Interviews

John Ashbery, The Art of Poetry No. 33

Interviewed by Peter A. Stitt

The interview was conducted at John Ashbery's apartment in the section of Manhattan known as Chelsea. When I arrived, Ashbery was away, and the doorman asked me to wait outside. Soon the poet arrived and we went up by elevator to a spacious, well-lighted apartment in which a secretary was hard at work. We sat in easy chairs in the living room, Ashbery with his back to the large windows. The predominant decor was blue and white, and books lined the whole of one wall.

We talked for more than three hours with only one short break for refreshment—soda, tea, water, nothing stronger. Ashbery's answers to my questions required little editing. He did, however, throughout the conversation give the impression of distraction, as though he wasn't quite sure just what was going on or what his role in the proceedings might be. The interviewer attempted valiantly to extract humorous material, but—as is often the case for readers of Ashbery's poetry—wasn't sure when he succeeded. Since that afternoon a few additional questions were asked and answered, and these have been incorporated into the whole.

 

INTERVIEWER

I would like to start at the very beginning. When and why did you first decide on a career as a poet?

ASHBERY

I don't think I ever decided on a career as a poet. I began by writing a few little verses, but I never thought any of them would be published or that I would go on to publish books. I was in high school at the time and hadn't read any modern poetry. Then in a contest I won a prize in which you could choose different books; the only one which seemed appealing was Untermeyer's anthology, which cost five dollars, a great deal of money. That's how I began reading modern poetry, which wasn't taught in the schools then, especially in rural schools like the one I attended. I didn't understand much of it at first. There were people like Elinor Wylie whom I found appealing—wonderful craftsmanship—but I couldn't get very far with Auden and Eliot and Stevens. Later I went back to them and started getting their books out of the library. I guess it was just a desire to emulate that started me writing poetry. I can't think of any other reason. I am often asked why I write, and I don't know really—I just want to.

INTERVIEWER

When did you get more serious about it, thinking about publishing and that sort of thing?

ASHBERY

For my last two years of high school, I went to Deerfield Academy, and the first time I saw my work in print was in the school paper there. I had tried painting earlier, but I found that poetry was easier than painting. I must have been fifteen at the time. I remember reading Scholastic magazine and thinking I could write better poems than the ones they had in there, but I was never able to get one accepted. Then a student at Deerfield sent in some of my poems under his name to Poetry magazine, and when I sent them the same poems a few months later the editors there naturally assumed that I was the plagiarist. Very discouraging. Poetry was the most illustrious magazine to be published in at that time, and for a long time after they shunned my work. Then I went on to Harvard and in my second year I met Kenneth Koch. I was trying to get on the Harvard Advocate, and he was already one of the editors. He saw my poetry and liked it, and we started reading each other's work. He was really the first poet that I ever knew, so that was rather an important meeting. Of course I published in the Advocate, and then in 1949 I had a poem published in Furioso. That was a major event in my life because, even though it was a relatively small magazine, it did take me beyond the confines of the college. But it was hard to follow that up with other publications, and it really wasn't until my late twenties that I could submit things with some hope of them getting accepted.

INTERVIEWER

Was there ever a time when you thought you would have to make a choice between art criticism and poetry, or have the two just always worked out well together?

ASHBERY

I was never interested in doing art criticism at all —I'm not sure that I am even now. Back in the fifties, Thomas Hess, the editor of ARTnews, had a lot of poets writing for the magazine. One reason was that they paid almost nothing and poets are always penurious. Trained art historians would not write reviews for five dollars, which is what they were paying when I began. I needed some bread at the time—this was in 1957 when I was thirty—and my friends who were already writing for ARTnews suggested that I do it too. So I wrote a review of Bradley Tomlin, an Abstract Expressionist painter who had a posthumous show at the Whitney. After that I reviewed on a monthly basis for a while until I returned to France. Then in 1960 it happened that I knew the woman who was writing art criticism for the Herald Tribune. She was going back to live in America and asked if I knew anybody who would like to take over her job. It didn't pay very much, but it enabled me to get other jobs doing art criticism, which I didn't want to do very much, but as so often when you exhibit reluctance to do something, people think you must be very good at it. If I had set out to be an art critic, I might never have succeeded.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any aspects of your childhood that you think might have contributed to making you the poet you are?

ASHBERY

I don't know what the poet that I am is, very much. I was rather an outsider as a child—I didn't have many friends. We lived out in the country on a farm. I had a younger brother whom I didn't get along with—we were always fighting the way kids do—and he died at the age of nine. I felt guilty because I had been so nasty to him, so that was a terrible shock. These are experiences which have been important to me. I don't know quite how they may have fed into my poetry. My ambition was to be a painter, so I took weekly classes at the art museum in Rochester from the age of about eleven until fifteen or sixteen. I fell deeply in love with a girl who was in the class but who wouldn't have anything to do with me. So I went to this weekly class knowing that I would see this girl, and somehow this being involved with art may have something to do with my poetry. Also, my grandfather was a professor at the University of Rochester, and I lived with them as a small child and went to kindergarten and first grade in the city. I always loved his house; there were lots of kids around, and I missed all this terribly when I went back to live with my parents. Then going back there each week for art class was a returning to things I had thought were lost, and gave me a curious combination of satisfaction and dissatisfaction.

INTERVIEWER

These are all rather traumatic things. I think of how most critics seem to see your poetry as rather lighthearted. One critic, however, has spoken of your “rare startlements into happiness.” Is happiness so rare in your work?

ASHBERY

Some people wouldn't agree that my poetry is lighthearted. Frank O'Hara once said, “I don't see why Kenneth likes John's work so much because he thinks everything should be funny and John's poetry is about as funny as a wrecked train.” In my life I am reasonably happy now. There are days when I think I am not, but I think there are probably more days when I think I am. I was impressed by an Ingmar Bergman movie I saw years ago—I can't remember the name of it—in which a woman tells the story of her life, which has been full of tragic experiences. She's telling the story in the dressing room of a theater where she is about to go on and perform in a ballet. At the end of it she says, “But I am happy.” Then it says, “The End.”

INTERVIEWER

Do you like to tease or play games with the reader?

ASHBERY

Funny you should ask—I just blew up at a critic who asked me the same question, though I shouldn't have, in a list of questions for a book she is compiling of poets' statements. I guess it depends on what you mean by “tease.” It's all right if it's done affectionately, though how can this be with someone you don't know? I would like to please the reader, and I think that surprise has to be an element of this, and that may necessitate a certain amount of teasing. To shock the reader is something else again. That has to be handled with great care if you're not going to alienate and hurt him, and I'm firmly against that, just as I disapprove of people who dress with that in mind—dye their hair blue and stick safety pins through their noses and so on. The message here seems to be merely aggression—“hey, you can't be part of my strangeness” sort of thing. At the same time I try to dress in a way that is just slightly off, so the spectator, if he notices, will feel slightly bemused but not excluded, remembering his own imperfect mode of dress.

INTERVIEWER

But you would not be above inflicting a trick or a gag on your readers?

ASHBERY

A gag that's probably gone unnoticed turns up in the last sentence of the novel I wrote with James Schuyler. Actually it's my sentence. It reads: “So it was that the cliff dwellers, after bidding their cousins good night, moved off towards the parking area, while the latter bent their steps toward the partially rebuilt shopping plaza in the teeth of the freshening foehn.” Foehn is a kind of warm wind that blows in Bavaria that produces a fog. I would doubt that many people know that. I liked the idea that people, if they bothered to, would have to open the dictionary to find out what the last word in the novel meant. They'd be closing one book and opening another.

INTERVIEWER

Were there older living poets whom you visited, learned from, or studied with as a young writer?

ASHBERY

I particularly admired Auden, whom I would say was the first big influence on my work, more so than Stevens. I wrote an honors thesis on his poetry and got a chance to meet him at Harvard. When I was at Harvard also I studied with Theodore Spencer, a poet who is no longer very well known. He actually taught a poetry-writing workshop, which was very rare in those days—especially at Harvard, where they still are rare. It wasn't that I was particularly fond of Spencer's poetry, but he was a “genuine” poet, a real-live poet, and the feedback I got from him in class was very valuable to me. I also read Elizabeth Bishop quite early and met her once. I wrote her a letter about one of her poems that I had liked and she wrote back, and then after I moved to New York I met her. But I was rather shy about putting myself forward, so there weren't very many known poets then that I did have any contact with. I wish I could have visited older poets! But things were different then—young poets simply didn't send their poems to older ones with requests for advice and criticism and “suggestions for publication.” At least I don't think they did—none of the ones I knew did. Everyone is bolder now. This leads to a sad situation (and I've often discussed this with poets of my generation like Kinnell and Merwin) of having a tremendous pile of unanswered correspondence about poetry—Kinnell calls it his “guilt pile”—from poets who want help and should receive it; only in this busy world of doing things to make a living and trying to find some time for oneself to write poetry, it isn't usually possible to summon the time and energy it would require to deal seriously with so many requests; at least for me it isn't. But I feel sad because I would like to help; you remember how valuable it would have been for you; and it's an honor to get these requests. People think they have gotten to know you through your poetry and can address you familiarly (I get lots of “Dear John” letters from strangers) and that in itself is a tremendous reward, a satisfaction—if only we could attend to everybody! Actually the one poet I really wanted to know when I was young was Auden. I met him briefly twice after he gave readings at Harvard, and later on in New York saw a bit of him through Chester Kallman who was a great friend of Jimmy Schuyler's, but it was very hard to talk to him since he already knew everything. I once said to Kenneth Koch, “What are you supposed to say to Auden?” And he said that about the only thing there was to say was “I'm glad you're alive.”

INTERVIEWER

Why is it always Auden?

