his poems, that within you was something of your own, something loved. There was also, of course, the steady work that he and all his friends were doing all along. I once brought a batch of true clunkers to his workshop and the entire class including John recoiled, mutely. It was always better to say nothing than to be expansively negative. Leaving class discouraged, I muttered to John: how much does persistence play into this effort? He answered, softly, a hundred percent.
I first experienced the poetry of John Ashbery in a library copy of The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revised (with its wonderful Jasper Johns flag cover) while on a train slowly moving through the British countryside sometime in the early 2000s. I remember being dazzled by how these poems balanced such lightness & authority. Today, I’m still surprised by John Ashbery’s work in all its playful vigor & generous experimentation & as a poet I’m perpetually grateful for it.
When I was a 21-year-old from Iowa, I spent the summer of 1983 taking classes at Naropa, in Boulder, Colorado. Anne Waldman, knowing how much I loved John Ashbery’s writing, recommended I go to New York City and study with John where he was then teaching in the MFA Program at Brooklyn College. I moved to New York (having never visited the city before) in August 1985 after I was accepted into the program. By the time I arrived on campus to register for classes, John’s name was nowhere to be found. The registrar told me he was now a MacArthur Fellow and would not be coming back to the college. Jump cut to spring of 2013 when I received an email from John (after having never even met him, I was always too shy to introduce myself to him). In his email, he told me he loved a chapbook of mine he’d just read titled, Flushing Meadows (Scary Topiary Press, 2012). John said he’d used “the Google” to find out more about me and that he had several of my other books on order. I was flattered beyond words, but I also thought that the email might have been a prank of some sort (John’s name was not in his email address). I emailed my friend, the poet Marcella Durand, his former assistant, and asked her if the email address was legit. “Yes,” she replied, “Congratulations.” So began 4 years of visiting John and his husband David Kermani at regular intervals at their Chelsea apartment. The absolute pleasure that John took in the world was inspiring. He was incredibly curious and knowledgeable about nearly everything and that made him one of the best conversationalists I’ve ever met. I loved cracking him up when I would goofily speak fake French to him or do a little song and dance to an imaginary musical as he sat in his chair laughing. Even though David showed rightful concern whenever I would sneak John one of his favorite donuts from a nearby Donut Plant, they always made me feel at home in their home. I loved it when John would pull a few titles from the stacks of books that sat by the side of his chair and read to me. A special treat was when he read Pierre Reverdy’s “Voyage sans fin” in French while I sat there thinking this might be the best thing ever. I wish I’d recorded it. His sweetness during those visits, his humor, his generosity, his enthusiasm, his encouragement, and his introductions to so many friends I now hold dear continue to bring me joy. I feel grateful to have known John during the last four years of his life. He was a good man.
A funny thing happened on an otherwise unremarkable day at the office in 2014, back when I was senior editor of BOMB. I was walking an intern through the process of going over the materials that’d been steadily accumulating on a submission management website and asked him to let me know if he noticed anything unusual. I’d done this many times over and had never told anyone to keep an eye out for any oddities, and, to this date, I’m not quite sure why I’d made this remark. What could be so peculiar about an online submission? A few hours passed and Jonah Max, such is the intern’s name, turned over to my desk to tell me that indeed he’d spotted something bizarre: a submission titled “Three poems” by someone posing as John Ashbery had been sitting there for a few months. They had to be fake; why would someone of his stature submit his work without letting us know? Surely he would have emailed it to the magazine’s editors directly. I pored over the poems and decided that if these indeed were Ashbery impersonations, they were pretty damn good. The poems were as full of narrative intimations that go nowhere and of non sequiturs that are never not surprising as any other poem of his. The swerved clichés (“What do you need doctor appointments for”), the Americana (“No one remembers Mr. Coffee Nerves”), the comedic deflation (“Families with pets, help me with this”) and declarations whose concision underscores their absurd abstraction (“Extreme ants polished our definition”)—that was all there. I circulated the poems among other Ashbery fans at the magazine, and after some deliberation, we concluded that they had to be his. As it turns out, they were, but the fact that for a moment we doubted it speaks as much to our questionable expertise as to the liveliness of their maker’s spirit. I’ll never stop learning from the provisionality of the poems, in terms of their refusal to trade in prepackaged meanings. In December of 2015, I had the extreme good fortune of being invited to read with Ashbery at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn alongside Ben Lerner, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, and John Yau. I chose to read from The Vermont Notebook, a personal favorite, among others, in part because of its prescience of much later developments in poetry. For that, if I were an Oulipian, I’d call it a genius work of anticipatory plagiarism.
Lately, I’ve been remembering a time when I visited John and David in their apartment in Chelsea, a place I only visited two or maybe three times—I didn’t know John very well, not as well as others or well as I would have liked, but I was lucky enough to spend time with him, significant time, on a dozen occasions, maybe more. There seem to be more memories the more I go looking for them. On this particular late afternoon—four years ago this week—I went to their apartment with Adam Fitzgerald for take-out and drinks. We talked about all kinds of things—poetry, movies, people we knew. Then David said to look at the sunset. And through the large west-facing window in their living room looking out towards the Hudson, a little to the left in the direction of the not-too-distant bay, we watched a complex September sunset do its thing, and someone—again, I think it was David, said to look out for the elusive layer of green in it, asking if we could make it out. I said I saw it, and I remember seeing it, but I’m not sure I did. And while I might have said it reminded me of Ashbery’s poem “When the Sun Went Down,” with its big, beautiful, self-erasing soap-opera opening (“To have been loved once by someone—surely / There is a permanent good in that…”), it didn’t. What it reminded me of James Tate’s poem “Never Again the Same,” which starts “Speaking of sunsets, last night’s was shocking.” Everyone knew and loved that poem. I said I had just been talking about it with Mark Strand, with whom I was teaching a class at the time, and how, while only Tate could have written it, it was so expansive and suprapersonal that it included what seemed like notes of Mark and of John as well—they were all combined in there. And then Adam or I called the poem up on our phone and one of us read it (I can’t remember who). We let the last lines resonate in silence for a while: “And the calm that returned to us / was not even our own.” Slowly we got back to our drinks and take-out as the sky went dark. Strand, Tate, and now Ashbery—all are dead now, all combined; permanent but elusive, like a layer of green I maybe didn’t see but will never forget.
How to organize complex remembrance, when I am resisting the remembrance because it is no longer now? I'm slow. I'm writing and ripping up (as one rips up nowadays, hitting erase, delete, new file, etc.), writing, ripping up. This tone? That angle? Who am (was) I in relation to him? Chronological remembrance? Expository? Creative response? What I just keep saying/returning to is that I'm reading his work every morning. I started the first day after with random poems from Selected Poems, then read some of Houseboat Days on a bus; now I’m deep into The Tennis Court Oath, reading and then rereading poems, which seem different already one day later. For instance, I initially overlooked the beginning line to “Measles”: “There was no longer any need for the world to be divided/ Into bunny, when he had chased the hare.” The Tennis Court Oath is inscribed, beautifully, to me: “To Marcella with love from the ‘uneasy old man’ (pg. 57),” and so I turn to pg. 57:
So the passions are divided into tiniest units
And many of these are lost, and those that remain are given at nightfall to the uneasy old man
The old man who goes skipping along the roadbed.
In a dumb harvest
Passions are locked away, and states of creation are used instead, that is to say synonyms are used
I reread the last line several times, and remember how John was a devotee of the thesaurus, which I now love too (and will likely use in the course of this remembrance at some point). He also introduced me to the Kalevala, which I reread (some of) earlier this year, and John Clare, to whom I am continually writing (literally—I have dedicated several poems “To John Clare”).
