John Ashbery was a prolific contributor to The Paris Review. Over the years, we published forty of his poems, plus two long prose pieces, a series of collages, and an Art of Poetry interview.
From an early age, he started cropping up in other people’s interviews, too. Already in 1966, Allen Ginsberg was comparing Ashbery to Alexander Pope (“I was listening to him read The Skaters, and it sounded as inventive and exquisite, in all its parts, as The Rape of the Lock”). By the 1980s, Philip Larkin could use Ashbery as a stand-in for all that was hip and threatening in American poetry: “I’ve never been to America … And of course I’m so deaf now that I shouldn’t dare. Someone would say, What about Ashbery, and I’d say, I’d prefer strawberry, that kind of thing.” Whether we were interviewing Seamus Heaney, Jorie Graham, Edmund White, Helen Vendler—it turned out to be impossible to discuss their work without at least mentioning his. And it is worth pointing out that this was post-edits. Often, at least in recent years, Ashbery’s influence or example seemed too obvious to discuss, so his name ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Here, in no particular order, are some Ashbery sightings from the Writers at Work interviews:
When I introduced John Ashbery at one of the poetry readings in the old days at Yale, I heard for the first time “Wet Casements.” How it ravished my heart away the moment I heard it! Certainly when I recite that poem myself and remember the original experience of hearing him deliver it, it’s hard to see how any poem could be more adequate. Clearly it is not a diminished or finished art form as long as a poem like “Wet Casements” is still possible.
He refuses to raise his voice; many poets have fashioned their work from him. He finds new tunes because he has a wonderful ear. He has so much to say … all these almost undetectable references. Since he gets a lot of attention, many poets are going to fashion their work on his. This kind of thing can be dull in the wrong hands—the distinction needs to be made between dull books and quiet books.
I admired Ashbery [at Harvard]; we all admired John, although in general we were not a mutual admiration society. In general we were murderous. John was at that time reticent, shy, precocious. He had published in Poetry while he was still at Deerfield Academy. On the Advocate, we were terribly serious about the poems we published. We would stay up until two or three in the morning arguing about whether a poem was good enough to be in the magazine. One time we had a half-page gap and asked John to come up with a poem. After some prodding, he conceded that maybe he had a poem. He went back to his room to get it, and it took him forty minutes. We didn’t know it then, but of course—he later admitted—he went home and wrote the poem. In 1989 I told John this story—wondering if he remembered it as I did—and he even remembered the poem, which began, Fortunate Alphonse, the shy homosexual … He told me, with a sigh, Yes, I took longer then.
In the middle fifties, the painters, without any question, became very decisive for me personally. And not only for me. I was thinking about this when I saw John Ashbery the other day. At one point Ashbery gave his own sense of the New York School. He said, “Well, first of all, the one thing that we were all in agreement with was that there should be no program, and that the poem, as we imagined it, should be the possibility of everything we have as experience. There should be no limit of a programmatic order.” And then he went on to qualify why painters were interesting to them. Simply that the articulation—the range of possibility—in painting was more viable to their sense of things. And I thought, “That’s literally what I would say.” … John was obviously coming to it by way of the French surrealists, where he found, not only playfulness, but a very active admission of the world as it’s felt and confronted. It came from other places, too. I was finding it in jazz, for example.
If you want a poem to say what it means, right away, clearly—and of course the poet who writes that kind of poem is usually talking about his or her own experiences—well, what happens when you read that kind of poem is that it puts you back in the world that you know. The poem makes that world seem a little more comfortable, because here is somebody else who has had an experience like yours. But you see, these little anecdotes that we read in these poems and that we like to believe are true, are in fact fictions. They represent a reduction of the real world. There’s so much in our experience that we take for granted—we don’t need to read poems that help us to take those things even more for granted. People like John Ashbery or Stevens do just the opposite—they try to explode those reductions. There’s a desire in Ashbery, for example, to create perfect non sequiturs, to continually take us off guard. He creates a world that is fractured. It doesn’t imitate reality. But, looking at it from another point of view, you could say that it’s simply a world that is as fractured and as unpredictable as the world in which we move every day. So there’s an element of delight in these people who rearrange reality. We usually hang on to the predictability of our experiences to such an extent … and there’s nowhere else where one can escape that as thoroughly as one can in certain poets’ work. When I read poetry, I want to feel myself suddenly larger … in touch with—or at least close to—what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment. And when you report back to your own daily world after experiencing the strangeness of a world sort of recombined and reordered in the depths of a poet’s soul, the world looks fresher somehow. Your daily world has been taken out of context. It has the voice of the poet written all over it, for one thing, but it also seems suddenly more alive—not as routinely there.