ASHBERY

It's odd to be asked today what I saw in Auden. Forty years ago when I first began to read modern poetry no one would have asked—he was the modern poet. Stevens was a curiosity, Pound probably a monstrosity, William Carlos Williams—who hadn't yet published his best poetry—an “imagist.” Eliot and Yeats were too hallowed and anointed to count. I read him at the suggestion of Kathryn Koller, a professor of English at the University of Rochester who was a neighbor of my parents. She had been kind enough to look at my early scribblings and, probably shaking her head over them, suggested Auden as perhaps a kind of antidote. What immediately struck me was his use of colloquial speech—I didn't think you were supposed to do that in poetry. That, and his startling way of making abstractions concrete and alive—remember: “Abruptly mounting her ramshackle wheel/Fortune has pedaled furiously away./The sobbing mess is on our hands today,” which seem to crystallize the thirties into a few battered and quirky images. And again a kind of romantic tone which took abandoned mines and factory chimneys into account. There is perhaps a note of both childishness and sophistication which struck an answering chord in me. I cannot agree, though, with the current view that his late work is equal to if not better than the early stuff. Except for “The Sea and the Mirror” there is little that enchants me in the poetry he wrote after coming to America. There are felicities, of course, but on the whole it's too chatty and too self-congratulatory at not being “poetry with a capital P,” as he put it. Auden was of two minds about my own work. He once said he never understood a line of it. On the other hand he published Some Trees in the Yale Younger Poets Series. You'll remember, though, that he once said in later life that one of his early works, The Orators, must have been written by a madman.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about the New York School—were there regular meetings, perhaps classes or seminars? Did you plot to take over the literary world?

ASHBERY

No. This label was foisted upon us by a man named John Bernard Meyers, who ran the Tibor de Nagy Gallery and published some pamphlets of our poems. I found out recently from one of my students that Meyers coined the term in 1961 in an article he wrote for a little magazine in California called Nomad. I think the idea was that, since everybody was talking about the New York School of painting, if he created a New York School of poets then they would automatically be considered important because of the sound of the name. But by that time I was living in France, and wasn't part of what was happening in New York. I don't think we ever were a school. There are vast differences between my poetry and Koch's and O'Hara's and Schuyler's and Guest's. We were a bunch of poets who happened to know each other; we would get together and read our poems to each other and sometimes we would write collaborations. It never occurred to us that it would be possible to take over the literary world, so that was not part of the plan. Somebody wrote an article about the New York School a few years ago in the Times Book Review, and a woman wrote in to find out how she could enroll.

INTERVIEWER

What was your relation to Paris at the time when you were there—you used to drink Coca-Colas . . .

ASHBERY

That question probably requires a book-length essay. I did at one point in Paris develop an addiction to Coca-Cola which I've never had before or since, but I don't know whether that was due to nostalgia for America or the fact that the French like it so much. Paris is “the city,” isn't it, and I am a lover of cities. It can be experienced much more pleasantly and conveniently than any other city I know. It's so easy to get around on the metro, and so interesting when you get there—each arrondissement is like a separate province, with its own capital and customs and even costumes. I used to pick a different section to explore and set out on a miniexpedition, often with a movie theater in mind where they were showing some movie I wanted to see, often an old Laurel and Hardy film since I love them, especially when dubbed into French with comic American accents. And then there is always a principal café in the neighborhood where you can sample some nice wine and look at the people. You get to know a lot of life this way. Sometimes I would do a Proustian excursion, looking at buildings he or his characters had lived in. Like his childhood home in the Boulevard Malesherbes or Odette's house in the rue La Pérouse.

I didn't have many friends the first years I was there—they were mainly the American writers Harry Mathews and Elliott Stein, and Pierre Martory, a French writer with whom I lived for the last nine of the ten years I spent in France, and who has remained a very close friend. He once published a novel but never anything after that, though the novel was well received and he continues to write voluminously—poems, novels, and stories which he produces constantly but never tries to publish or show to anybody, even me—the only writer of that kind I've ever met. I've translated a few of his poems but they haven't appeared in France, where they don't fit in with the cliques that prevail there. Some were published in Locus Solus, a small magazine Harry Mathews and I edited—the title is taken from a novel by Raymond Roussel, whom we both loved and on whom I was once going to do a dissertation. A little later I met Anne and Rodrigo Moynihan, English painters who live mostly in France, who sponsored a review called Art and Literature, which I helped to edit. They too have remained close friends whom I see often. I return to Pierre—most of my knowledge of France and things French comes from him. He is a sort of walking encyclopedia of French culture but at the same time views it all from a perspective that is somewhat American. He once spent six months in New York working for Paris Match, for which he still works, and we sailed back to France together on the S.S. France. When he set foot on French soil at Le Havre he said, “It is so wonderful to be back in France! But I hate ze French!

INTERVIEWER

What early reading did you do, say in high school or college, that has stayed with you?

ASHBERY

Like many young people, I was attracted by long novels. My grandfather had several sets of Victorian writers in his house. The first long novel I read was Vanity Fair, and I liked it so much that I decided to read Gone With the Wind, which I liked too. I read Dickens and George Eliot then, but not very much poetry. I didn't really get a feeling for the poetry of the past until I had discovered modern poetry. Then I began to see how nineteenth-century poetry wasn't just something lifeless in an ancient museum but must have grown out of the lives of the people who wrote it. In college I majored in English and read the usual curriculum. I guess I was particularly attracted to the Metaphysical poets and to Keats, and I had a Chaucer course, which I enjoyed very much. I also had a modern poetry course from F. O. Matthiessen, which is where I really began to read Wallace Stevens. I wrote a paper, I recall, on “Chocorua to Its Neighbor.” Mostly I wasn't a very good student and just sort of got by—laziness. I read Proust for a course with Harry Levin, and that was a major shock.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

ASHBERY

I don't know. I started reading it when I was twenty (before I took Levin's course) and it took me almost a year. I read very slowly anyway, but particularly in the case of a writer whom I wanted to read every word of. It's just that I think one ends up feeling sadder and wiser in equal proportions when one is finished reading him—I can no longer look at the world in quite the same way.

