Boring in a Different Way: A discussion of John Ashbery's “The Short Answer”

August 21, 2018

Al Filreis: I’m Al Filreis and this is Poem Talk at The Writers House where I have the pleasure of convening three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close but not too close reading of a poem. We’ll talk, maybe even disagree a bit, maybe disagree a lot, and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities and we hope gain for a poem that interests us some new readers and listeners. I say listeners because Poem Talk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our Poem Talk’s engineer, director, editor, Zack Carduner and I have once again taken Poem Talk on the road and we are happily here today in Los Angeles, California, in Pacific Palisades to be exact, at the lovely home of Marjorie Perloff. And Zack and I are joined by Susan McCabe, professor in the Creative Writing and Literature program at USC, a native of Los Angeles who was indeed born on Sunset Boulevard, really? Truly?


Susan McCabe: Truly!


Al Filreis:— Not far from where we’re sitting, whose books include a study of Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Loss and Cinematic Modernism: Modernity Poetry and Film published by Cambridge in 2005, and who’s books of poetry include Swirl, 2003, and Descartes’ Nightmare, 2008, and who is currently finishing a dual biography of H.D. and Bryher for Oxford, who’s current poetry book is titled Fates, taking up the uneasy connection between technology and eco-poetics. And by Robert von Hallberg, professor of English at Claremont McKenna College, co-editor of the journal Modernism Modernity, among who’s many many books are Lyric Powers, Literary Intellectuals and the Dissolution of the State, Conversations in Germany 1990-1992, American Poetry and Culture 1945-1980, a book still very close to me on my shelf that I consult, and earlier a book on Charles Olson, an important long section on poetry politics and intellectuals published in Sacvan Bercovitch’s Cambride History of American Literature, with numerable essays on Selah, later Creeley, libertarian imagism, and Ed Dorn, Paul Metcalf, Williams in the 30s, etc, etc. And by the aforementioned Marjorie Perloff, our host for today’s Poem Talk, who’s many important critical and scholarly books include, just to name some of them randomly, The Dance of the Intellect, Wittgenstein’s ladder, The Futurist Moment, and who’s recent book is Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire, a book that is now as of this recording out in paperback I’m happy to say, congratulations, and among who’s recently poetry related essays and activities are an article on Susan Howe’s late style, a course of lectures at the T.S. Eliot summer school, and The Annual Little Gidding Lecture, summer 2017, to be published soon in Raritan. Recent keynote talks delivered in Kunming, China and Singapore, and a new essay on Beckett’s poetry for a collection to be called The New Beckett. Marjorie, thank you for having us over to your house!

Marjorie Perloff: My pleasure Al.


Al Filreis: It’s great to see you. Susan, thank you. Do you have an elevator pitch on the H.D. Bryher bio?

Susan McCabe: Well, no one has ever interlaced their lives, it’s quite a weaving act. I’m smack in the middle of World War 2 right now,


Al Filreis:— tough time for both of them I’d think.


Susan McCabe: Very much so. They’re in and out of each others way, going to Cornwell or going to Cambridge occasionally, but really living through the war. What it does to poetry is interesting. I think Ashbery’s a kind of response in some ways.


Al Filreis: Great. I hope that anyone who encounters this conversation will expect and await that book. And Bob, quickly, you’ve been working on a big collection of essays. Are you at liberty to say anything about that?

Robert von Hallberg: Of course. This is a collection of essays, evaluative essays on poetry since 1950, and an effort to nudge critics to sort things out a little bit more. It’s a big fat book because there’s not been a lot of sorting. We’ve got a long list of contenders for survival in this among poets.


Al Filreis: And poetry and value is one of your consistent interests in all works across here.


Robert von Hallberg: It is, thanks for asking.


Al Filreis: Well thank you all four for being here. Today we have gathered here in Marjorie’s home to talk about a late and seemingly minor, maybe not seemingly, maybe absolutely minor poem that appeared in a 2012 book of poems called Quick Question by John Ashbery, a collection not much commented on, somewhat reviewed, and not all that favourably reviewed. The poem is called “The Short Answer” and it appears on pages 5 and 6 of Quick Question. That book has not been collected into any kind of collected poems because this has all happened recently. Although at readings in 2011, 2012, 2013, Ashbery read many poems from this book, some of them again and again. He only read this poem once that we know of, which may be indicative, not sure. Our recording comes from PennSound’s vast Ashbery page, from a reading given at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst on September 20th, 2012. Here now is the late John Ashbery reading “The Short Answer”.


