Sunday, December 8, 2002
New York Poet John Ashbery is doomed with the "D" word: Most people think his poems are "difficult."
"I think 'difficult' is often used interchangeably with 'complex' or 'complicated,"' he says, "and I think poetry has to be complicated if it's going to reflect the world and what the poet wants to say, and not just reiterate what people already know."
In 1955, Ashbery's first collection, "Some Trees," was picked by W.H. Auden for publication in the prestigious Yale Younger Poets series.
For a young writer of verse, you couldn't ask for a much better break. But years later, Ashbery learned Auden could hardly get through the book. Short on cash and told he would not receive payment if he didn't decide on a winner, Auden settled for, rather than celebrated, "Some Trees."
Half a century later, the 75-year-old Ashbery remembers the incident with a wry smile.
"Well, it was wonderful in a way," he says during an interview in his Chelsea apartment. "When I began writing, Auden was my favorite poet, though I don't think the admiration was mutual. In fact, he supposedly told somebody once that he never understood a line of my poetry."
'Greatest living poet'
Ashbery can well afford amusement. He is the author of more than 10 volumes of poetry, and has received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, all for "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," published in 1976. He also was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1985. His latest collection is "Chinese Whispers."
"I regard him as our greatest living poet," says author and literary critic Harold Bloom.
"He has mastered the meditative tone, which remains humorous, gentle and supple, but which nevertheless can really penetrate the inmost recesses of consciousness."
Bloom has been an Ashbery devotee ever since he read "Some Trees." However, he did not like Ashbery's second book, "The Tennis Court Oath." Bloom says it lacked coherence and was avant-garde for the sake of being avant-garde.
For years, many critics agreed, with John Simon comparing Ashbery's poetry to "garbage."
The reception was so discouraging that Ashbery briefly considered quitting.
Now, Ashbery pays little attention to critics. Criticism, he says, cannot "tell me how to write my next poem, which is basically what I'm interested in."
Poet David Lehman, a close friend of Ashbery's and author of "The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets," attributes the early, vitriolic criticism of Ashbery's poetry to the threat the work posed to long-cherished assumptions about the ways in which poetry conveys meaning.
To explain, Lehman contrasts Ashbery's work with the poetry of William Butler Yeats.
"You can go through a great Yeats' poem and follow an argument from section to section," Lehman says. "An Ashbery poem doesn't work like that. ... One isn't reading for the meaning; one is reading for the experience of the poem."
Description of writing
Ashbery has compared his writing process to "walking in the dark but then getting used to the dark," a description that could be used for the feeling you get when reading his poems, which move mercurially between voices, situations and language levels.
Applying conventional modes of critique and logic to them is bound to end in frustration and puzzlement.
Poet Laureate Billy Collins recalls being dumbfounded during his first reading of Ashbery's poetry, which he likens to language that has been sprayed with WD-40, so that the words slip from their proper positions and slide around the page.
"He forced me to relearn how to read poetry," says Collins, who views Ashbery as a great comic poet. "That is maybe the test of a really superior poet."
In "Disclaimer," Ashbery writes:
"Some dream accosted me on the turnpike. I felt straitlaced
for a moment, then remembered your threnody,
a cassation of bathtubs and violas d'amore.
It brought me to a passion. I was able to turn back
with a clean slate, noting possible drifts
of meaning that disappeared as soon as
illuminated, then reemerged as from a fit of pique."
These drifts of meaning, which have enraged so many would-be analyzers of Ashbery's poetry, are exactly what so many of Ashbery's readers treasure.
"People have always found it difficult to know what John is really talking about, yet he seems to strike some chord that's very moving somehow," says painter Jane Freilicher, Ashbery's longtime friend.
Ashbery also does not include himself in his poems, maintaining that he has no interesting stories to tell.
"My mother was always telling me not to put myself forward or wear out my welcome," he says. "I suppose I've always worried about the exact point where my welcome would wear out."
Ashbery spent his youth on his father's fruit farm in upstate New York. He wrote his first poem at age 8 and then turned to painting before an anthology of modern poetry he read in high school inspired him to write again. He later studied at Harvard University and Columbia University and was a Fulbright scholar in Paris.
"He's not using his life as the basis for his subject material. He's using his mind," says Lehman. "Ashbery's poems can include the entire universe because they're faithful to his mind rather than the world."
He maintains that he has always sought to keep his poetry as wide open as possible so that his readers can apply their own history to it.
"People have always criticized my work as being too private," he says. "But my feeling is that it's about everybody's privacy."
As Ashbery writes in "Soonest Mended," which he has often referred to as a "one size fits all confessional poem":
"This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor."