Last night, Pioneer Works, an artists’ space in Red Hook, Brooklyn, hosted a celebration of John Ashbery, who turned eighty-eight this year. The poets Geoffery G. O’Brien, Mónica de la Torre, and John Yau read some of their work and their favorite poems by Ashbery. Before Ashbery came to the stage, Ben Lerner made the following remarks. —D. P.
Some of my favorite words written about John Ashbery were written by John Ashbery about Gertrude Stein. Reviewing Stanzas in Meditation, in the July 1957 issue of Poetry, he wrote:
Like people, Miss Stein’s lines are comforting or annoying or brilliant or tedious. Like people, they sometimes make no sense and sometimes make perfect sense; or they stop short in the middle of a sentence and wander away, leaving us alone for awhile in the physical world, that collection of thoughts, flowers, weather, and proper names. And, just as with people, there is no real escape from them: one feels that if one were to close the book one would shortly re-encounter the Stanzas in life, under another guise.
Or from a little later in the same review:
Stanzas in Meditation gives one the feeling of time passing, of things happening, of a “plot,” though it would be difficult to say precisely what is going on. Sometimes the story has the logic of a dream … while at other times it becomes startlingly clear for a moment, as though a change in the wind had suddenly enabled us to hear a conversation that was taking place some distance away …
It is usually not events which interest Miss Stein, rather it is their “way of happening,” and the story of Stanzas in Meditation is a general, all-purpose model which each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars. The poem is a hymn to possibility; a celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen.
Try swapping out Stanzas in Meditation for one of John’s titles …
If there is a better account of what it’s like to read Ashbery’s poems, it’s the poems themselves. “The best Ashbery poems,” says the narrator of my first novel,
describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem; his poems refer to how their reference evanesces. And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately. It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading. But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. But it is a presence that keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the true poem remains beyond you, inscribed on the far side of the mirror. “You have it but you don’t have it. / You miss it, it misses you. / You miss each other.”
John has many styles and modes, and even as we speak there are no doubt critics chopping the opera up into rose periods and blue. The most recent books—Breezeway appeared last summer—contain poems that are at once intimate and foreign: reading these poems is like opening a time capsule when you’ve forgotten the logic of inclusion but still feel the pull of attachments. I recognize that word or turn of phrase, I associate it with a feeling, I just can’t remember exactly how it fit into my life. Or reading some of the recent poems is like eavesdropping on conversations in an alien world a lot like this one—as if a change in an intergalactic wind enabled us to overhear the telenovelas and advertisements and small talk of a sister civilization from which ours was separated at birth. Michael Clune has noted how often the recent poems include “archaic expressions of our own past” or “the sayings of imaginary worlds”—clichés from cultures we’ve forgotten or never known. And yet we recognize them as clichés, as made phrases. The effect is not to make the familiar strange, Clune says, but to make the strange familiar—as if we can sense a universal grammar underpinning the kitsch of all possible worlds. (It brings us closer.)
Among the many marvels of John Ashbery’s poetry as a whole is the way that his pronouns, particularly the I and the you, fill and empty and fill again as you read—like some sea creature or the chambers of the human heart. Sometimes you means all of you here tonight and sometimes just you, alone with your thoughts. I first caught a glimpse of myself dissolving into the second person of a John Ashbery poem in a Barnes and Noble in Topeka, Kansas, in 1994, and there is no aesthetic experience more responsible for my becoming a writer. I can’t remember the particular mirrored surface I encountered but I remember it was in the volume entitled A Wave. Let’s pretend it was the following poem, called “Introduction,” which I’ll read now by way of one.
To be a writer and write things
You must have experiences you can write about.
Just living won’t do. I have a theory
About masterpieces, how to make them
At very little expense, and they’re every
Bit as good as the others. You can
Use the same materials of the dream, at last.
It’s a kind of game with no losers and only one
Winner—you. First, pain gets
Flashed back through the story and the story
Comes out backwards and woof-side up. This is
No one’s story! At least they think that
For a time and the story is architecture
Now, and then history of a diversified kind.
A vacant episode during which the bricks got
Repointed and browner. And it ends up
Nobody’s, there is nothing for any of us
Except that fretful vacillating around the central
Question that brings us closer,
For better and worse, for all this time.
Please join me in welcoming John Ashbery.
Ben Lerner’s most recent book is 10:04. He received the 2014 Terry Southern Prize for Humor and is a 2015 MacArthur Fellow.