John Ashbery: I am forced to sleepwalk much of the time.

We hold on to these old ways, are troubled

sometimes and then the geyser goes away,

time gutted. In and of itself there is

no great roar, force pitted against force that

makes up in time what it loses in speed.

The waterfalls, the canyon, a royal I-told-you-so

comes back to greet us at the beginning.

How was your trip? Oh I didn’t last

you see, folded over like the margin

of a dream of the thing-in-itself. Well, and

what have we come to? A paper-thin past,

just so, and more’s the pity. We regurgitate

old anthems and what has come to pass, and why

dwell on these. Why make things more difficult

than they already are? Because if it’s boring

in a different way, that’ll be interesting too.

That’s what I say.


That rascal jumped over the fence.

I’m wiping my pince-nez now. Did you ever hear from

the one who said he’d be back once it was over,

who eluded me even in my sleep? That was a particularly

promising time, we thought. Now the sun’s out

and it’s raining again. Just like a day from

the compendium. I’ll vouch for you,

and we can go on scrolling as though nothing had risen,

the horizon forest looks back at us. The preacher

shook his head, the evangelist balanced two spools

at the end of his little makeshift rope. We’d gone too far.

We’d have to come back in a day or so.


Al Filreis: So I’d like us to start by each of us tossing out a classic Ashberian move, turn, trope, ambiguous antecedent, just to connect this to the Ashbery that we know for decades. Pick something. Susan, do you want to start? What’s a typical Ashbery move that you see here?

Susan McCabe: There’s so many classic Ashbery moves here.

Al Filreis: Just pick one to start.


Susan McCabe: All of the enjambments, the ending on an article or one single word, the constant medial stops and then the lurching into the enjambment, forcing you to keep going.

Al Filreis: Can you give us us an example, how that works?

Susan McCabe: For instance, “Well, and / what have we come to?” That’s a wonderful move because it’s so conversational. That’s the other thing. It’s as if he makes a pact with the reader that this is going to be a conversation and you’re going to understand it, so you go along with it.


Al Filreis: And then you don’t understand it.


Susan McCabe: Right.


Al Filreis: Marjorie, classic Ashbery?


Marjorie Perloff: Well, the Ashbery signature is, one of his books is called Oxymorons and Paradoxes, you have that all the way here. Facetious parodic statements from the very first line. Nobody can force you to sleepwalk, sleepwalk is something people try to get you not to do. So “I’m forced to sleepwalk much of the time”, and it’s always reversing expectations. But he does it very well    in some places, for instance, “That rascal jumped over the fence.”, “I’m on the fence”; Ashbery’s always taking whatever the cliches of the culture are, “I’m on the fence on this issue”, “That rascal jumped over the fence”, so you’re not on the fence. Every line almost has the past, but it’s a paper thin past. The thing is not the thing itself but the thing in itself, so just when you think we’re getting the good old familiar, the thing itself, you get the thing in itself, which is wrong. There’s always a way of stopping the reader and saying you’re going to hear something familiar, but you’re not, because this is a story about things that don’t work out the way they should.


Al Filreis: Perfect. Bob, add something to that.


Robert von Hallberg: I think I’m going to wind up saying something close to what Marjorie just said. What I’d stress is “That’s what I say” which is the end of the first half of the poem. The thing about that is it’s shopworn language, it’s a formulation as is “What have we come to?”. These are disavowed formulations. They’re disavowed as so far as they’re acknowledge to be banal or too common, but the thing about his poetry that appeal to me is that he actually is interested, I believe, you may contradict me, I think he’s interested in wisdom. I think he actually means to be reflecting on the meaning of life and what it comes to in this poem about growing old. That’s what I say is amusing and funny if you know Ashbery, —


Al Filreis: But sincere too.


Robert von Hallberg: But sincere and ironic too. That kind of romantic irony, it can be beautiful.


Al Filreis: I’ll add to our list very quickly, the trope of the trip. He’s always talking about we went on a trip, we came back from a trip, we got lost on the trip, I forgot we were on a trip. Just one of those things. Can we talk about the second half of the first stanza, from “Well” down to “That’s what I say”? Marjorie, maybe you’re first. From “Well, and / what have we come to? A paper-thin past, / just so, and more’s the pity. We regurgitate / old anthems”. I’ll just make a suggestion and you can respond. I wrote in my margin here: meta-poetry. “The regurgitation of old anthems” strikes me that he’s talking about his poetry. Insofar as that’s true what would we say about that?