INTERVIEWER

Were you attracted by the intimate, meditative voice of his work?

ASHBERY

Yes, and the way somehow everything could be included in this vast, open form that he created for himself— particularly certain almost surreal passages. There's one part where a philologist or specialist on place names goes on at great length concerning place names in Normandy. I don't know why it is so gripping, but it seizes the way life sometimes seems to have of droning on in a sort of dreamlike space. I also identified, on account of the girl in my art class, with the narrator, who had a totally impractical passion which somehow both enveloped the beloved like a cocoon and didn't have much to do with her.

INTERVIEWER

You said a minute ago that reading modern poetry enabled you to see the vitality present in older poetry. In your mind, is there a close connection between life and poetry?

ASHBERY

In my case I would say there is a very close but oblique connection. I have always been averse to talking about myself, and so I don't write about my life the way the confessional poets do. I don't want to bore people with experiences of mine that are simply versions of what everybody goes through. For me, poetry starts after that point. I write with experiences in mind, but I don't write about them, I write out of them. I know that I have exactly the opposite reputation, that I am totally self-involved, but that's not the way I see it.

INTERVIEWER

You have often been characterized as a solipsist, and I wonder if this isn't related to your reputation for obscurity. The way the details of a poem will be so clear, but the context, the surrounding situation, unclear. Perhaps this is more a matter of perspective than any desire to befuddle.

ASHBERY

This is the way that life appears to me, the way that experience happens. I can concentrate on the things in this room and our talking together, but what the context is is mysterious to me. And it's not that I want to make it more mysterious in my poems—really, I just want to make it more photographic. I often wonder if I am suffering from some mental dysfunction because of how weird and baffling my poetry seems to so many people and sometimes to me too. Let me read you a comment which appeared in a review of my most recent book, from some newspaper in Virginia. It says: “John Ashbery is emerging as a very important poet, if not by unanimous critical consent then certainly by the admiration and awe he inspires in younger poets. Oddly, no one understands Ashbery.” That is a simplification, but in a sense it is true, and I wonder how things happened that way. I'm not the person who knows. When I originally started writing, I expected that probably very few people would read my poetry because in those days people didn't read poetry much anyway. But I also felt that my work was not beyond understanding. It seemed to me rather derivative of or at least in touch with contemporary poetry of the time, and I was quite surprised that nobody seemed to see this. So I live with this paradox: on the one hand, I am an important poet, read by younger writers, and on the other hand, nobody understands me. I am often asked to account for this state of affairs, but I can't.

INTERVIEWER

When you say that sometimes you think your poetry is weird, what do you mean exactly?

ASHBERY

Every once in a while I will pick up a page and it has something, but what is it? It seems so unlike what poetry “as we know it” is. But at other moments I feel very much at home with it. It's a question of a sudden feeling of unsureness at what I am doing, wondering why I am writing the way I am, and also not feeling the urge to write in another way.

INTERVIEWER

Is the issue of meaning or message something that is uppermost in your mind when you write?

ASHBERY

Meaning yes, but message no. I think my poems mean what they say, and whatever might be implicit within a particular passage, but there is no message, nothing I want to tell the world particularly except what I am thinking when I am writing. Many critics tend to want to see an allegorical meaning in every concrete statement, and if we just choose a line at random, I think we will find this isn't the way it works. . . . I can't seem to find anything that's an example of what I mean. Well, let's take this . . . no. Everything I look at does seem to mean something other than what is being said, all of a sudden. Ah, here—the beginning of “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” for instance, where all these strange objects avalanche into the poem. I meant them to be there for themselves, and not for some hidden meaning. Rumford's Baking Powder (by the way, it's actually Rumford and not Rumford's Baking Powder. I knew that, but preferred the sound of my version—I don't usually do that), a celluloid earring, Speedy Gonzales— they are just the things that I selected to be exhibited in the poem at that point. In fact, there is a line here, “The allegory comes unsnarled too soon,” that might be my observation of poetry and my poetry in particular. The allegory coming unsnarled meaning that the various things that make it up are dissolving into a poetic statement, and that is something I feel is both happening and I don't want to happen. And, as so often, two opposing forces are working to cancel each other out. “Coming unsnarled” is probably a good thing, but “too soon” isn't.

INTERVIEWER

So for you a poem is an object in and of itself rather than a clue to some abstraction, to something other than itself?

