John Ashbery reads “Bunch of Stuff” and “By Guess and by Gosh”
Curtis Fox: You’re listening to an archival episode of the Poetry Magazine Podcast from September 2014. This episode was hosted by associate editor Lindsay Garbutt and Poetry magazine’s editor Don Share.
Don Share: John Ashbery’s poems first started appearing in Poetry magazine back in 1945, but not under his own name. A high school classmate at the Deerfield Academy had secretly submitted two of Ashbery’s poems under his name. And when Ashbery submitted the same poems a few months later, the editors at Poetry thought he was a plagiarist.
Lindsay Garbutt: Eventually, Ashbery worked it out with the editors and the magazine has published dozens of his poems since that rocky start. He leads off the September issue with five poems, and we’re going to listen to two of them now.
Don Share: The first one is called “Bunch of Stuff.” And I think that for people who don’t love John Ashbery’s poems, that title will tip them off to what they already believe about his work. It seems like, although Ashbery has been publishing poems not just in Poetry but just about everywhere else in the world, and receiving every prize you can imagine for all these decades, he’s still controversial. People still come up to me all the time and ask me, “Is this poetry?” Well, let’s just listen, and see what you think. Here’s the first one.
John Ashbery: Bunch of Stuff
To all events I squirted you
knowing this not to be this came to pass
when we were out and it looked good.
Why wouldn’t you want a fresh piece
of outlook to stand in down the years?
See, your house, a former human energy construction,
crashed with us for a few days in May
and sure enough, the polar inscape
brought about some easier poems,
which I guessed was a good thing. At least
some of us were relaxed, Steamboat Bill included.
He didn’t drink nothing.
It was one thing
to be ready for their challenge, quite another to accept it.
And if I had a piece of advice for you, this is it:
Poke fun at balm, then suffer lethargy
to irradiate its shallow flood in the new packaging
our enemies processed. They should know.
The Gold Dust Twins never stopped supplicating Hoosiers
to limn the trail. There’s no Shakespeare.
Through the window, Casanova.
Couldn’t get to sleep in the dumb incident
of those days, crimping the frozen feet of Lincoln.
Don Share: Now, that sounds like poetry to me! [LAUGHTER]
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah [LAUGHTER]. I think one of the things that maybe bothers people about John Ashbery poems, or is hard to follow about them, is he uses so many idiomatic phrases but combines them all together...
Don Share: Mmhmm.
Lindsay Garbutt: ... or twists them...
John Ashbery: Why wouldn’t you want a fresh piece / of outlook to stand in down the years.
Lindsay Garbutt: That phrase doesn’t really make much sense on the surface of it, and yet it’s all phrases that we’re used to hearing day after day.
Don Share: Well, but that to me is a pretty sufficient definition of what a poem is for. “Why wouldn’t you want a fresh piece / of outlook to stand in down the years.” If a poem doesn’t do that ...
Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.
Don Share: ... and that’s what you’re saying this kind of poem does, and this poem does. I think we’re in pretty good shape. I mean, I think one thing that probably is disconcerting—and to me, again, it’s difficult that we have to talk about all this here in the twenty-first century, but we probably do—is that Shakespeare, although the poem says ...
John Ashbery: There’s no Shakespeare.
Don Share: ... Shakespeare was made out of demotic language just every bit as much as John Ashbery poems. And what I like about, or love about Ashbery’s poems, is that I don’t think he’s trying to elevate anything, or ... it’s like looking in a mirror. We’re hearing our own language, it’s coming back to us, we’re thinking it through.
John Ashbery: And if I had a piece of advice for you, this is it: / Poke fun at balm, then suffer lethargy.
Don Share: I mean, Coleridge could have written lines like that. Coleridge did write lines like that. [LAUGHTER] So I think, in a really beautiful way, there is a lot here that hearkens back to capital R Romantic poetry, Wordsworth and Coleridge, sort of reaching for the diction of the times and trying to read what’s in it, or help us to see what’s in it.
John Ashbery: Couldn’t get to sleep in the dumb incident / of those days, crimping the frozen feet of Lincoln.
Don Share: First of all, I think that’s marvelous and beautiful. But it’s also accurate. You know, here in Chicago and in many other places we experience the polar vortex. In this poem, Ashbery talks about the polar inscape—inscape being a word right out of Hopkins ...
Lindsay Garbutt: Right.
Don Share: ... those words, “crimping the frozen feet of Lincoln,” you know, Lincoln as sort of a president or a statue does have sort of crimped, frozen feet. This sort of compresses so much into just a phrase. And, I mean, I could go through this whole thing and find phrases that cause me to think of things more or less endlessly. So I find that to be quite an enjoyable experience.