Marjorie Perloff: But he’s used that phrase in earlier poems too. “Regurgitate old anthems”, it’s always the past. The whole poem of course is very much concerned with the relation of past to present and future. That’s why trips is so important. It’s always how do you deal with the past. You’re always regurgitating old anthems. One of the reasons Ashbery’s so hared to imitate I think is that he’s so literary. “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore”, obviously there are always allusions to Renaissance texts, to Baroque texts, to whatever it is. “Because if it’s boring / in a different way, that’ll be interesting too.” I think is an allusion to Cage, because Cage was a great friend of Ashbery’s who said try something for a minute and it’ll be boring, try it for five minutes and it’ll be less boring, try it for ten minutes it becomes very interesting. I can’t help thinking that’s an allusion to that, that it’s boring but it can become very interesting. Everything is equivocal. You think it’s the usual Romantic exploration of the past, but of course it’s never really coherent, which doesn’t mean and I agree with Bob that he isn’t very concerned about finding the meaning of the past.


Al Filreis: But that thing that might be boring, and the regurgitated old anthems might be as for instance this poem. It’s possible he’s aware that he’s just doing the same thing again and again. You nodded yes when I suggested it was a meta-poetic passage.


Robert von Hallberg: John Hollander said a long time ago that the trouble with Ashbery’s work is on one page you have John Ashbery, on the other you have John Trashbery, and he seems not to make this distinction.


Al Filreis: And not want to. Let’s stay on this topic, Susan first then Marjorie. I’ll just reveal how Marjorie and I picked this. We thought, let’s do a late poem, but not a major poem. Let’s try something that’s a little unexpected, a little out of the way. I picked “The Short Answer”, I think Marjorie and I agreed on a later book, Quick Question. This is an unusual choice for Poem Talk in that we picked somewhat randomly I would say. And I think that’s significant, for me in a positive way.

Susan McCabe: All this talk about this being a lesser poem of Ashbery, I’m reading this and I feel that it’s of a piece with the whole body of work. He’s really forcing you to be in the moment. If you think about Wallace Stevens saying “Poetry helps us live our lives”, what I think Ashbery does is he forces us to stay in the moment of the line, so we can’t dwell anywhere. Those lines that you read in particular I want to address is that this come to pass is very carefully unspooling from the two lines before. “What have we come to?” and then later going into “The promising time”. It’s as though he’s constantly pivoting between a past and a present that’s never stable, we only have this paper thin moment. He forces the reader. This language of anthems does go back to his earlier work, and it is his theme, it’s enhanced by having this “compendium” that we can put our past into and regurgitate into. But we’re still stuck in the moment, in the precarious moment.


Robert von Hallberg: What do you think about the use of the word “regurgitate”? It’s an ugly notion.


Al Filreis: It’s a negative word. I think it’s self doubt, self criticism. Because if it’s boring in a different way, that’ll be interesting too. That’s the Cagean thing that Marjorie was talking about. He’s the first one to say, I’m just going to keep doing this again and again, and at some point I myself am going to find it interesting.

Marjorie Perloff: Two points. One, to come back to your point about is he aware that he’s writing the same old thing again, no. I don’t agree with you on that. I don’t think he’s thinking of that at all. I think he keeps on writing, he’s driven to write and he doesn’t think oh no maybe I’m just doing what I’ve already done. We can think that but I don’t think he’s thinks that at all. The other thing you have to think about here is the title. Quick Question is a similar title, these short titles. The titles are wonderfully ironic in a certain way. When I say “the short answer is” it never is a short answer.

Robert von Hallberg: Not with John Ashbery anway


Marjorie Perloff: Anyone who says that is always really cutting because they don’t really want to get into it.

Al Filreis: Same way when someone sends you an email, “Dear Marjorie, I have a quick question”.


Marjorie Perloff: You say the short answer is you’re really fudging. That’s what he’s doing here, there is no short answer to all these problems. The other thing that’s very important to come back to the moment is that you’re catching him in the middle of a conversation. Maybe I’m aware of this because I know he really did talk that way. He’s talking to a friend or a group of friends. They’re sitting around drinking. It’s raining but it’s sunny but it’s raining again. They’re thinking and plotting things out. How was your trip? Notice he read it that way, not how was your trip. How was your trip? You’re in the middle of somebody’s conversation and then you get the little narrative. What’s different in the later poetry is there’s much less narrative but there’s still narrative. My favourite book is Houseboat Days. We all came and we did this and at the sign of the antiques we turned right. They’re always stories. But here you just have the edge of stories, but you still have narrative. “The rascal jumped over the fence”, you have the preacher, which is very interesting, “The preacher / shook his head, the evangelist balanced two spools / at the end of his little makeshift rope. We’d gone too far.” Of course, you take we’ve gone too far and take that cliche phrase but then changes it: “We’d have to come back in a day or so” which has nothing to do with going too far in this case. There always is a narrative. As he said about Gertrude Stein opened him up to narrative possibilities.


