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Ashbery Turns Eighty, Still Rocks

April 29, 2007

When I first made the discovery that living poets existed, John Ashbery was the reigning rock star. My well-meaning mentors hurried me away from his work and put W. S. Merwin in my hands. Pound for pound, it was a fair trade: both Pulitzer Prize winners; both born in 1927 (along with Galway Kinnell and James Wright). And I saw their point. I didn’t really fit in with the NYU hipsters, with their worn copies of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and opinions on when exactly poetry had died. (“Died?,” I would inquire with same tone I would at a later date ask, “See other people?”) My head was filled with The Lice not Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, all “bowing not knowing to what” not “sucking the sherbets, crooning the tunes, naming the names.” And it would take me several years to form an equal attachment to Ashbery, partly because of his unfair reputation for being “difficult.” He is not.

Unless you think poetry in general is difficult, in which case, I say (sincerely), you just haven’t met the right poet, yet.

Ashbery’s Wednesday reading at The Poetry Project in one key way solidified my view of him as poetry’s equivalent of a rock star. That is, the turn out. Although this reading was not sold out like his reading I tried to attend last fall, it was very well attended. At least one hundred. Moreover, there was no paper shuffling or crossing/uncrossing of legs between poems. Just those funny little murmurs of approval so common at poetry readings.

Based on reading reception alone, just for the record, I would posit that Lawrence Ferlinghetti is the reigning rock star, though he was never mentioned in my salad days at NYU. His reading at the 92nd Street Y two weeks ago was sold out (including the upstairs balcony), which I would guess totaled around five hundred. And the audience cheered and applauded (actually cheered and applauded) between poems. Ferlinghetti has never been accused of being difficult. (Well, not in terms of accessibility. In terms of opposing governing parties, admirably yes.)

During his reading, Ashbery made reference to his early discovery (age eight) that he could make poems rhymes. He quickly abandoned that direction. This is the same anecdote used to launch Megan O’Rourke’s 2005 Slate article, “The Instruction Manual: How to Read John Ashbery,” which followed the released of Where Shall I Wander. O’Rourke speaks of Ashbery’s desire to “renovate a language that to him seems exhausted and cliche-riddled.” I don’t see how this mission is any different than the missions of his contemporaries; Ashbery just does it better than most.

Not to say that O’Rourke’s essay isn’t a helpful companion piece to Ashbery. I imagine O’Rourke would be a good professor of poetry should she set her cap in that direction. But teaching (as I have recently discovered) contains that inherent paradox of cajoling students to think for themselves while hoping they don’t miss the boat. And from what I gather, poetry is taught in high schools as having primarily subjective meaning. In my own classrooms, I’m tempted to ban any sentence that begins with “This reminds me of when I…”

A couple of years ago, I put together a mini-mini-anthology, “20 in 20: Poems by 20 Poets Born in the 20th Century” for a friend who teaches at a New York City high school. The Ashbery poem I included (because Ashbery must be included) was “Rain Moving In.” In many ways, this poem reinforces O’Rourke’s claim that Ashbery is not after the “epiphanic realization,” that moment of truth I crave from poetry. After all, the poem maintains, “Just keep playing, mastering as you do the step / Into disorder this one meant. Don’t you see / It’s all we can do?” The futility of these lines is heartbreaking. These are “stay in bed” lines of poetry. But then Ashbery shifts into what I’d call an epiphany, albeit a quiet one: “this is our home: A place to be from, and have people ask about.” Now that’s reason enough to start another day. And I know I’m not the only one who needs more than caffeine to tempt me out from under the covers, especially when the news is as bad as it’s been in the past two weeks.

I think I’ve given away my hand. My addiction to poetry stems from those moments when everything comes together. The lure of the lyric poem/poet. This may be another attempt to put Ashbery into a camp, something others better at wrangling than myself have failed at. Labels don’t seem to stick. However, it was meant to be a suggestion that you can read Ashbery for the singular lines, as true for his latest collection, A Worldly Country, as for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror:

“For night, as usual, knew what it was doing, / providing sleep to offset the great ungluing / that tomorrow again would surely bring.” (“A Worldly Country,” A Worldly Country, 2007 Ecco Press)

“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,” Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1975 Viking Press)

—Erica Wright

E-mail poetry@guernicamag.com with any comments.

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