ASHBERY

Yes, I would like it to be what Stevens calls a completely new set of objects. My intention is to present the reader with a pleasant surprise, not an unpleasant one, not a nonsurprise. I think this is the way pleasure happens when you are reading poetry. Years ago Kenneth Koch and I did an interview with each other, and something I said then, in 1964, is pertinent to what we are talking about. “It's rather hard to be a good artist and also be able to explain intelligently what your art is about. In fact, the worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about, at least I would like to think so. Ambiguity seems to be the same thing as happiness or pleasant surprise. I am assuming that from the moment life cannot be one continual orgasm, real happiness is impossible, and pleasant surprise is promoted to the front rank of the emotions. The idea of relief from pain has something to do with ambiguity. Ambiguity supposes eventual resolution of itself whereas certitude implies further ambiguity. I guess that is why so much 'depressing' modern art makes me feel cheerful.”

INTERVIEWER

Could you explain the paradox concerning ambiguity and certitude?

ASHBERY

Things are in a continual state of motion and evolution, and if we come to a point where we say, with certitude, right here, this is the end of the universe, then of course we must deal with everything that goes on after that, whereas ambiguity seems to take further developments into account. We might realize that the present moment may be one of an eternal or sempiternal series of moments, all of which will resemble it because, in some ways, they are the present, and won't in other ways, because the present will be the past by that time.

INTERVIEWER

Is it bothersome that critics seem to have considerable trouble saying exactly what your poems are about?

ASHBERY

You have probably read David Bromwich's review of As We Know in the Times. He decided that the entire book deals with living in a silver age rather than a golden age. This is an idea that occurs only briefly, along with a great many other things, in “Litany.” By making this arbitrary decision he was able to deal with the poetry. I intended, in “Litany,” to write something so utterly discursive that it would be beyond criticism—not because I wanted to punish critics, but because this would somehow exemplify the fullness, or, if you wish, the emptiness, of life, or, at any rate, its dimensionless quality. And I think that any true work of art does defuse criticism; if it left anything important to be said, it wouldn't be doing its job. (This is not an idea I expect critics to sympathize with, especially at a time when criticism has set itself up as a separate branch of the arts, and, perhaps by implication, the most important one.) The poem is of an immense length, and there is a lack of coherence between the parts. Given all this, I don't really see how one could deal critically with the poem, so I suppose it is necessary for the critic to draw up certain guidelines before beginning. It was a very sympathetic review, and I admire Bromwich, but it seemed to leave a great deal out of account. I guess I am pleased that my method has given every critic something to hate or like. For me, my poems have their own form, which is the one that I want, even though other people might not agree that it is there. I feel that there is always a resolution in my poems.

INTERVIEWER

Did you see the controversy that erupted in The New York Review about how “Litany” should be read? Whether one should read all of voice A, then all of voice B, or intermingle them in some way . . .

ASHBERY

I don't think there is any particular way. I seem to have opened up a can of worms with my instruction, which the publisher asked me to put in, that the parts should be read simultaneously. I don't think people ever read things the way they are supposed to. I myself will skip ahead several chapters, or read a little bit of this page and a little bit of that page, and I assume that is what everybody does. I just wanted the whole thing to be, as I have said, presentable; it's not a form that has a cohesive structure, so it could be read just as one pleases. I think I consider the poem as a sort of environment, and one is not obliged to take notice of every aspect of one's environment—one can't, in fact. That is why it came out the way it did.

INTERVIEWER

One's environment at a single moment?

ASHBERY

No, it is a succession of moments. I am always impressed by how difficult and yet how easy it is to get from one moment to the next of one's life—particularly while traveling, as I just was in Poland. There is a problem every few minutes—one doesn't know whether one is going to get on the plane, or will they confiscate one's luggage. Somehow I did all this and got back, but I was aware of so much difficulty, and at the same time of the pleasure, the novelty of it all. Susan Sontag was at this writers' conference also—there were just four of us—and one night in Warsaw we were provided with tickets to a ballet. I said, “Do you think we should go? It doesn't sound like it will be too interesting.” And she said, “Sure, we should go. If it is boring that will be interesting too” —which turned out to be the case.

INTERVIEWER

Given what you said about “Litany,” it seems that in a way you are leaving it up to each reader to make his or her own poem out of the raw materials you have given. Do you visualize an ideal reader when you write, or do you conceive of a multitude of different apprehending sensibilities?

ASHBERY

Every writer faces the problem of the person that he is writing for, and I think nobody has ever been able to imagine satisfactorily who this “homme moyen sensuel” will be. I try to aim at as wide an audience as I can so that as many people as possible will read my poetry. Therefore I depersonalize it, but in the same way personalize it, so that a person who is going to be different from me but is also going to resemble me just because he is different from me, since we are all different from each other, can see something in it. You know—I shot an arrow into the air but I could only aim it. Often after I have given a poetry reading, people will say, “I never really got anything out of your work before, but now that I have heard you read it, I can see something in it.” I guess something about my voice and my projection of myself meshes with the poems. That is nice, but it is also rather saddening because I can't sit down with every potential reader and read aloud to him.

INTERVIEWER

Your poems often have a spoken quality, as though they are monologues or dialogues. Do you try to create characters who then speak in your poems, or is this all your own voice? In the dialogues perhaps it is two aspects of your own voice that are speaking.

ASHBERY

It doesn't seem to me like my voice. I have had many arguments about this with my analyst, who is actually a South American concert pianist, more interested in playing the piano than in being a therapist. He says, “Yes, I know, you always think that these poems come from somewhere else. You refuse to realize that it is really you that is writing the poems and not having them dictated by some spirit somewhere.” It is hard for me to realize that because I have such an imprecise impression of what kind of a person I am. I know I appear differently to other people because I behave differently on different occasions. Some people think that I am very laid-back and charming and some people think I am egotistical and disagreeable. Or as Edward Lear put it in his great poem “How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear”: “Some think him ill-tempered and queer, but a few find him pleasant enough.” Any of the above, I suppose. Of course, my reason tells me that my poems are not dictated, that I am not a voyant. I suppose they come from a part of me that I am not in touch with very much except when I am actually writing. The rest of the time I guess I want to give this other person a rest, this other one of my selves that does the talking in my poems, so that he won't get tired and stop.

INTERVIEWER

So you have a sense of several selves?

ASHBERY

No, no more than the average person, I shouldn't think. I mean, we are all different depending on who we happen to be with and what we are doing at a particular moment, but I wouldn't say that it goes any further than that.

INTERVIEWER

Some people have thought that you set up characters who converse in several poems. One could say that in “Litany” you have character A and character B, who are very similar to one another. It is possible at times to see them as lovers on the point of separating, while at other times they look like two aspects of one personality.

ASHBERY

I think I am trying to reproduce the polyphony that goes on inside me, which I don't think is radically different from that of other people. After all, one is constantly changing one's mind and thereby becoming something slightly different. But what was I doing? Perhaps the two columns are like two people whom I am in love with simultaneously. A student of mine who likes this poem says that when you read one column you start to “miss” the other one, as you would miss one beloved when you spend time with the other. I once half-jokingly said that my object was to direct the reader's attention to the white space between the columns. Maybe that's part of it. Reading is a pleasure, but to finish reading, to come to the blank space at the end, is also a pleasure.

INTERVIEWER

This notion of your poems being dictated makes me wonder whether for you composition involves something like inspiration, the poems just springing out already finished, rather than a laborious process of writing and revision.

ASHBERY

That is the way it has happened to me in more recent times. In fact, since I don't have very much free time (poets seldom do, since they must somehow make a living), I've conditioned myself to write at almost any time. Sometimes it doesn't work, but on the whole I feel that poetry is going on all the time inside, an underground stream. One can let down one's bucket and bring the poem back up. (This is very well put in a passage that occurs early on in Heimito von Doderer's novel The Demons, which I haven't to hand at the moment.) It will be not dissimilar to what I have produced before because it is coming from the same source, but it will be dissimilar because of the different circumstances of the particular moment.

INTERVIEWER

Many poets have spoken of poetry coming from the subconscious mind rather than the conscious mind. Would you agree with that?

ASHBERY

I think that is where it probably starts out, but I think that in my case it passes through the conscious mind on its way out and is monitored by it. I don't believe in automatic writing as the Surrealists were supposed to have practiced it, simply because it is not a reflection of the whole mind, which is partly logical and reasonable, and that part should have its say too.

INTERVIEWER

Do you compose on the typewriter or in longhand?

ASHBERY

I write on the typewriter. I didn't use to, but when I was writing “The Skaters,” the lines became unmanageably long. I would forget the end of the line before I could get to it. It occurred to me that perhaps I should do this at the typewriter, because I can type faster than I can write. So I did, and that is mostly the way I have written ever since. Occasionally I write a poem in longhand to see whether I can still do it. I don't want to be forever bound to this machine.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have rituals?

ASHBERY

Well, one of them is to use this very old, circa 1930 I would say, Royal typewriter I mentioned. I hate to think what will happen when it finally gives out, though you can still find them sometimes in those used office furniture stores on West 23rd Street, which are themselves an endangered species. And then I procrastinate like everybody else, though surely more than most. On days when I want to write I will usually waste the morning and go for an afternoon walk to Greenwich Village. (I live nearby in Chelsea, which is a pleasant place to walk from though maybe not to.) Sometimes this takes too long and my preferred late afternoon moment will pass. I can't really work at night. Nor in the morning, very much, when I have more ideas but am less critical of them, it seems. I never can use the time I waste doing this for some other purpose like answering letters. It's no good for anything but wasting. I've never tried Schiller's rotten apples, but I do drink tea while I write, and that is about the only time I do drink tea. On the whole, I believe I have fewer hang-ups and rituals than I used to. I feel blocked much less often, though it still happens. It's important to try to write when you are in the wrong mood or the weather is wrong. Even if you don't succeed you'll be developing a muscle that may do it later on. And I think writing does get easier as you get older. It's a question of practice and also of realizing you don't have the oceans of time to waste you had when you were young.

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise your poems heavily?