Susan McCabe: Don’t you also find, to go back to your earlier question about signatures, don’t you find along with what you’re saying always a bit of whimsicality?

Marjorie Perloff: Yeah,


Susan McCabe: So that with the short answer you can almost short with the first line, because if that is the short answer, “I was forced to sleep walk much of the time”. And I was struck by saying no one forced you, but he could’ve just written I sleep walk much of the time.


Robert von Hallberg: I understood the poem to be an answer to the question, “How are you?”


Susan McCabe: That’s what I was going to say, what is the question? This goes back to Stein actually.


Marjorie Perloff: Or how was your trip.


Robert von Hallberg: “I am forced to sleepwalk”, I did puzzle over that in the way that you were saying Marjorie, nobody’s forced to sleepwalk, but as a statement as I’m going through the motions, then it makes sense.


Al Filreis: Going through the motions, yes.


Marjorie Perloff: It’s also all the phrases you hear but slightly off. If it were, “How are you”, “I’m forced to sleep most of the time” it would be completely normal. And then you realize it’s sleepwalk which throws it off. So that’s what he does. “We hold on to these old ways, are troubled

sometimes and then the geyser” which comes as a great surprise. I’m not myself sure what to make of the geyser.

Robert von Hallberg: I took it as an uprising of discontent and that which is repressed by going through the motions.


Susan McCabe: The line I would like us to talk about which puzzled me quite a lot comes right after this geyser. “force pitted against force that / makes up in time”…


Marjorie Perloff: “what it loses in speed”.


Susan McCabe: That little phrase really compels me, and to me feels like the core of the poem in a sense.


Robert von Hallberg: You’ve got to tell me what that is because I’ve got a question mark there.


Susan McCabe: “Makes up in time what it loses in speed”, what would that be? Throughout the poem there’s all these indeterminacies of time, ways of measuring that don’t work out. Don’t you think he’s referring to the speed of light, and that if you would go faster than the speed of light you would be stopped in space and you would then have no time.


Al Filreis: I like that reading, and I have a different one. I see the first part of this poem as a contemplation on what it’s like to be a poet at this moment for him. It’s partly age and time. The second half of that first part strikes me as I’ve said before as very much a contemplation fo what it’s like doing this particular thing, this particular regurgitation. I see the second part as a break, and now I’m going to clear my throat, and what I have lost in speed — I think this is an old person poem. This is a late style. What I have lost in speed I have made up in time; the force in my poetry now is not in that crazy dynamism of the relentlessness of the early… And then “The rascal jumps over the fence” is the start of the story, but he wants, Ashberian, he wants to include the work it took to get him there. I find this very moving, I find it very moving that he is going to vouch for us.


Susan McCabe: It’s the only you in the poem and I wonder about that.


Al Filreis: I don’t want to push that too hard but I feel like —


Marjorie Perloff: I disagree about the poet. I think the short answer is almost like anyone, of course it’s about old age. How are you, how have you been? “I am forced to sleepwalk much of the time. / We hold on to these old ways,” All these things are wrong with me, and making up in time what it loses in speed, and the royal I told you so. But it’s not necessarily about being a poet, I think you’re reading that in a little bit because he is a poet. Visiting somebody — He’s always first of all talked about poetry, we see it’s how he truly behaves, from the very first book they’re all about, if you wish, meta-poetics. But I can take it much more practically. When you come in and you see an old man and he’s having an old time and he’s in bed or whatever, what have you been doing? How are you? Are you able to do anything? He’s sort of playing around with it. “How was your trip? Oh I didn’t last / you see, folded over like the margin” — They always make almost sense. It’s a very realistic poem, that’s what I would argue. To me it’s quite realistic.


Al Filreis: Bob, what do you make of all of this?

Robert von Hallberg: I think so too. I do. I think it is realistic, and about growing old and growing into vacancy. I like what you said about losing speed and losing dexterity,


Al Filreis:— but gaining time somehow.


Robert von Hallberg: But gaining accumulated time, I like that. But when he says “I’ll vouch for you,

and we can go on scrolling as though nothing had risen,” Scrolling is not the word you expect. The word you expect would be strolling, which would be the conventional one but what does it mean to go on scrolling? Strolling together arm and arm is something, but we’ll go on scrolling?


