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Remembering John Ashbery

by Antonia Shoumatoff
Sun Sep 3rd, 2017

Poet John Ashbery died at the age of 90, of natural causes, this past Sunday afternoon.

I remember going to a poetry reading at Bard College where poetry was treated with the same solemnity as a religious sermon.  There was standing-room only in the packed Campus Center auditorium on November 18, 2012, when Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, John Ashbery read his poetry.  Lugubrious-looking students wearing long scarves, glasses and beards lined the aisles and squatted on the floor reminiscent of the black turtle-necked Beatniks who used to flock around Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. 

Ashbery, who is a MacArthur Fellow, is a distinguished faculty member at Bard, Ashbery, introduced by Ann Lauterbach noted that “Ashbery lives in the habitat of poetry” and explores “the elasticity of American dissonance with grace, humor, and tact” in his 30 books of poetry and prose.

One of the poems read by Ashbery spoke of “Living in America…deliriously, wedged…as one grows passionately out of a love affair…does this donut remind you of a life-preserver?”  In another poem he says: “We were in a State called New York….where only the bees made sense.”

Ashbery uses words as a barometer for measuring who we are in a precarious time of indistinct definitions.  He tests the waters like elusive tadpoles of images that capture something in the moment but then disappear into the changing landscape.  Indeed, some of his more comforting word pictures speak of the weather, of storms and Spring, “porous, like sleep.  It’s breathy though, you have to say that for it.”

Among the more amusing poems, one refers to the famous fact-checking department of the New Yorker that wanted to know who the Prunella was in one of his poems.  “It was just a lady’s name, you know,” explained Ashbery. He introduced another poem by saying that there is a tremendous interest in dog-related items these days such as dog paintings and dog memorabilia at the “Antiques Road Show.”  That being said, he read from a collage poem made of movie titles: “They knew what they wanted,” “They kissed the bride,” “They died with their boots on,” and “They only killed their Masters.”  He referred to this little anthology as movie fetishes.

“The Tower of London,” from his recent poetry collection, Planisphere, has a sardonic tone.  The Tower “which isn’t a tower. It’s a square…or a castle” in which Richard III “killed just about everybody, except Mord,” the executioner, “who dabbled in torture,” and later got thrown off a cliff, “a fitting end to a miserable career.”

Ashbery read from his translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s incomplete set of 42 prose poems Illuminations, “A Study in Angelism,” which was written in London, when Rimbaud lived there, “much to the alarm of the literal-minded French critics.”  The critics would have been even more alarmed by knowing of this post-mortem by an English-speaking poet taking on the daunting task of rendering French into English.  One line describes the architectural layout of “fin-de-siècle” London rather aptly: “Thanks to the order of the buildings, squares and terraces, the cabdrivers have been left out.” Unfortunately, that is no longer true.

Ashbery punctuated the end of his reading with some ethereal lines; “Did I tell you the stars were going to take care of us?  That’s the way it is.” Ashbery knew how to pause to allow the audience to absorb his ingenuous expressionism.

Hearing Ashbery read his work out loud one finally understands the correspondences of his approach to words as being similar to that of a painter in abstract expressionism.  He uses words the same way a painter uses color, as a way of weaving a pattern of closely hued tones and contrasts, some which are a bit alarming.  One understands why Ashbery was so effective as an art critic for New York Magazine and Newsweek.

Abstract painter and poet, Jean Tate, of Millbrook, commented after the reading: "Ashbery's poetry ignites words in the listener, which may have lain dormant.  Hearing his poetry gives a new perspective and context to certain words and ideas, allowing for something conceptually new to emerge both in his writings and in the listener as well."  Another local poet, who wished to remain anonymous, would only say of Ashbery, “He is charming, amusing, and ever elusive.”