John Ashbery is 81 Today
Happy Birthday, Mr. Ashbery!
If you have facebook, you can go to his wall and say hello. (That's where I got the above portrait.)
To celebrate, here’s one of my favorite readings of his, reading from his first selected poems at the Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe, NM, November 20, 1985
1. Introduction (1:27): MP3
2. Two Scenes (2:33): MP3
3. Popular Letters (2:16): MP3
4. Thoughts of a Young Girl (1:21): MP3
5. The New Realism (2:13): MP3
6. Plainness and Diversity (1:56): MP3
7. Variations, Calypso and Feud (11:55): MP3
8. Chateau Hardware (0:46): MP3
9. Worsening Situation (2:48): MP3
10. The Other Tradition (2:33): MP3
11. The Gazing Grain (1:26): MP3
12. And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name (3:26): MP3
13. At North Farm (2:26): MP3
14. The Songs We Know Best (4:18): MP3
15. Tableaux Parisiens (2:07): MP3
16. More Pleasant Adventures (1:30): MP3
17. A Wave (6:41): MP3
18. Finished Rapsody (7:19): MP3
19. Vettiver (2:11): MP3
20. A Mood of Quiet (1:03): MP3
21. October at the Window (2:53): MP3
22. Forgotten Song (2:56): MP3
23. Someone You Have Seen Before (4:49): MP3
Complete Recording (1:17:41): MP3
This reading, and more of Ashbery’s readings, in downloadable MP3, can be found here:
And here’s a little something I wrote about him last year (with only his age updated), that I don’t think I ever posted:
There is a need to say everything. To say this thing in poetry is to split it in two.
John Ashbery is turning 81 today. He’s been publishing books of poetry for over 50 years, with plenty of champions and detractors. As for me, I find his poetry persuasive. It enacts what I suppose might be called the “democratization of difficulty.” Which is, the Modernists are said to have written difficult poems, and readers often had the feeling that they, the readers, just weren’t smart enough to catch all the allusions, etc., but if they were, it would benefit the reading of the poem, and make it all resolve. Ashbery’s difficulty, contrarily, is open to everyone. There is no book to which he’s referring (or, as is often the case, he IS alluding to something, but if you catch the allusion it’s only as helpful as finding out which magazine Richard Hamilton found his objects to cut out) . . . it’s all fishing in the day, its imagination and anxiety.
Or that is my conception of it. But that’s an academic argument, and for me, personally, Ashbery has meant more. I didn’t read any of Ashbery’s poetry in High School or in my undergraduate college literature classes . . . but when I got to Creative Writing class, the text was the Longman American Poetry . . . we didn’t actually read any of the Ashbery poems in the class either, but I did on my own. And at that point everything was transformed. This was a poetry that forced me to read poetry the way I wanted to read poetry all along. As open, as a plenitude.
For me, Ashbery’s creating a complex, inexplicable tone in his poems, and building moments of high clarity (clarity of his purpose, and his human world view) amid the radical inclusions. In a similar way that much of Pop Art existed in a de-re-contextualized space of tonally complex engagement with their content. Cool, they called it.
Deciphering tone, then, in Ashbery’s poetry, is the difficult thing, and the fun thing, the joyous exploratory thing. His difficulty, the dilemma one has in regarding his work, is the same difficulty, the same dilemma, I face in regarding the contemporary situation. It’s what I see when I open my door and walk outside. Take Warhol’s Campbell soup cans and take Levittown and you have the Suburban dilemma: Is this scene pleasant or horrifying?
The desire each of us has for creature comfort translates itself into middle class, machine-made lives, one side might argue. The desire each of us has for personal trimmings, for a spice of uniqueness within the comfortable, when seen from a middle distance, serves only to heighten the blandness of comfort. There is a disquiet in the tension between similar and dissimilar lives, the threat of being average within the solace of being unthreatened. There’s always TV, of course.
And in this way, in the collaged manner of our existence, we’re all already participating in ephemera. As, really, in the longest view, all is ephemera, including the universe itself. So why not? But is participating in ephemera the same as celebrating it? That is the tonal question for me. The question that Ashbery keeps tossing at me. How to apprehend.
We make the texture:
Backing up a little further from the field of Campbell soup cans, one can see the ordered beauty of Mondrian. The beauty of the lines. This is the true ambivalence of the contemporary.
They are the same aren’t they
The presumed landscape and the dream of home
Because the people are all homesick today or desperately sleeping,
Trying to remember how those rectangular shapes
Became so extraneous and so near . . .
(“The Bungalows” SP 114-6)
The nothing happening is a sort of goal. Or, in Ashbery’s formulation, being “kind of general,” so everyone will like it. He writes:
But the fantasy makes it ours, a kind of fence sitting
Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.