Marjorie Perloff: You mishear it slightly, so every time you mishear. And by the way, “a horizon forest”, what is a horizon forest?

Robert von Hallberg: The forest on the horizon, I thought.


Marjorie Perloff: On the horizon, that’s what I thought. So the forest is on the horizon and you see it but not quite. In general, the preacher. What about the evangelist?

Al Filreis: I have something to say about that little bit of flat surrealism. “the evangelist balanced two spools / at the end of his little makeshift rope.” I drew it, I described it, couldn’t do it. That’s the Ashbery I first encountered, a little bit of — I say surrealist, that’s not the right word quite — but impossible tomfoolery. The description here, it’s really hard to pull off, but he does it right at the end.


Marjorie Perloff: You can have two spools at the end of a makeshift rope, no? You have a rope and the two little ends.


Al Filreis: But you’ve got an evangelist balancing the spools at the end? Describe that for me, you’re more of an engineer than I am.


Marjorie Perloff: Well, it’s questions of religious … What is life, what is the meaning of life, the two spools, the two fates, the two weights. I can picture two spools at the end, no?


Susan McCabe: Past and future, and the spool of time, the spool that’s been unwound, this rewinding.


Al Filreis: But it’s a little makeshift rope.


Susan McCabe: I know, but that’s again his ironizing the biblical —


Marjorie Perloff: Intimations of immortality. Trying to see something and you can’t quite.


Al Filreis: There’s a sign of acuity and energy in that image. Right? It’s as if he’s saying, I think of Jimmy Durante at the opening of a silly movie in the 60s called “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”. There’s been a car accident, they go to see him, they think he’s dead and he goes “I’m not dead yet, I’m still alive”. Or Wallace Stevens saying “These long lines I can barely write the long lines, the end of the imagination”, and then he says “Wait a minute, I just imagined that. I’m still able to do this”. There’s a way in which I see the end of this poem as performing that he still can do what he’s always done. This is really vintage Ashbery.


Susan McCabe: “That was a particularly / promising time, we thought.” That’s another very Ashberian moment. “That was a particularly / promising time, we thought.” Now we’re in the moment again. I do think this is sort of a constantly catching oneself from falling over. You’re a sleepwalker in the lines and you’re trying to constantly recover your balance in a sense.


Marjorie Perloff: From his very first poem, you have “Everything has a schedule if you can find out what it is”. I think that’s such a wonderful line, and you still have it here. Everything has a schedule but you don’t know what it is, you don’t know how to answer, you don’t know the short answer or the long answer but you try though, everybody tries. I don’t think it’s about am I still a poet, because I think he takes it as a given. I don’t think Ashbery is somebody who worries about, oh my goodness, do I still have it?

Al Filreis: He fake worries, he fake worries all the time. I think of a poem called “The One Thing That Can Save America”. It’s not a great poem, but there he says, and of course it’s very much like this, there is no one thing, there is no short answer. You see a poem like that and you think I should read it and find out what John Ashbery thinks is the one thing that could save America. And then he says, the problem with me is that I braid my thoughts too much. I can never come out straight. I think that’s the extent to which, why make things more difficult more difficult than they already are? Oh John, here you go again. I think he is a little bit concerned that he can never get it straight.


Marjorie Perloff: And he purposely uses wrong words. As you said, just like a day from the “compendium”, it’s not a day from the calendar. Why the compendium?


Al Filreis: It’s almost a scriptorium. I’m sorry I keep pushing the meta-poetic but I feel like it’s a writing room. Anyway, Bob, what were you going to say?


Robert von Hallberg: I do think what he’s saying there, and maybe this is just obvious, is just like the known past, the collection of stories, the known days. I guess a retrospective … If I were editing him, I would end the second stroke with “compendium” and I would put a space there and then begin with “I’ll vouch for you and go on scrolling”. I wanted to say about the evangelist and the preacher — “go on scrolling as though nothing had risen”; in order to write “and nothing had risen”, that takes some work. Risen is not close to our tongues, “had risen” is a kind of literary formulation and it’s most familiarly the risen christ.


Susan McCabe: Right, as I was suggesting earlier.


Marjorie Perloff: I’m also willing to bet that “the evangelist balances two spools” comes from some movie, but I can’t tell you what.

Al Filreis: He certainly did take lines from movies.


Marjorie Perloff: So many of his things come from movies. It looks like something, I can see the movie. You see the preacher, it’s black and white.