After The Tennis Court Oath, I will finish Three Poems, which I began rereading this summer (hopefully not in premonition), then I am looking toward Flow Chart or As We Know. Or perhaps I will detour into John’s translations of The Illuminations, but was just reminded by someone’s posting online of The Double Dream of Spring, which I’ve read, but which will no doubt seem like new work, as John’s poetry is like that—it spins in time and space to meet the reader with that unique experience of poem as irreducible poem.
Someone wrote to me that people were grief-stricken by the death of John Ashbery, and I am sure his partner, his family, his favored students and friends are. Grief is not the feeling I have. It’s sadness because I want poets to live long and prosper, but then John did live long and prospered. Ninety years should not be dismissed. He’s a man who faced major health challenges in middle-age, and he gained some measure of financial wealth late in life; thus, celebrations of his 90th birthday were truly joyful. I have always been annoyed with the Ashbery naysayers endlessly claiming that he’s too obscure, oblique, sophisticated for the average reader. Oh really, how many average readers read poetry on a regular basis? Oblique, obscure sure, but also discursive, pun-heavy, sardonic and plainspoken depending on the line(s). When I read John’s work, I know where he’s been, what he’s read, how the light changed, what the moral temperature is and how he took it. It strikes me that he was a wry and understated critic of American mores, values, and beliefs. And in many ways Ashbery represents the best of those values as he could as a handsome, queer man who finds himself right smack dab in 50s and 60s Bohemia and later living a full loving life in Hudson. Because if Whitman contained “multitudes,” then John contained attitudes. And those attitudes carried him across oceans, languages, artistic genres. He really did have a most prosperous life, and his work seems to me to be open fields for readers to wander about. I am grateful to be one of the thousands who have taken to those fields. I know he’s now joining some choice friends of the field in the celestial; let them beam on us all.
Years ago, I memorized "Soonest Mended," a poem that has served for many as a pathway into John Ashbery's work, and I still recite it daily, or almost. I was running through it in my mind a few months ago while eating lunch alone outside the federal court of appeals in Washington, D.C. when Merrick Garland literally strolled by. I stopped at the cameo, ten lines into the poem, of "Happy Hooligan," a cartoon hobo from the newspapers of the first third of the twentieth-century, and I thought of other cartoons in Ashbery's work—Daffy Duck, Popeye, Blondie—and how fitting they are, particularly in a poem like "Soonest Mended" that concerns itself with recurrence and the false promise that experience would yield knowledge. A cartoon returns endlessly to a forgotten beginning, it "keeps arriving when it's already here, / Like some eccentric guest," as Ashbery wrote in the poem "Imperfect Sympathies." Its future is not the accretion of approaching events but a fixed disposition subjected to the algebra of other time; it is "always coming back / To the mooring of starting out," looping endlessly through its cycle of meaning. But its condition isn't tragic, or merely tragic; it comes to us with a gentle hope, as Ashbery himself does, "Lively and intact in a recurring wave / Of arrival." ("Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror")
He was a person of rare traits, or rather rare in combination: kindness, humor, curiosity, and a knowing brilliance, always offered as the mild gift of the moment, without competition or self-regard. He loved being here and was able somehow to translate his love of being here into language, directly, so that when you read his work you are reading being alive. He managed to escape the destructive and reductive aspects of the analytical, as well as the ever-increasing sense that one's identity is of signal importance. I don't think he was interested in his identity as a person (I once heard him remark, “I am John. Ashbery writes the poems.”) although he was hugely interested in his identity as a poet, and entirely interested in others, other persons; the human experience, wherever and however manifested. He had meticulous taste, if taste is a form of discernment, and discernment a kind of care and humility toward the world, its material stuff as well as its arbitrary weathers. He was drawn to the local and to the minor, the huge field of forgotten or overlooked or insignificant details of daily life, which he was able to transcribe, without relying on either mirrors or windows, but on the capaciousness of his restless, inquisitive, integrating imagination. He seemed to have an infinite resource of words and a flexible, if sometimes dissonant, syntax into which to put them. His poems are always in the service of making new relations, so that meanings arise without the insistent correlate of understanding but, instead, offer to his readers a new way to find sense in an apprehension or awareness of the variety of this world, and the capacity of language to provide ways of perceiving and, somehow, renovating it. I think, for John, the world and language were close to synonyms. He eschewed high seriousness, finding a tonal range that distributed life's acute energies, its sorrows and joys, across a vital habitat or field, generous and inclusive.