ASHBERY

Not anymore. I used to labor over them a great deal, but because of my strong desire to avoid all unnecessary work, I have somehow trained myself not to write something that I will either have to discard or be forced to work a great deal over. In fact, just last night a friend mentioned that she has a manuscript copy of one of my early poems, “Le livre est sur la table,” with a lot of corrections in it. I remember that poem as one that gave me an immense amount of difficulty— I worked over it for a week or so and never did feel really happy with it. When she mentioned that, I realized how much my way of writing has changed over the last thirty years. But, although there are poems even today that I don't find satisfactory once I have finished them, most of the corrections I make are pretty minor. I like the idea of being as close to the original thought or voice as possible and not to falsify it by editing. Here is something I just read by Max Jacob, quoted by André Salmon in the notes to Jacob's book La Défense de Tartufe. He talks about composing novels or stories in a notebook while taking long walks through Paris. I'll translate: “The ideas I found in this way seemed sacred to me and I didn't change a comma. I believe that prose which comes directly from meditation is a prose which has the form of the brain and which it is forbidden to touch.”

INTERVIEWER

What determines a line break for you? Is there some metrical consideration, or would you say you are writing free verse?

ASHBERY

I don't know. I just know when I feel the line should break. I used to say that my criterion for a line of poetry was that it should have at least two interesting things in it. But this is not the case in a lot of my recent poetry. In “Litany” there are lines that are a single word long. As I was writing that poem—well, actually it began with the long poem before that, the “Nut-Brown Maid”—I became almost intoxicated by the idea of the line break. It seemed as if I were writing just to get to this point, this decision. But, although the line break is very important to me, I don't really understand how I know when it is supposed to happen. I have felt very uncomfortable with iambic pentameter ever since I discovered, when I first began writing poetry, that it was not impossible to write acceptable blank verse. It somehow seems to falsify poetry for me. It has an order of its own that is foreign to nature. When I was in college, I used to write a kind of four-beat line, which seemed much more real, genuine, to me. Now I guess it is free verse, whatever that is.

INTERVIEWER

What gets you started in writing a poem? Is it an idea, an image, a rhythm, a situation or event, a phrase, something else?

ASHBERY

Again, all of the above. An idea might occur to me, something very banal—for example, isn't it strange that it is possible to both talk and think at the same time? That might be an idea for a poem. Or certain words or phrases might have come to my attention with a meaning I wasn't aware of before. Also, I often put in things that I have overheard people say, on the street for instance. Suddenly something fixes itself in the flow that is going on around one and seems to have a significance. In fact, there is an example of that in this poem, “What Is Poetry?” In a bookstore I overheard a boy saying to a girl this last line: “It might give us—what?—some flowers soon?” I have no idea what the context was, but it suddenly seemed the way to end my poem. I am a believer in fortuitous accidents. The ending of my poem “Clepsydra,” the last two lines, came from a notebook that I kept a number of years before, during my first trip to Italy. I actually wrote some poems while I was traveling, which I don't usually do, but I was very excited by my first visit there. So years later, when I was trying to end “Clepsydra” and getting very nervous, I happened to open that notebook and found these two lines that I had completely forgotten about: “while morning is still and before the body / Is changed by the faces of evening.” They were just what I needed at that time. But it doesn't really matter so much what the individual thing is. Many times I will jot down ideas and phrases, and then when I am ready to write I can't find them. But it doesn't make any difference, because whatever comes along at that time will have the same quality. Whatever was there is replaceable. In fact, often in revising I will remove the idea that was the original stimulus. I think I am more interested in the movement among ideas than in the ideas themselves, the way one goes from one point to another rather than the destination or the origin.

INTERVIEWER

Three Poems is largely prose, prose poetry, rather than verse. Some readers would object rather strenuously to calling it poetry. Within this kind of form, I am wondering where, for you, the poetry specifically is to be found? What is the indispensable element that makes poetry?

ASHBERY

That is one of those good but unanswerable questions. For a long time a very prosaic language, a language of ordinary speech, has been in my poetry. It seems to me that we are most ourselves when we are talking, and we talk in a very irregular and antiliterary way. In Three Poems, I wanted to see how poetic the most prosaic language could be. And I don't mean just the journalese, but also the inflated rhetoric that is trying very hard to sound poetic but not making it. One of my aims has been to put together as many different kinds of language and tone as possible, and to shift them abruptly, to overlap them all. There is a very naive, romantic tone at times, all kinds of clichés, as well as a more deliberate poetic voice. I also was in a way reacting to the minimalism of some of the poems in The Tennis Court Oath, such as “Europe,” which is sometimes just a few scattered words. I suppose I eventually thought of covering page after page with words, with not even any break for paragraphs in many cases—could I do this and still feel that I was getting the satisfaction that poetry gives me? I don't quite understand why some people are so against prose poetry, which is certainly a respectable and pedigreed form of poetry. In fact, too much so for my taste. I had written almost none before Three Poems because there always seemed to be a kind of rhetorical falseness in much that had been done in the past—Baudelaire's, for instance. I wanted to see if prose poetry could be written without that self-conscious drama that seems so much a part of it. So if it is poetic, it is probably because it tries to stay close to the way we talk and think without expecting what we say to be recorded or remembered. The pathos and liveliness of ordinary human communication is poetry to me.

