. . . as you realized once again
That the longest way is the most efficient way,
The one that looped among islands, and
You always seemed to be traveling in a circle.
[Just Walking Around]
I was lost. It’s not uncommon. It looked like Locust Walk, but though I walked on and on, the place I was looking for was nowhere to be seen. I approached a student, a really nice guy. An MBA candidate, well qualified to set me straight. “You’re walking parallel to it. I’m going your way, so come with me.”
He made concrete the phrase “retrace your steps.” We walked back and back, to where I’d started out, then pointed the way. The streets are named for trees, and they run in order of hardness of the wood, he said. Somebody really gave this some thought. (He admired good planning.) Guess I’d better learn my trees, I said.
. . . you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are:
Al Filreis: Yesterday you had the experience of a room full of twenty-year olds reciting from memory a poem you wrote when you were twenty, Some Trees . . . Do you remember the guy who wrote that poem? . . . What kind of distance is there, what kind of de-familiarization is going on when you look at your early work?
John Ashbery: Well it’s all very strange to me. . . . It’s really weird to be this old and to be communicating with people of younger and young ages and to realize that one never really imagined how this was all going to play out, just realizing that it has, somehow.
The young man was a joint major, MBA and nurse. I used to represent community health centers, and I knew how valuable he could be. More to the point, I could speak his language, at least a little. An excellent skill set, I said. It’s great you’re doing this. Yes, he said, I want to help places like that use their assets to best advantage. That’s terrific, I said. Your help is needed.
That’s what I’d hoped for, too, when I started out. I had a skill set: I could decipher mind-numbing contracts and byzantine regulations. I could draft them, too. I was apparently a born negotiator, relentless in my pursuit of wringing accommodations from those not used to being questioned. To my counterparts across the table, I was unfailingly pleasant. I made lots of friends in order to get things done.
You who are always right about everything, come fight us. You will not
be destroyed, nor will your berm shield you from our javelins. . . .
In those days, I didn’t know about John Ashbery, but I carried a poem by Wallace Stevens everywhere I went. I kept a copy in my wallet and tacked it up on cheesy partitions and fancy office walls. Throughout, one constant remained: I wasn’t enamored of being an employee. Why can’t these people content themselves with saying what they want and leave the how to me? “The imperfect is our paradise,” Stevens reminded me.
When I opened my practice, I had many masters, and therefore none. I didn’t need Stevens’s poem so much anymore. I went on my way, changing “assure” to “require” hundreds of times a day. I called it “shoveling the shit” off the sidewalk so my clients could get to work. My brain settled in a groove. I didn’t think about whether I liked the work or not. The work wasn’t likeable: that wasn’t the point. The point was to serve those who made a difference in the world.
Though the law is at best a Rube Goldberg device, it lays claim to a straightforward logic. It believes that, if you go to a, then b, then c, if you don’t swerve, but stay on its narrow path, you’ll get to z. Cause and effect, deductive logic, all of that.
These then were some hazards of the course,
Yet though we knew the course was hazards and nothing else
It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time.
Even after I closed my practice, my brain remained in its groove. Only a Dickinsonian splinter would be able to swerve it from its path. But where would it come from? What would it look like? How would it feel? I followed path after path from a to b to c, but nothing worked.
Thanks to my student-guide’s fine navigational skills, I found Locust Walk. Kelly Writers House was right where I’d left it on my first visit. I was back now to hear John Ashbery read and talk about his poems.
When I first encountered Ashbery’s poetry, I couldn’t fathom how to read it. But I believed in Mark Kerstetter’s impassioned praise of him, so I persisted, as is my way. Phrase after phrase collected in my head. Among the first were these:
Hasn’t the sky?
The day was gloves.
The phrases were mysterious, but resonant. They didn’t end in thought, but opened up a dream.
I discovered that reading Ashbery’s poems completely subverted my ability to think in a straight line. My brain was flummoxed, of course, and settled back in its groove at every chance. I kept reading, trying to decipher what the poems meant. I seized on a word, that shape-shifting “it” in On the Empress’s Mind, for example. I tried to follow the trail of “it,” but “it” kept wandering off.
. . . Is it any help
that motorbikes whiz up, to ask for directions
or colored jewelry, so that one can go about one’s visit
a tad less troubled than before, lightly composed?
The Ashbery reading and talk were to take place shortly after a blizzard hit the northeast. The night before I was to leave, Amtrak advised my train had been cancelled. I booked another. It would be tight to make connections, but I’d leave the house early. Or so I thought.
The morning of departure opened in “wintry mix.” Words of dread. Even if the trains were running, I couldn’t get to them. I changed my reservations once again. It was going to warm up. I’d still have time, I hoped.
It was a strange sort of errand. Ashbery, after all, lives in New York City, an hour and a half in travel time, rather than five or six. Doubtless, he’d be reading in New York City again, too.
What name do I have for you?
Certainly there is no name for you
In the sense that the stars have names
That somehow fit them. . . .
I don’t want to call Ashbery venerable or think of him as an icon. He’s too alive, too full of mischief, to be set in such dour stone. But it was important to me to be present. I had to get to Philadelphia in time. Even though New York City is where Ashbery lives, Kelly Writers House is, for me, his poetic home.