I loved him very much and will miss him deeply. We met, in London, in the early 1970s, when I invited him there to read in a series I had curated on contemporary poetry for the Institute of Contemporary Arts. He read in a number of venues, first at the American Embassy, introduced by the English poet Lee Harwood. I took him to Carnaby Street where he bought himself a velvet jacket. (Years later, he gave me a velvet coat with a fur shawl, from the 20s, he had found in a thrift shop.) One night, at the Ritz Hotel, where he was staying, he read to a few of us from the recently completed manuscript for Three Poems, the poem in prose called “The New Spirit.” It was, for me, a great advent.
One of my Ashbery books—his first, Some Trees—is secondhand. Its former owner wrote many notes in it, neatly, in pencil, as I do, and in a hand unnervingly like my own. When I re-read this book I sometimes cannot tell who wrote what and inevitably I think, that’s probably what he meant after all. And another book, which was the first I encountered, said to me, very loudly, among wretched people in a wretched airport, “You private person,” so that I understood for maybe the first time, or the first time memorably, that it wasn’t wretched to be private, but it was to imagine others were. And actually, it was a little bit sexy, if enduringly sad, to explore this rubbing up against what’s public of the self. So, I think, for me, Ashbery was a poet of privacy, a real deep labyrinthine interiority that’s irritatingly unrecognizable. Meaning, he didn’t write psychology. He wrote philosophies of spirit and habit. I feel this in all the books of his I’ve read, which aren’t all the books he wrote. I never remember Ashbery’s images. That’s important too. He refuses cinema, which is a treasure, much as I love the cinema. All of this has helped me learn. It’s great to read this poet I never knew.
Right when you begin to look at how hard and deep you can look at things, something thrusts at you from around a corner, through all the local differences you forget until he remembers their ordinary, beautiful distortion. John Ashbery is the name that has been given to the inseparability of these events, a river system of invention that never stopped and never will. As he said, the poem is you, so he can't stop, which is wonderful. John Ashbery.
When John Ashbery was in his thirties, he went with his lover, Pierre Martory, also a poet, to Vienna where they saw Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror "in the flesh," the painting in its and the poets in theirs. History strongly suggests that Parmigianino was gay, certainly a strange young man. It's such a moment in my mind, that day in 1959, which John casually cites in his poem when he looked with his lover at the painting that would change his life. I wonder sometimes about the work that zips an otherwise avant garde poet into the canon. More conservative contemporaries like Richard Howard and James Merrill were more the sort to make an ekphrastic poem, the kind of accomplishment you can talk about. And it did do the trick, in that if you asked what John's poem was "about," you could say this particular painting and the nervous subjectivity who asked could say oh. I don't think John planned it that way. Did Gertrude Stein think hey if I write a book about myself "by" my lover then the world will see me as I am. But in both cases there's an aesthetic sharing with a lover, even a front loading of a gay relationship in a subtle or grand way—John breathing with Pierre one day while looking at art and Gertrude saying she sees me like this perhaps and that moment shimmers with something beyond art, the lover the artist lives. Now we miss John.