Al Filreis: Like a western.


Marjorie Perloff: Whatever, I don’t know what the film would be but —


Robert von Hallberg: Or Willie Nelson’s song, “The Preacher Shook His Head”.


Al Filreis: It really is a country song.


Marjorie Perloff: If you put the lines into Google, you might come up with a film.


Al Filreis: A lot of Ashbery, I don’t want to say scholarship, but annotation, somebody is going to do the big collected with annotations.


John Ashbery: How was your trip? Oh I didn’t last

you see, folded over like the margin

of a dream of the thing-in-itself. Well, and

what have we come to? A paper-thin past,

just so, and more’s the pity. We regurgitate

old anthems and what has come to pass, and why

dwell on these. Why make things more difficult

than they already are?


Al Filreis: On one reading of the poem, at the very end my eyes welled up thinking about John’s recent passing, thinking about we’d gone too far, we’d have to come back in a day or two. Tomorrow, he will get up again and write another poem tomorrow. I think he wrote every day that he could possibly do it. Some days the poems were great, some days the poems were not so great, and he didn’t particularly I think care or distinguish one of those days from the other. Again, I know it’s a meta-poetic reading, but we’d have to come back in a day or two, stay tuned for more of this. I was very moved by this in one reading of the poem, thinking we can’t do that anymore. Although there are plenty of poems.


Susan McCabe: What about “Did you ever hear from / the one who said he’d be back once it was over, / who eluded me even in my sleep?”


Marjorie Perloff: I think it could be a Birdman movie. Look at it, “The evangelist balanced two spools at the end of his makeshift rope”. It’s very visual.

Al Filreis: It’s spare, isn’t it?

Marjorie Perloff: It’s very suggestive. You can just picture it in a film.


Susan McCabe: What if he had put those lines about the preacher earlier in the piece? They don’t act as a closure for the poem, but they’re kind of a pretend closure.


Al Filreis: In my reading they do, because it’s his saying I can do this too. Look at this, I’ve got a preacher, I’ve got an evangelist, see me at work.


Robert von Hallberg: We’re getting to religion at the end.

Susan McCabe: We’ve gone too far, we’ll have to go back. But the compendium to me seems like this big vast script where every moment of time is pushed into, where you can’t access, it’s a paper thin one, it’s an archive you can’t read. It really makes you very aware that he’s on the very edge, the sleepwalking really becomes more treacherous. It’s whimsical at first but then it feels more serious in a certain way.

Al Filreis: We can talk about this poem and about Ashbery forever, so let’s go on each. One final thought that you came here today wanting to say about Ashbery or about this pome. All four of us get a shot at it.


Robert von Hallberg: I was thinking of the leaps between sentences, the gaps between sentences which I mentioned. I wondered whether he’s … I wonder what the manuscripts look like. One reads them as if you’re trying to track a very thoughtful and witty mind as it moves with a kind of intimacy that doesn’t provide conjunctions, doesn’t make connections. I wonder if he actually crossed out sentences. There’s a kind of curatorial element to his poems. Like the rascal jumping over the fence, it’s like from somewhere else in comes a rascal jumping over a fence. He likes that from somewhere else sense of the poetry. We could say this is Ashbery. And what about Ezra Pound, and those leaps? Much bigger leaps.


Al Filreis: And the leap could be compositional. Famously he’d have tons of scraps of paper near the bedside or the reading table. Some of the poems borrow from what’s on the paper. There you have a leap, he’s importing something.

Marjorie Perloff: I think Ashbery’s one weakness, and that’s always been true, is structure in the larger sense, macrostructure. Often you have passages that could be in another poem just as easily. You can say that about Henry James too. There’s the famous story of the chapters reversed in The Ambassadors which nobody noticed for a long time. I think he reason he’s such a popular poet too, which is kind of amazing because he’s so difficult, is he does sum up our culture in so many ways in the kind of equivocation of one mode that immediately slips into another. But I do wonder what will happen when that mood shifts, which it is going to shift. It’s already shifted with Trump. In other words, we don’t have that indeterminate mood as much.


Al Filreis: Did you refer to Donald Trump in a Poem Talk Episode? Five dollar fine!

Marjorie Perloff:: I think you have a very different mood now. I think it is interesting to me, and I would credit that since he wrote so terribly much and the two volumes alone have 2,000 pages, and that’s only up to the 2000, this isn’t even in it yet. So that’s another 1,000 pages probably. You’re going to have 3,000 pages. How much did Wallace Stevens write all together?

