“Therefore, since we have to do our business/In spite of things, why not make it in spite of everything?”

John Ashbery turned 90 on July 28, 2017. However belated, it’s an occasion to celebrate. Just Walking Around on the internet, I ran across this quotation:

I don’t quite understand about understanding poetry. I experience poems with pleasure: whether I understand them or not I’m not quite sure. I don’t want to read something I already know or which is going to slide down easily: there has to be some crunch, a certain amount of resilience.—John Ashbery

Tracing the quotation’s ultimate source proved elusive, but then, as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. Along the way, I came across this, by Grace Paley:

. . . which led me to this:

When I was younger I spent a lot of time waiting around to be inspired, but now I don’t believe in inspiration very much. I don’t have much spare time and I’ve taught myself to use whatever there is and to write without worrying whether this happens to be a privileged moment or not. There are, after all, very few. I have a line in one of my poems which goes: “Since we have to do our business in spite of things, why not make it in spite of everything?’”—John Ashbery

. . . which, in turn, led to this:

One day we thought of painted furniture, of how
It just slightly changes everything in the room
And in the yard outside, and how, if we were going
To be able to write the history of our time, starting with today,
It would be necessary to model all these unimportant details
So as to be able to include them; otherwise the narrative
Would have that flat, sandpapered look the sky gets
Out in the middle west toward the end of summer,
The look of wanting to back out before the argument
Has been resolved, and at the same time to save appearances
So that tomorrow will be pure. Therefore, since we have to do our business
In spite of things, why not make it in spite of everything?

—from John Ashbery’s Pyrography

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All the while, I listened to this:

Listening List

Johann Sebastian Bach, French Suite No. 6 in E Major BWV 817, performed by Sviatoslav Richter (here and here)

French Suite No. 6 in E Major is perhaps the most brilliantly entertaining and tuneful of all the French Suites. Even the opening Allemande is high-spirited, with a contrapuntal line in the left hand that chases and complements the melody in the right hand. It is followed by a whirlwind triple-meter Courante and a triple-meter Sarabande—a grave and lovely dance whose melody is ornamented with expressive trills that accent the second beat of each measure.

Bach chose four galanterien dances for French Suite No. 6. The first is an elegant French Gavotte that emphasizes long-short rhythmic patterns. This is followed by a charming triple-beat Polonaise (one of the first examples of this famed Polish dance to be featured in an instrumental piece) and a simple Menuet. This is followed by a Bourrée, in which Bach makes the most of the syncopated rhythms characteristic of this French dance. Also highly rhythmic is the closing Gigue, which contains a merry duel of counterpoint between the left and right hands that is reminiscent of the opening Allemande. [citation]

– Allemande
– Courante
– Sarabande
– Gavotte

– Polonaise
– Bourrée
– Menuet
– Gigue

Bonus Track (starting at 15:45)


Credits: The sources for the quotations may be found at the links in the text. The photographs of Innisfree Garden at the beginning and end of July are mine. The source for the image of John Ashbery receiving the 2011 National Humanities Medal is here, at approximately 16:17.


10 thoughts on ““Therefore, since we have to do our business/In spite of things, why not make it in spite of everything?”

  1. shoreacres

    You know how I’ve had trouble with some of Ashbery’s poems. Still, by the end of this post, I was feeling real affection for the man, and a kind of understanding which hasn’t been there before. I suppose part of it’s that I think I recognize certain aspects of his process as being part of my process. I’m no Ashbery — not by any stretch. But I think anyone who creates, in any medium, eventually comes around to certain understandings, certain ways of approaching the task, that are stunning in their simplicity and common across cultures and time.

    Ashbery’s words remind me of this favorite poem, which I keep very, very close. It’s a little long, but I can’t find any way to excerpt from it. So: “Berryman,” by W.S. Merwin:

    I will tell you what he told me
    in the years just after the war
    as we then called
    the second world war

    don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
    you can do that when you’re older
    lose it too soon and you may
    merely replace it with vanity

    just one time he suggested
    changing the usual order
    of the same words in a line of verse
    why point out a thing twice

    he suggested I pray to the Muse
    get down on my knees and pray
    right there in the corner and he
    said he meant it literally

    it was in the days before the beard
    and the drink but he was deep
    in tides of his own through which he sailed
    chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

    he was far older than the dates allowed for
    much older than I was he was in his thirties
    he snapped down his nose with an accent
    I think he had affected in England

    as for publishing he advised me
    to paper my wall with rejection slips
    his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
    with the vehemence of his views about poetry

    he said the great presence
    that permitted everything and transmuted it
    in poetry was passion
    passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

    I had hardly begun to read
    I asked how can you ever be sure
    that what you write is really
    any good at all and he said you can’t

    you can’t you can never be sure
    you die without knowing
    whether anything you wrote was any good
    if you have to be sure don’t write

    I think that’s another way of saying, “Since we have to do our business in spite of things, why not make it in spite of everything.”

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: I’m so glad you couldn’t and didn’t excerpt the Merwin, which is brand new to me and definitely a “keeper,” as they say. It strikes me that there are many poetic variations on the theme of both Ashbery’s in spite of everything lines and Merwin’s below:

      you can’t you can never be sure
      you die without knowing
      whether anything you wrote was any good
      if you have to be sure don’t write

      A collection of poems on the theme wouldn’t go amiss. Come to think of it, a poem I have long kept in my pocket (to borrow from Frank O’Hara’s phrase) rings changes on this theme as well. It’s the Wallace Stevens poem “The Poems of Our Climate,” the last four lines of which are these:

      The imperfect is our paradise.
      Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
      Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
      Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

  2. David N

    I’ve sometimes found the Ashbery you’ve quoted a bit opaque – but not this. So limpid, clear and essential – gets right to the heart of things, as much as language ever can. The Grace Paley poem is lovely too. And of course Bach is always the ‘thing in itself’, especially when touched by the hand of a master like Richter.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I, too, often trip over lines in Ashbery (though I give him a lot of leeway, as his poetry has been such a friend to me), but also found this poem, and particularly thie quoted stanza, just as you so elegantly describe. The Richter/Bach I owe to you having noted it to me, I’m fairly certain. I hadn’t listened to it for a while, but came back to it and treasured it all over again, so thank you for that.

  3. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue, that is beautiful as ever, and I totally agree with the Ashbery-quote. Waiting for inspiration – well, that might happen – but most often “genius” is hard work. Which can spark too.
    (Yes, I’m back in blogland – though heavily involved learning Dutch!!! Will tell you soon in a mail). Britta xxx

  4. sackerson

    John Ashbery’s writing is so recognisable. You read a line and immediately realise it could not have been written by anyone else. I remember the first time I read an Ashbery poem – it was in the Penguin Book of Surrealist Poetry.

    Haven’t listened to any Bach for ages – I’ll have to get back to him.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      sackerson, thanks for stopping by! So agree about Ashbery’s writing being so recognizable. As for Bach, whenever I go back to listening to JSB, I wonder why I’d ever left (but of course there is so much wonderful music and all too little time).

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