We weren’t “On the Terrace Drinking Gin and Tonics,” we had just sat down to drink them in a sports bar in Chelsea called Jake’s Saloon, when John said, “Incidentally, I could really use some nachos.” It could be the first or last line of any number of his poems from after the advent of nachos, but it wasn’t, it was just a wickedly funny non sequitur indicating bodily desire and need for sustenance and Americana. It’s also a record of an almost vanished habit of speech and world: people of John’s generation are capable of fronting sentences, especially those sentences that don’t necessarily follow from whatever anyone has just said, with this genteel 5-syllable adverb, incidentally. Paradoxically (or not), it either indicates that there is more to say about a subject or that an entirely new subject is about to be broached. John’s use of it doesn’t only date his speech, it describes his poetic practice, which set about reducing the difference or distance between entailment and disjunction until anything goes. In addition to John and David, I was with Ben Lerner that night, whose Mean Free Path includes the statement “There is no such thing as non sequitur / When you’re in love.” There’s no such thing as non sequitur when you’re in John’s poetry or, apparently, in his company: whatever comes next comes out of entertaining desire and need, those necessary incidentals. But incidentally….“You can’t say it that way anymore,” as “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name” put it, or one doesn’t. But
Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone.
Something has been written about it, again and again. In John’s poetry and life, “[e]ach moment / Of utterance is the true one.” I have his writing, but I miss his speech, all the wry, generous, unprepared-for turns it took, and all the years of different English it held. But “then I start getting this feeling of exaltation.” The speech, his person, is in the writing, between breaths and after them: “There is light in there, and mystery and food.” I deserted the table without a word, began traveling furiously, and returned 15 minutes later with a plate of nachos—everyone but John was surprised.
John Ashbery's contributions to poetry—whether in his poetics, his artistic legacy, or his personal life—have been written about well and thoroughly; they undoubtedly will continue to be. As the last in a generation, he counted among the first in, John's death is, in some sense, the terminus of a long arc that, perhaps, began with O'Hara's untimely death; John's passing has made it come full circle and close in on itself. I find that really fucking sad. Others seem to agree.
In my private missives, though—the interiority that Ashbery was so good at depicting—the most personally influential loss springing from John's death is the cessation of his direct influence in ways largely not honored by visible structures of scholarship or public memorializing. The mark John made on my contemporaries—whether through material (e.g. labor), intellect (e.g. direct influence), or some combination of both—has been grounded indelibly within their personalities and, in turn, bubbled into me. It's in their phrasing—speech patterns gleaned from him; in our scheduling—molded around his; in their ideas—often his. While this is decidedly less glamorous than a reverential intellectual memorializing (e.g. more quotidian, imbued with dailiness, or ostensibly unrelated), it's what keeps echoing back to me about John. John was important to me as a poet, sure, but he is—was(!)—absolutely crucial to shaping poets who have, in turn, shaped me. When someone dies, particularly someone as galactic as John, their direct transmission dies too; this loss ripples out. Shock waves heave from a void. Even as a tertiary figure bobbing in the distance, I know an entire strata named Ashbery is gone, and with it, a dimension.
“Poetry comes to me out of thin air, or out of my unconscious mind. It’s sort of the way dreams come to us,” John said in his delightful PBS interview with Jeffrey Brown. It seems a little metaphysical, but then not surprisingly, John was sometimes like that in his daily life. A favorite habit of his was what he would do when taking off in an airplane. I was sitting next to him on the runway at JFK on a flight to New Orleans, where he had a reading scheduled, when suddenly he began to look out the window at what seemed to be the blue sky. When I asked him what he was looking at so intensely, he said, “I’m looking for something made by God and something made by man.” Of course, he asked me not to tell anyone because he did this every time he was in an airplane and it had worked so far, but he didn’t want anyone to know because he was worried that it would not work the next time. I was not surprised and never told anyone, and he continued to fly to many places all over the world. But I’ve never taken off in a plane since that day without thinking about that moment. It’s as mysterious as his work and yet as down to earth as his every line: “I feel the carousel starting slowly.” As the Colombian writer Jaime Manrique said to me recently, “He was a glory of the world.” Now he is gone, but we have our memories to guide us, just as the Centuries of Thomas Traherne, found in manuscript in a London street bookstall and published years after they were written, guided John throughout his life.