Al Filreis: Not much.


Marjorie Perloff: Whatever, or even Yeats. I feel that a reaction is going to set in, that’s my guess. That’s not a cheerful thing to say. But I think a reaction will set in and people will start being critical because they haven’t been critical at all. Then it will come back in a different way, although pruned so much, because there is so much of a certain mood in some ways. I don’t know what to compare it to. Nobody else has written that much.

Susan McCabe: Stein maybe.

Robert von Hallberg: Thomas Hardy.


Marjorie Perloff: Nobody reads all of Gertrude Stein. It does play against you like Wordsworth or something, when you write so much it does mean people are going to fed up. I know when I’ve taught Ashbery, it’s been a while now but even ten years ago people would get very angry and they’d say come on, he’s always writing the same poem. It’s getting repetitive. Of course in some ways, that’s so.


Al Filreis: You people have blown apart my final words marching through. Was that your final word? I’m teasing you.


Marjorie Perloff: I don’t have a final word.


Al Filreis: Why don’t we go to Susan for a final word.


Susan McCabe: I’m just building on both of you stimulated multiple ideas. the notion of him doing the same thing over and over used to annoy me, but in the last few years I found them not to annoy me for the very reason that they are mechanically working, you can depend on them to work in a certain way, but you also can get lost in them. I was particularly struck, and this is my final word. What I like in this poem, and I’m sure I can use any Ashbery poem to find this, is the way it so aggressively and relentlessly pushes against this idea that poetry is this perfect dwelling place and that it’s sealed off from everything outside of itself. Building on what Marjorie was saying of this sense that we’re seeing an edge, it’s as if he’s smudging out any chance of completion, but this ability to —


Al Filreis: It’s a way of staying alive by the way.


Susan McCabe: Yes, and this ability to stay in the conversational mode even though you’re annunciating things that others will not understand is this contract with the reader than allows the reader to really dwell in a place where actually he’s saying poetry is not the sonnet where you dwell. That’s why he says in the beginning of lines, “We regurgitate”, ugly word or whatever, “old anthems and what has come to pass, and why dwell on these?” That word dwell struck me because he doesn’t dwell, and yet this ability —


Marjorie Perloff: Well why make things more difficult than they already are.


Al Filreis: Well why make things difficult more difficult than they are? That’s a way to keep going, because there’s always more to say.


Marjorie Perloff: But I think that’s quite true, isn’t the notion of the poem that sort of —


Susan McCabe: Very non-Hidegarian.


Al Filreis: My final thought follows form that. I didn’t know John Ashbery very well, but I knew him well enough and he often would say this in conversation. He would insist that he’s not a strong ego, he wouldn’t use that language. He didn’t really know who he was, he would claim that he was very unformed. That enables this. It coincides with an era in which the self or identity is flattened for a lot of young people. It’s variable, it’s fluid, etc. I think we could move to a time when the reassertion of that clearly identified ego, the strong ego reasserts itself.


Marjorie Perloff: I didn’t mean that so much.


Al Filreis: I was saying something different but parallel to that, a worry. Stevens called his poems overall The Whole Harmonium. That was b.s. because he wrote very distinct separate poems, even at the end. This really is, the compendium really is the whole Ashbery again and again and again. It goes on. Marjorie, you didn’t get a final word. You get one if you want.


Marjorie Perloff: I agree with Susan. It’s amazing how powerful Ashbery still is. So much poetry and so many people have imitated him. We’re just waiting to have studies for that. But there’s not only the first generation of David Shapiro, that whole generation. The next generation of Adam Fitzgerald, Tim Donnelley. Adam Fitzgerald who was his assistant and has done well, I think he’s sort of aware of it in a way. Ashbery’s had an incredible influence but not necessarily for good because you can’t imitate him.


Al Filreis: You can imitate him but you can’t do it well.


Marjorie Perloff: Imitations are especially bad because most people, what they don’t have that he had is that negative capability to be able to move from one thing to another, not a strong ego, but also that he’s so learned, that he has everything at his finger tips which most young people do not have at all, so they try to put in these things, clever things and phrases, thinking that’s all you have to do, put in Hollywood, and it doesn’t really work. For him, he still is a poet, and that’s unusual today, who’s life and art aren’t that separate because he really did talk this way and he thought this way. That is the way his mind works. What is shows about poetry at it’s best is it’s inimitable because it’s his sensibility. Nobody else has his sensibility. You can tell an Ashbery poem a mile away, an early one or a late one. 