(“Soonest Mended” SP 88)
This is not a metaphor for something, this poetry. This is something enacted. It’s the need to say everything. And everything split in two. Or to say all options are open. It is not a poetry of evasion, it is a poetry of radical inclusion. A more thoroughly elemental relationship to the materials of poetry production, with the feeling, the under-tone, that we’re always on the verge of an understanding. That desire. And the radical embracing of that desire:
Despite misgivings, the story clicks to a halt,
as always. The credits surge. People rush to leave.
The shiny cars of another era are coming
to take us where we wish to be taken, lest we
outstay our welcome and sink in the embrace
of another mood.
What do those who speak against this poetry want from it that they say they’re not getting? Must we be able to perform a close reading of it? Or is it that they would read it, but for the fact that they don’t know the language?
This is my position: Ashbery’s poetry is one of radical ongoingness . . . the desire not to be tied to reductive statements . . . And so, Ashbery’s project becomes the accruing products of a mind engaged in the act of being engaged. The actual being of streets endlessly becoming more streets. The truth of that. Enacting a kind of radical emotional truthfulness. In this, Ashbery has been right, has been historically accurate, to the tone of the contemporary.
Ashbery has helped, me at least, perhaps more than any other contemporary poet, to be free from Close Reading, or a kind of reduction to parts close reading made popular when he began writing, and which still held when I began learning. I don’t have to construct boxes within boxes, the way my teachers conceptualized poetic organization to be. I can go on the feel of the thing. As the role of new poetry should be to be indescribable through the existing descriptions of poetry, and the subsequent defamiliarization become refamiliarization, Ashbery’s vision has become the persuasive vision, his ontology has become ours.
But, knowing that meaning, that a center is important, Ashbery’s poetry is all about its meaning, it’s reception, all about, tracing the limits of—traipsing the marked-out territory of the desire for meaning:
“If we could look at a photograph of it and say there they are, they never really stopped but there they are. There is so much to be said, and on the surface of it very little gets said. . . . There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out . . . . Alas, we perceive them if at all as those things that were meant to be put aside . . .”
(“For John Clare” SP 103)
And in this way, the rock the builders have rejected, has become Ashbery’s cornerstone. And in this way, Ashbery teaches us to read.
I plan to stay here a little while
For these are moments only, moments of insight,
And there are reaches to be attained,
A last level of anxiety that melts
In becoming . . . (“The Task” SP 83)
Many of the things said about Ashbery have reduced his poetry to a hum of subjectivity, to an approach to composition. Well, ok, but the problem with this is it lets people digest the operation and move on, which is a violence against the possibilities of the poems themselves.
Thinking of Lyn Hejinian’s essay “The Rejection of Closure,” I imagine Ashbery’s poetry as a wonderful closure-adoring rejection of closure . . . in poem after poem he embraces closure both in the mood and tone of the poem, but in its physical enacting as well, a sort of penultimania. His most wonderfully quotable lines come at the ends of poems, where:
Versions of cities [are] flattened under the equalizing night.
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.
(“As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat” SP 163-4)
Poetics is not for commonsense people. It is at the edges of sense, where possibility exists. And possibility formed as conclusions is where Ashbery focuses much of his attention, I’ll conclude by letting him speak.
To sum up: We are fond of plotting itineraries
And our pyramiding memories, alert as dandelion fuzz, dart from one pretext to the next
Seeking in occasions new sources of memories, for memory is profit
Until the day it spreads out in all accumulation . . .
(“Decoy” SP 101)
So today, some imaginary cake for Ashbery, and the now is continuing. This need to say everything and to split it in two.
* * *
And then this, from Geoffrey Gatza:
Happy Birthday John Ashbery
July 28th, 2008
Today is John Ashbery’s 81st birthday! Hip Hip Hurray! And to celebrate here in Buffalo, I made up 20 abstract birthday cards out of dollar store construction paper and a dollar store glue stick. I then asked poets from Buffalo to sign them and personalize them and we mailed them off in time for him to have them today.
Since everyone cannot play I decided to scan them in, sans inscription, and make a PDF book with pictures of John’s birthday last year. You can view the PDF at the link below. As the art is a celebration of life and commemorating the day he was born, these images will also be used in Anne Waldman’s forthcoming BlazeVOX book, a reprint of her First Baby Poems, due out in the late Fall. Waldman’s poems are a celebration of the beginning of a life and so were a natural choice for the book.
Happy Birthday book:
Pictures of John’s 80th last year:
If you wish to leave a happy birthday to John please fill in the comment section and we’ll get them to him. So please participate, if you wish!