A few weeks ago, a nurse’s aide entered John’s room to check his oxygen level during our interview, and she was quite pleased that it had gone up because of all the talking. “What is it now?” John asked. “92,” she declared. “That proves I’m alive,” he responded. He had the quickest wit within the most capacious mind, and even when he felt less than well, he behaved with a natural grace, curiosity, and gentleness that drew others to him. These gifts mattered to those who knew him, and they will continue to matter to his readers because he also used them to write—with an exquisite mixture of rue and glee—about every aspect of the human experience. Without ever seeming the least didactic, he was a superb teacher: of what it might mean to be alive, to love and be loved—and unloved—and to approach death. Thank goodness for his poems, which contain everything, for the man who wrote them will be deeply mourned and always missed.
I was John’s assistant from August 2010 until he passed away. It’s been a week in a world without him and it’s really just not a place I want to be right now. So many people in their grief have reached out to me in my own this past week, people who loved John too, and in our conversations I feel him so clearly. We are bringing up old voicemails, recordings, recalling facial expressions and a rotation of favorite sayings.
His last book inscription to me was in his 2015 collection Breezeway:
with much love,
September 10, 2015
“Always happy to shoot the breeze.” (p. 89)
Today is September 10, 2017—exactly two years later. I flip to page 89 and laugh, realizing that the line belongs to one of my pet poems in the book, “Glove Compartment.” It is a poem of interrupting, charming fragments in couplets. Overheard trimmings competing for attention. My favorite of these fragments include:
Can I be medicine?
Silence is everywhere, like silence
The answer to the former is yes. John was a tonic, a balm, in life and in poetry.
His eyes were like a glacier or a pool, a deeply refreshing and unparalleled blue.
John, I’m always eager to shoot the breeze with you. I’ll find you in the silences, which are thankfully, as you say, everywhere.
As a musician, I'm quite familiar with an arc of life that's always drawing me, in words a musician friend (Manfred Werder) lately put it to me, where lovers of music are not. Similarly, John once referred to poetry as a marginal occupation, to no one's surprise. It's not just that recognition within the culture tends to evade such labors (if we can call them that) as poetry and music during their practitioners' lifetimes. John was the notable exception, yet as I read the dreary litanies of awards and critical complaints that accompanied public reports on his passing, I was acutely aware that such recognition itself marks a crucial evasion, and that we evade its gaze like prey in the woods to go on living: "On and on into the gathering darkness—is there no remedy for this?" But at the same time: "our song is leading us on now." Not something from the culture, "our private song, sung in the wilderness." We, each alone in the cheerfully abject struggle, yet mingling in the generous dark like Pasolini's ragazzi, making community somehow with all the other creatures there. We get up to shit. Because "the insistent now that baffles and surrounds you" is a broader, more vital nexus than culture. And it favors us—community, the ecology alive within each and which keeps us all going, "this multitude as well as that isolated individual;" the many at hand, all this. Our poems and music are where we receive it, and each other. That's their true role. Not trophies of the kill, places to live. I've made hundreds of pieces with John's poems, helping myself to the music they hold. We were like fellow travelers, or maybe foraging animals—grubbing around alone but close enough we could see each other, and other versions of ourselves, all mixed up in there, among the leafy complexity. I hung out with him a few times. He liked that I knew what Firesign Theater was, though I lacked his impressive command of the repertory (“Don't wolf your food!” he bellowed uncannily as I snarfed the last corner of tiramisu we were sharing with David). We sent each other postcards, comparing smoke signals. And he was exactly as generous as his poems because his life, too, depended on that "loose-knit embrace," the wilderness which braids everything. Even now I get the feeling John's still a ways up ahead, disappearing into the trees. Gathering more music for us.