Al Filreis: Yes you can. We like to end Poem Talk with a minute or two of gathering paradise, which is a chance for us to spread wide our narrow hands to gather something really poetically good to hail, or commend someone or something going on in the poetry world. Who wants to make a recommendation, gather some paradise. Bob?

Robert von Hallberg: I’ve just finished reading August Kleinzahler’s Selected Prose, a collection of memoirs and selected essays. I think he’s a terrific poet but he’s also really a great writer of paragraphs and of essays, very shapely prose, it’s a wonderful book.

Al Filreis: Great recommendation, thank you.


Marjorie Perloff: I’ve just done a review for TLS on Donald Judd’s writings, and what occurred to me working on that is what an important genre in Ashbery’s day or a little earlier artist writings are. Smithson, Carl Andre, Donald Judd isn’t as good as they are, but of course John Ashbery was friends with a lot of those people. But talking of paragraphs and so forth, how interesting and poetic that writing is. There really is a book that remains to be written on that. Artists have always written things, but not things that are poetic. Smithson who was always very poetic and Judd in his own way, the writings are being treated almost that way. That’s an interesting development that’s gone on.


Al Filreis: Perfect. Thank you.


Susan McCabe: Everyday is a new year for me, practically. But I’ve been reading about Edith Sitwell. Very interesting woman. One thing I want to say is she won this wonderful liable case that would never be won today. A critic said she was going to oblivion, this fits with Ashbery’s poem, and she sued him for saying she was in oblivion. And she won! 450 pounds each for her and her brother. One of the lawyers said to her, you always criticize others, you compared this poet to cheap linoleum, and the judge said that’s very true, best sellers are like cheap linoleum. So she won the case.


Al Filreis:(LAUGHING) Remarkable. That’s great. She had just the brother Osbert, was’t there another?

Susan McCabe: Sacheverell.


Al Filreis: Sacheverell, of course. This is not my gathering paradise but a Sitwell footnote. In a recent novel by TC Boyle who lives up the road, Santa Barbara-ish, there’s a silly character who owns three dogs and they are Sacheverell, Osbert, and Edith. I have two little gathering paradises. One is the aforementioned Henry James. Talk about non-egos or whatever it is he was suffering from. I think of Henry James and John Ashbery together so much. My second gathering paradise, because I came all the way to LA, I get two, is — forgive me — Poem Talk itself. I just want to shout out teachers, high school teachers and community college teachers in particular, who contacted me and us over the years to say they’d made a selection of 10 episodes, choosing from 120 or so poets, choosing the ones that fit the lesson or unit, and then they assign those poems and then the students read the poem, listen to the poem, listen to the Poem Talk in a period and then they get to talk about it. The next period typically they’ll try that on their own. I think in the age of easy podcasts or videos, why aren’t students sitting around like we are trying their hand at copycatting this mode? I think it’s a great mode.


Marjorie Perloff: They would if we gave them half a chance.


Al Filreis: Exactly, let’s give them half a chance. That’s a good use of Poem Talk. That’s all the evangelists balancing two spools we have time for at Poem Talk today. Poem Talk at The Writer’s House, it’s a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writer’s House at the University of Pennsylvania and The Poetry Foundation, Thanks to my guests, Bob von Hallberg, Susan McCabe, and Marjorie Perloff. And to Poem Talks director and engineer today, Zach Carduner, and to Poem Talk’s editor the same amazing Zach Carduner and once again thanks to Zach for coming all the way out here to the left coast. Once again, thanks so much to Marjorie for hosting us here. A shoutout to Nathan and Elizabeth Light for their very generous support for Poem Talk. In our next episode, I’ll be back in Philadelphia joined by Sawako Nakayasu, Donato Mancini all the way from Vancouver, and Gabriel Ojeda-Sague to talk about two short poems by Sueyeun Juliette Lee. This is Al Filreis and I hope you’ll join us for that or another episode of Poem Talk.

Hosted by Al Filreis and featuring Marjorie Perloff, Susan McCabe, and Robert von Hallberg.

Program Notes

More Episodes from Poem Talk
Showing 1 to 20 of 131 Podcasts
  1. Wednesday, January 16, 2019
  2. Wednesday, December 19, 2018
  3. Friday, November 16, 2018
  4. Wednesday, June 13, 2018
  5. Friday, April 13, 2018
  6. Friday, March 9, 2018
  7. Thursday, December 14, 2017
  8. Friday, October 13, 2017
  9. Wednesday, September 13, 2017
  10. Wednesday, July 12, 2017
  11. Tuesday, June 6, 2017