Podcast • September 7, 2017

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 ...

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.

Podcast • February 17, 2011

Jaimy Gordon’s Racetrack Revelation in Lord of Misrule

Jaimy Gordon impels us to find the other great small-press writers we’ve never heard of. She is this winter’s longshot winner of the National Book Award, for her gorgeous racetrack novel Lord of Misrule. The ...

Jaimy Gordon impels us to find the other great small-press writers we’ve never heard of. She is this winter’s longshot winner of the National Book Award, for her gorgeous racetrack novel Lord of Misrule. The 40-to-1 payoff is for readers who, but for the big prize, might never hear of non-commercial fiction or savor it’s very distinctive pleasures.

Lord of Misrule was reviewed in the Daily Racing Form before it was noticed by the New York Times. It may never get noted in the Times Sunday Book Review. But anyone who opens it will recognize instantly the real old American thing: horses, jockeys, trainers and touts with Damon Runyon names like Medicine Ed and Suitcase and Two-Tie, loners and outcasts on their own crummy racetrackers’ planet in far West Virginia. Just as quickly we meet characters, both equine and human, whose lives, language and trials feel entirely new.

I wanted to write a social novel of a kind, I wanted to represent, in one way or another, all the orders of humanity of this world. I think my previous books were usually dominated by one reckless human being, usually a young woman, whose fortunes would horrify and interest the reader.

In the case of Lord of Misrule, I think I was getting to be of an age where I could identify as much with the family-less loan shark, Two-Tie, and Medicine Ed, who’s looking for a home at the age of 72, not sure that he’s made the right career choice in being a groom for 60-some years … I think that since, as a writer, I felt that my career had never broken big and I was getting into my sixties myself, [I wondered] had I made the right career choice here? I think that, like Medicine Ed, I didn’t feel competent to do anything else and I couldn’t have pictured myself anywhere else than on my racetrack, which is the world of American fiction, but I couldn’t see exactly where I was heading.

I think that the charm of the book, if it has any, is that the writer is fully as much inhabiting Medicine Ed and Two-Tie as the young woman. I used to be the young woman in my books, but now I am just as much the old guys, looking into a kind of bitter and insecure unknown.

Jaimy Gordon with Chris Lydon at the Boston Athanaeum, 2. 11. 2011.

One of the great epiphanies of her life, Jaimy Gordon remarks, came at 17, working illegally in a bar on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was the first time she was surrounded by people who “didn’t speak proper English,” and she was amazed at the poetry in their conversation.

I venture that Jaimy Gordon’s work is marked by a kind of comic maximalism in the manner of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, every type of literary effect exploding on every page. Indeed, she’s telling me, she claimed maximalism as her métier when she studied writing at Brown — with John Hawkes and Keith Waldrop, among others — and minimalism was all the literary rage. She points to John Updike’s novel The Centaur, which also won a National Book Award, as her inspiration for transferring the kind of far-fetched, daring metaphors common in poetry into plot-driven prose.

Jaimy Gordon assures us that despite the echoing laments for the death of literature, we are in a sort of “Golden Age of American letters,” fueled by more than 350 college-level creating writing programs. In this conversation she gives us some of her favorite practitioners, well-known and unsung: Katherine Davis for Hell, Labrador, The Girl who Trod on a Loaf; Kellie Wells for Skin, Compression Scars; Joanna Scott, Russell Banks, Peter Carey and Paul Harding for his out-of-nowhere small-press Pulitzer Prize Tinkers. We are blessed.

Podcast • December 11, 2009

Whose Words These Are (18): Keith Waldrop

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Keith Waldrop. (23 minutes, 11 meg mp3) Keith Waldrop, who just won the National Book Award in poetry for his Transcendental Studies, is a quilter in phrases. He ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Keith Waldrop. (23 minutes, 11 meg mp3)

Keith Waldrop, who just won the National Book Award in poetry for his Transcendental Studies, is a quilter in phrases. He eschews any intention or meaning that you could point to in his work. He makes statements here and there, but his poetry, he’s said, is about “having nothing to say and saying it.”

“The sound is what I go by,” he says. “I write for the sound and tone of things.” At the same time he communicates, as the poet Michael Palmer has written, “a particular humanity and an appreciation for the absurd, even the grotesque, in daily life.”

We’re laughing out loud a lot in this conversation. And I feel I’m cracking “one of the vital and requisite, semi-secret presences in American letters,” quoting Michael Palmer again. Waldrop is remembering his boyhood in Emporia, Kansas, where grew up in the Bob Dole era, nourished by comic books and the Bible. No one in his family had much interest in reading, much less writing. “Nobody told me I could be a poet,” he says. Poetry was “something I was sneaking into.”

Keith Waldrop’s poems could remind you of Samuel Beckett’s stark minimalism in language and feeling, or of Thelonious Monk’s beautifully bent phrasing and harmony in music. He’s even closer, as he says, to the gorgeous torn-paper collages of the painter Robert Motherwell.

He came to his “collage poems” decades ago, in admiration of Motherwell and in some frustration that his teaching load at Brown University was crowding out “my own work.” So every night at midnight sharp, he began experimenting with a new process:

I brought up a batch of books, all prose books, and no verse, no poetry. I stacked them on the dining room table. To write a poem I would take three of the books, of three different kinds: I would have one novel, usually a book of psychology or science or something, and then some third depending on what was around. I would start opening them and getting phrases out, sort of at random… My eyes might go down and light on a phrase, and I would put it in. I didn’t spend a great deal of time doing it. I would put these phrases down, going from one book to another, and would make one stanza, let’s say of four lines or so. Then I would do it again, and get another stanza of four lines, and when I had enough that I thought I’m tired of doing this… (it might be a page, it might be a couple of pages, not more than two or three) I would take it upstairs to type, and I would retype these stanzas in alphabetical order… and eventually, in a month or so, I had a book of poems. I arranged them alphabetically by title. You’ll understand also, in retyping them and then reading over them — If I didn’t like a line or a word I could throw it out, I could change it, I could add something…It wasn’t that I was trying to figure out something about collage. I was trying to find poems.

And eventually I had this book.

Keith Waldrop with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 12.10.09.