Let Us Now Praise John Ashbery

John Ashbery seemed to lower, not raise, his voice when he spoke his poems. “Hammer and tongs, as it were, tended to drive ideas and meanings away,” he thought.  “They only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a cat will rub against your leg.” One of his innumerable tricks was that “who, me?” question in his poems, as if to ask: “Why not you?” John Ashbery had the most imitated voice in American poetry through the second half of the 20th Century. What’s obscure in hindsight is the tag of obscurity on his work. Slippery, shape-shifting, elliptical–for sure. But clearly now: soulful, musical, funny, conversational and beautiful.  Just life, just poetry, he’d have said.  

Frontispiece for Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror shot by Richard Avedon

The poem is you, John Ashbery says, but our guard stays up. Ashbery is a by-word for difficulty, at least puzzlement in contemporary poetry—off limits, almost by definition. So our first question is: am I ready for this? Must we do poetry push-ups, or or take a course, first? Steph Burt says emphatically: No! Spoken with the authority of Harvard’s chief critic and guide to contemporary poetry:

In Ashbury you almost never need to get the joke or get the reference. There is not one right answer; there are multiple answers. There is not a consistent situation where you need to decode the poem and realize that actually it’s about Spiro Agnew or actually it’s about this event in Scotland in 1750. The poem is supposed to slip away from you no matter where you start.

The name John Ashbery will stand not only for poems but for a long era and an aesthetic sensibility touching all the arts. He had really intended to be a painter, he said, until he discovered that poetry was easier. After college, his first real job was writing reviews of the Paris art scene in the 1950s. He knew everything about music, old and new, serious and pop; and became a connoisseur of art films, and even wrote one. The avant-garde film-maker Guy Maddin, now teaching at Harvard, told us this week about Ashbery leaping into a project with him, to compose a new monolog for an old movie title from the 1930s, “How to Take a Bath.”

Screenshot from Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room (2015)

Elsewhere Ashbery said that his writing was not made for analysis; it is analogous, he said, to “an immersive experience like bathing.” So Ashbery was drawn to film, and filmmakers to him. Jim Jarmusch, for example: a hero of the independents since the 80s for movies like Stranger than Paradise, and Coffee and Cigarettes and last year for Paterson, about a working-class poet in the New Jersey hometown of medical doc and poet William Carlos Williams. Jim Jarmusch celebrated his Ashbery connection with us this week.


The flood tide of Ashbery imitations, and parodies, must have passed before the poet’s death last weekend, at 90. But young poets just finding their voices are still finding Ashbery inescapable and influential. Rickey Laurentiis is one of them: 28 years old, born in New Orleans, African-American, now living in New York.  In an essay recently, Laurentiis asked: “If a black poet opens a book of Ashbery in a forest, will anyone believe him? Where do I fit in these traditions?”


He spoke to us on the phone this week of Ashbery as an “acquired taste” — one he has learned love. One of his favorite Ashbery poems, How to Continue, ends with this exquisitely poignant stanza:

And when it became time to go
they none of them would leave without the other
for they said we are all one here
and if one of us goes the other will not go
and the wind whispered it to the stars
the people all got up to go
and looked back on love
Finally, we’re joined live by two of our favorite poets, Adam Fitzgerald and Eileen Myles, who were both deeply and personally influenced by Ashbery’s life and work.
Guest List
Eileen Myles
poet of I Must Be Living Twice and author of Chelsea Girls
Adam Fitzgerald
poet, essayist, and author of the collection, George Washington 
Steph Burt
poet, professor of English at Harvard and author of The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them
Jim Jarmusch
poet and director of Coffee and Cigarettes and Patterson
Guy Maddin
Canadian film director of The Forbidden Room and My Winnipeg
Rickey Laurentiis
poet and author of Boy with Thorn

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  • yes

  • MB

    You like it under the trees in autumn,
    Because everything is half dead.
    The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves
    And repeats words without meaning.

    In the same way, you were happy in spring,
    With the half colors of quarter-things,
    The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,
    The single bird, the obscure moon—

    The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
    Of things that would never be quite expressed,
    Where you yourself were never quite yourself
    And did not want nor have to be,

    Desiring the exhilarations of changes:
    The motive for metaphor, shrinking from
    The weight of primary noon,

    The A B C of being,
    The ruddy temper, the hammer
    Of red and blue, the hard sound—
    Steel against intimation—the sharp flash,
    The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

    • Potter

      Lovely! Wallace Stevens!!

  • Potter

    Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger than Paradise” really got to me, could never forget that movie. I am Jarmuschian. So glad he turned up here. The New New Yorker has an Asbery poem this week that did not speak to me. Obviously I was trying to make too much of it and I need to let go. I know how to let go with painting and music ( sort of) but with poems and words, not yet. I loved the instructions on how to take a bath! Thanks for the intro and the challenge!

  • essence

    The way the world is going at the moment, perhaps it’s time to praise John Berryman and his Dream Songs.

    Huffy Henry hid the day,
    unappeasable Henry sulked.
    I see his point,—a trying to put things over.
    It was the thought that they thought
    they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
    But he should have come out and talked.

    All the world like a woolen lover
    once did seem on Henry’s side.
    Then came a departure.
    Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
    I don’t see how Henry, pried
    open for all the world to see, survived.

    What he has now to say is a long
    wonder the world can bear & be.
    Once in a sycamore I was glad
    all at the top, and I sang.
    Hard on the land wears the strong sea
    and empty grows every bed.