Before the reading, I read and re-read Ashbery’s new book, Quick Question. I longed for guidance, for a critic’s commentary, or at least a quick question to help me find my way, but this time I was on my own. I kept on, trying to stop my mind from applying straight-line logic to read the poems.
The poet Ron Silliman related a story of a student who read some poetry strange and new to her. She kept reading and re-reading, unpersuaded. At about the eighth re-reading, though, the poems opened up to her.
Best not to dwell on our situation, but to dwell in it is deeply refreshing.
I knew what Silliman meant. It’s not easy to get my brain out of its groove, but it’s rewarding: to dwell in Ashbery’s poems, rather than on them, is “deeply refreshing” for me.
Filreis: Do you want to respond to Susan’s suggestion that you taught her how not to go in a straight line?
Ashbery: Well, I apologize. [laughter] I guess I’ve encouraged a lot of deviant behavior in my writing. Since, as you may have gathered, I don’t think in a straight line or with a purpose and kind of let things happen to me and at the same time giving them a nudge or a swift kick. So this does produce a sort of zig-zag effect in my life and art, which I’m okay with, since I believe that things are meant to be like that.
As I walked around in Quick Question, I made unlooked-for discoveries on every page. No morals, no neatly tied-up narratives, but life itself, as lived.
. . . The balloon is ascending
above ferns, teacup chimneys, striped stockings.
So long training wheels. I’m gone for three weeks at a time.
Filreis: I’ll try it one more time. [laughter] The quantitative people are attacking the qualitative people. In Soonest Mended, that problem of adjustment, it’s such an anthem for saying, you know, it’s okay, we should never graduate from college, the best kind of maturity is a constant immaturity, and that sort of thing. You do this a lot, so would you say that you’ve made a space for yourself as a non-quantitative person, I guess I would say? I assume you like that space, and you would encourage others to do so. Can I get you to say anything about that?
Ashbery: I wouldn’t want to encourage others to do it. [laughter] Well, I don’t know, I always seem to be writing from a kind of remote point in my history, back in college or something, and being surrounded by a crowd of like-minded friends, and that’s us, we are the world, and both apologizing for it and defying anybody to find anything wrong with that. I was just thinking for a minute about the rest of [Soonest Mended] . . . “barely tolerated, living on the margin in our technological society.” That’s the way I’ve always felt, and as I’ve gotten older and continued to feel that way and nobody has really called me on it, I’m feeling sort of brave and virtuous, I suppose, although still scared.
The segments of the trip swing open like an orange.
There is light in there, and mystery and food.
Come see it. Come not for me but it.
But if I am still there, grant that we may see each other.
[Just Walking Around]
To hear Ashbery read and discuss living on the margin in relation to Auburn-Tinted Fences and Soonest Mended, click here. To hear Ashbery discuss not thinking in a straight line, click here. To hear Ashbery discuss Just Walking Around, click here. To hear a complete audio of the 2-11-13 reading and 2-12-13 interview, click here and scroll down.
John Tranter: While I was speaking with John Ashbery, I asked him which composer he particularly liked.
Ashbery: The composer Arvo Pärt . . . I have very eclectic tastes in music. He happens to be an avant-garde composer of the moment whose work has become very successful. It has a very sort of spacy quality, I suppose you would say. But it’s much more than that; it’s not what is now being called New Age music, although there are perhaps things in it that would appeal to people who like that sort of music. It’s very dreamlike, ethereal music, mostly, and music that almost inevitably causes you to reflect and lose track of the music itself.
Selections from Arvo Pärt on Spotify may be found by clicking here.
Postscript: For walking around in Ashbery’s poems, here are two great lists: Al Filreis’s list of “64 indispensible Ashbery poems” may be found here. Mark Kerstetter’s list of “my favorite Ashbery poems” may be found here. Blog posts by Filreis, which contain several links, including links to video and audio of Ashbery’s February 11, 2013, reading and Filreis’s interview with Ashbery on February 12, 2013, may be found here and here.
Credits: The photograph of Ashbery is by Al Filreis. (Filreis is, among other things, the Kelly Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House.) The Filreis/Ashbery exchanges are my transcriptions of excerpts from Filreis’s interview with Ashbery on February 12, 2013. A video of the entire interview may be found here. The Tranter/Ashbery exchange is my transcription of an excerpt from a recording for “Radio Helicon, hosted by John Tranter, ABC, June 19, 1988,” and may be found here. The entire recording and many other audios of Ashbery readings and interviews may be found on PennSound’s Ashbery page here. The quotation from Wallace Stevens is from The Poems of Our Climate, which may be found here.
The excerpts from Ashbery’s poems are from the poems noted in the text. I have linked to the complete text or audio to poems to the extent they are available on the web (the link to The Skaters is of the first-ever reading of this poem, in 1964). The poems mentioned in the text may also be found in these books, as indicated: Collected Poems1956-1987 (Just Walking Around, Some Trees, Soonest Mended, Clepsydra, The Skaters); Notes from the Air, Selected Later Poems (On the Empress’s Mind); Quick Question (Auburn-Tinted Fences, Homeless Heart, A View from the Fireplace).