One of the first recordings I ever heard of a poet reading his work was of John Ashbery the summer I turned 15. Words were threaded through that summer the saliva sound and the sweet fuzz around sentences. When I picture that summer, the image is a bunny's behind—that's how soft that summer was. And me walking around CD in my walkman poem soundtrack thinking things like hm, the wildness isn't in the voice here it's in the words, hm, he doesn't need to twist and shout the phrases do that already, & hm, how nice it is to not fully understand and have that be alright. This summer recording Flow Chart in an apartment in London there was always a cat mewing in the background always a plane overhead always the humming of the house itself made louder by my listening. I tried to reach his steadiness of voice in imitation but found instead the characters of words emerged swaying drunken & bold. I tried so many times to get it right I spent most of my week in London alone in the bathroom. There between the tub and the toilet hunched over his words and saying them again and again to the rhythm of the cats and the planes and the humming house. In a summer like this one how nice it is to not fully understand and have that be alright.
Well, agh, all cathedrals are slated for demolition sooner or later, and the tall-spired First Presbyterian church on Hudson’s Warren Street—which Frederic Church once painted from his view at Olana—has posted up signs on its wrought-iron fencework asking for salvation through crowdfunding. Tout le monde is crowdsourcing for John, now, like some imploding sci-fi planet filling the screen with light, and so much noise it seems completely quiet. We all can go look at the new Yale website, John Ashbery’s Nest, where John will be standing till the end of radio waves, in his green sweater, up at the top of the stairs to welcome us into his house. We can get his books down off the shelf, or tune in to PennSound and hear him entertaining interviewers and reading his poems, forever, in digital virtual virtuosity. We can read all the stuff on the web this week; everyone’s saying such wise, loving, and perspicacious things, in so many languages. He'd have had such a blast reading it all.
Such a different world without John.
Generous and Curious. To be so generous as to let generosity be a most natural way of being. To be curious, to be bound to wind up being curious. Loving and Loved. With every moment of one's life to behave as though to have one life can never be underestimated. With monumental memory. To embody "a dim intuition that I am that other ‘I’ with which we began." To be positively memorable. A little feral, unchained, unleashed, uninhibited. To conjure with courage, a courage of invention's and imagination's convictions, to look beyond, to look again, to wonder what comes after, to salvage "this reminds me of," to be patient with people and in and out of poems and stories and pictures, music and movies, and made up things, in the house, in the kitchen, in the den, in the sitting room, sitting on a train, in a hotel lobby waiting for the sirens of a paranoid capitol city to quell, in the back seat of a black sedan turning the pages of today's paper, in a tourist trap in North Carolina listening to an army reserve officer scream into his phone, to be loyal in friendship and open to new friends, to suffer fools with levity, to let kindness, gentleness, and patience improve things, standing cock-eyed like the shrubbery on a lawn in a U.K. college, not knowing what one will find in barns full of books, cruising the farm stands, planning a dinner, taking a better for it being vicarious boat trip to Newfoundland, everything John laid eyes on or touched improved with his attention, I love him and will never stop missing him, if Jim Tate were alive he'd say so too.
Not for nothing is one of John Ashbery's books entitled Hotel Lautreamont, so named after the nineteenth-century French writer who described something being as beautiful as “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” Which might be a partial description of one of Ashbery's own poems, if we added another twenty objects. This is one reason why artists—myself included—have been so attracted to his work: its emphasis on objects, a mental world that is also intensely visual, and which, like painting, allows both eye and mind to concentrate and then roam.
- John Ashbery
- Eileen Myles
- Marcella Durand
- Fred Moten
- Mónica de la Torre
- Patricia Spears Jones
- Timothy Donnelly
- Ann Lauterbach
- Dara Wier
- Paul Killebrew
- Emily Skillings
- Todd Colby
- Aditi Machado
- Mark So
- Trevor Winkfield
- Rosanne Wasserman
- Nina Puro
- Alexis Almeida
- Karin Roffman
- Alexandra Tatarsky
- Eugene Richie
- Geoffrey G. O’Brien
- Billy Cancel
- Star Black
- Daniel Brian Jones
Raised in Baltimore and Georgia, Amy King earned a BS in English and women’s studies from Towson University, an MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College, and an MA in poetics from SUNY Buffalo. Her writing, which shows elements of Language poetry, has been influenced by her work with Charles Bernstein...