Lindsay Garbutt: Let’s listen to another Ashbery poem from the issue. This one is called: “By Guess and By Gosh.”
Don Share: For those of you who are under the age of, I don’t know, 65, “by guess and by gosh” was once a pretty common idiom. Sometimes people said “by guess and by golly” or “by guess and by God” and it means, at random. Or without much reason. For example, some people might say that we put this issue together by guess and by God, which is pretty much true. And it’s also worth mentioning that this is not the first John Ashbery poem with the title “By Guess and By Gosh.” Another, completely different poem by that title appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1995.
Lindsay Garbutt: Here’s the poem.
John Ashbery: By Guess and by Gosh
O awaken with me
the inquiring goodbyes.
Ooh what a messy business
a tangle and a muddle
(and made it seem quite interesting).
He ticks them off:
a different ride home,
whispering, in a way,
so many of the things you have to share.
But I was getting on,
and that’s what you don’t need.
I’m certainly sorry about scaring your king,
if indeed that’s what happened to him.
You get Peanuts and War and Peace,
some in rags, some in jags, some in
velvet gown. They want
the other side of the printing plant.
There were concerns.
Say hi to jock itch, leadership principles,
Take that, perfect pitch.
And say a word for the president,
for the scholar magazines, papers, a streaming.
Then you are interested in poetry.
Don Share: [LAUGHTER] You know, when I read these poems, whenever I read Ashbery’s poems, I just love this: “Take that, perfect pitch. / And say a word for the president, / for the scholar magazines, papers, a streaming. / Then you are interested in poetry.” We live in a culture of streaming, “papers,” “magazines,” “a word for the president.” I think, taking an interest in these things in the world and sort of how they’re all, sort of, streaming together in our consciousness and subconsciousness, if such a thing exists, does indicate a potential interest in poetry! [LAUGHTER] I’m always thinking that these poems are built by bricolage, that they are sort of nests being feathered. And as I hear him read the poems, or read them on my own, I have a sense that the lines are being brought one after another together, sort of woven together, and in the end they make a structure. They make a habitation.
John Ashbery: You get Peanuts and War and Peace, / some in rags, some in jags, some in / velvet gown. They want / the other side of the printing plant.
Don Share: It would be remarkable for a poem written among us, living today, that—especially for Americans—it didn’t take account for such diverse reading matter as many of us experienced in our childhood as “Peanuts” and War and Peace. They coexisted perfectly well in our minds when we were young people reading them. And now here they are together again in the poem.
John Ashbery: Ooh what a messy business / a tangle and a muddle.
Don Share: But as he says in his own line in the poem, you know, he makes it “seem quite interesting.”
Lindsay Garbutt: Something we didn’t mention about the other poem either is the way he switches from I to you and how he incorporates the reader, but it could just as easily also be himself within the poem. And you never quite know where you stand because of that, because the you has been put in all these different positions. It both brings the reader in and kind of pushes them out, in a way. Which some people enjoy and other people...
Don Share: Mmhmm.
Lindsay Garbutt:... find disconcerting.
Don Share: One unfair comment that’s sometimes made is ... all his poems kind of sound the same. And I don’t think so at all. One difference in these latest poems is that they have a kind of sepia-toned aspect to them. Not in the sense of nostalgia, but in the sense of looking back on his life as he gets older, which is also a “messy business.”
John Ashbery: Oh, awaken with me / the inquiring goodbyes.
Don Share: You know, and I take those lines to heart.
John Ashbery: But I was getting on, / and that’s what you don’t need.
Don Share: He’s “getting on,” which is what somebody else doesn’t need if they have to cope with that person. [LAUGHTER]
John Ashbery: There were concerns.
Don Share: I think the plot line of this poem is, “there were concerns”; something we would say all the time. Now, when we would say that, it sounds like there is big concerns, but there’s also sort of the day-to-day things, ranging from “jock itch” and “urinary incompetence,” again, perhaps things we fall prey to as we age, ungracefully. So I think he’s finding a language of that inscape, of popular or contemporary culture as it starts to pass us by when we lose the frame of reference. And there is sort of a great, messy humanity in here, even when the lines talk about the whispering in a way.
John Ashbery: whispered whiskers, / so many of the things you have to share.
Don Share: I mean, at some point you can’t share everything anymore.
Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.
Don Share: You know, there is also a kind of eerie concision here. It’s a poem that doesn’t go on and on like I just did. [LAUGHTER]
Lindsay Garbutt: [LAUGHTER]
Curtis Fox: That was an archival Poetry Magazine Podcast from September of 2014. You can read “Bunch of Stuff” and “By Guess and By Gosh” by John Ashbery online at poetryfoundation.org. We’ll be back next week with a new episode featuring a poem from the September 2018 issue of the magazine.