INTERVIEWER

You were talking once about reading younger poets and being aware that you have influenced their work. You said one of the primary benefits for you in seeing this is that it alerts you to watch out for “Ashberyisms” in your own work. What do you mean by Ashberyisms?

ASHBERY

Well, there are certain stock words that I have found myself using a great deal. When I become aware of them, it is an alarm signal meaning I was falling back on something that had served in the past—it is a sign of not thinking at the present moment, not that there is anything intrinsically bad about certain words or phrases. The word “climate” occurs in my poetry a great deal, for instance. So I try to censor it, unless I feel that there is no alternative. I also seem to be very fond of words involving a kind of osmosis, like “absorb” and “leach,” as something leaching into the soil. I don't know why these particular words attract me, unless it's because they are indicative of the slow but kinetic quality of existence and experience. Also there is a typical kind of tone, the chatty quality that my poetry tends to have, the idea behind it being that there are things more important than “all this fiddle,” perhaps, and sometimes I correct this.

INTERVIEWER

I suppose there are many things we might expect from a poet who has so strong an interest in painting as you do. Various critics have suggested that you are a Mannerist in words, or an Abstract Expressionist. Are you conscious of anything like that—or perhaps of performing a Cubist experiment with words?

ASHBERY

I suppose the “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is a Mannerist work in what I hope is the good sense of the word. Later on, Mannerism became mannered, but at first it was a pure novelty—Parmigianino was an early Mannerist, coming right on the heels of Michelangelo. I have probably been influenced, more or less unconsciously I suppose, by the modern art that I have looked at. Certainly the simultaneity of Cubism is something that has rubbed off on me, as well as the Abstract Expressionist idea that the work is a sort of record of its own coming-into-existence; it has an “anti-referential sensuousness,” but it is nothing like flinging a bucket of words on the page, as Pollock did with paint. It is more indirect than that. When I was fresh out of college, Abstract Expressionism was the most exciting thing in the arts. There was also experimental music and film, but poetry seemed quite conventional in comparison. I guess it still is, in a way. One can accept a Picasso woman with two noses, but an equivalent attempt in poetry baffles the same audience.

INTERVIEWER

Though it has its admirers, The Tennis Court Oath seems to have been a widely disliked book—for its difficulty, its obscurity, and so on. How do you feel about that volume from the perspective of today?

ASHBERY

There are a lot of poems in that book that don't interest me as much as those that came before or since. I didn't expect to have a second book published, ever. The opportunity came about very suddenly, and when it did I simply sent what I had been doing. But I never expected these poems to see the light of day. I felt at that time that I needed a change in the way I was writing, so I was kind of fooling around and trying to do something I hadn't done before. I was conscious that often what I hadn't done before was inferior to what I had done. But I like a number of the poems in the book. I hadn't realized this until recently, but there was a period, after I had begun living in Paris and decided that I wanted to write in a different way, when I achieved a kind of intermediate style, say between the poems in Some Trees and the poem “Europe.” For instance, the poem “They Dream Only of America” or “Our Youth” or “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher . . ..” Those are the earlier poems in The Tennis Court Oath. I don't know quite why I stopped writing that way, but I feel that those are valid poems in a new way that I might well have gone on pursuing, but didn't. In the last two or three years, I have gone back and reread some of the poems which I hadn't liked before and decided that they did have something that I could work on again. I think I did this somewhat in “Litany.” There are certainly things in that poem that are as outrageous as the poems that outraged the critics of The Tennis Court Oath.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about the general critical reception of your work?

ASHBERY

I am very pleased that my poems seem to have found readers. I don't know quite how this came about. But it is disappointing to me that my poetry has become a kind of shibboleth, that people feel they have to join one side or the other. It seems to me that the poetry gets lost in all the controversy that surrounds it. I feel often that people on both sides are much more familiar with the myth that has grown up about my work than they are with the work itself. I am either an inspired seer or a charlatan who is trying to torment readers. My work has become a sort of political football and has the quality of a red flag for some people before they have even begun to pay any attention to it. I suppose that is the way reputations, some of them anyway, are created, but I hate to see people intimidated before they even have begun to read me by their preconceived notion of what my poetry is. I think it has something to offer, that it was not written not to be read.

INTERVIEWER

Have you found that your students ever taught you anything about writing?

ASHBERY

I try to avoid the well-known cliché that you learn from your students. Neither do I believe that there's something ennobling for a writer to teach, that it's narcissistic to spend time wallowing in your writing when you could be out helping in the world's work. Writers should write, and poets especially spend altogether too much time at other tasks such as teaching. However, since so many of us have to do it, there are certain things to be said for it. You are forced to bring a critical attention into play when you are reading students' work that you would not use otherwise, and that can help when you return to your own writing. And being immersed in a group of young unproven writers who are fiercely serious about what they are doing can have a chastening effect sometimes on us blasé oldsters. Besides, they may be writing great poetry, only nobody knows it because nobody has seen it yet. I sometimes think that the “greatness” my friends and I used to see in each other's poetry when we were very young had a lot to do with the fact that it was unknown. It could turn out to be anything; the possibilities were limitless, more so than when we were at last discovered and identified and pinned down in our books.