It comes down to whether you appreciate the conflations Ashbery artfully manages as he penetrates the membrane between Steven's Supreme Fiction, that perfect of Ideal Types and their arrangements, with the material sphere that won't follow expectation, nor take direction. I happen to think that much of the interstices he investigates are results of artful wandering; Ashbery is a flaneur of his own musings, and the Proustian inspection provides their idiosyncratic, insular joys. Had I thought Ashbery over rated and a bore, I'd have turned my back on critical praise of him and left him cold; I have a habit of keeping my own consul regarding reading preferences, as I'm sure all of us do. But continue to read him I do, over several decades.
Not a rebel, not a polemicist, hardly a rabble -rouser who makes speeches and writes incendiary essays against injustice, Ashbery is an aesthete, a contemplator, an intelligence of infinite patience exploring the spaces between what consciousness sees, the language it develops to register and comprehend experience, and the restlessness of memory stirred and released into streaming associations. Ashbery's are hard to "get" in the sense that one understands a note to get milk at the store or a cop's command to keep one's hand above their head, in plain site. Ashbery's poems have everything the eye can put a shape to in plain site, clouded, however, by thoughts, the cloud bank of memory. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.
One might think that the mtvU audience might be more attracted to arch romantic and decidedly urban poet Frank O'Hara, whose emphatic musings and extrapolations had equal parts rage and incontestable joy which gave a smile or a snarl to his frequent spells of didactic erudition. He was in love with popular culture, with advertising, movies, the movies, he had an appreciation of modern art, he loved jazz and ballads, and he loved being a City Poet. He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment, and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes and galleries where he treads. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection.
In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence. I’m not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped. Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work.
Poetry is the written form where ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and the tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition.
''I think I'm famous among people who may never have read a line of my poetry,'' he says. ''I've heard myself described as 'the most successful American poet,' but 'successful poet' seems a contradiction in terms - like 'negative capability.' Poetry seems to involve failure - a celebration of a failed state of affairs.'' Ashbery admits that he once despaired of finding a readership; that, ever since, he has written to please himself, and that this seems to have been a shrewd strategy after all. ''Very often people don't listen to you when you speak to them. It's only when you talk to yourself that they prick up their ears.''
OMEONE APPROACHING ASHbery's work for the first time would be wise not to look for a didactic message in it - let alone for the chain reaction of personal revelations that regularly sets off sparks in the work of Robert Lowell or John Berryman. Ashbery's poetry is explosive in a different manner altogether. About the only thing one can confidently expect of an Ashbery poem is the constant sense that the unexpected is upon us. The leaps are dazzling; the individual lines, stunningly precise in themselves, cohere in ways that can only startle, making us laugh at times and at other times leaving us feeling that we don't know quite what hit us.
Ashbery's poetry is so richly textured, so replete with allusions and red herrings and complicated rhetorical gestures, that a critic with any degree of ingenuity can easily appeal to his lines as the support system for a pet critical theory. But for many of us, any key or code to the poems - however ingeniously put forth - might well work to diminish rather than enhance our delight. Which may simply be another way of saying that Ashbery's poetry often induces in its readers the state of mystified alertness that only the most intense of esthetic experiences can afford.
At a time when collections of poetry tend to gather dust at out- of-the-way bookstores, Ashbery's books do extremely well. Extremely well for a poet of Ashbery's stature means an average annual income of $12,000 in royalties and honorariums for poetry readings, a sum that is buttressed by his other professional activities. ''Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror'' has sold nearly 36,000 copies in combined hardcover and paperback sales; ''A Wave,'' which came out last May, virtually sold out its first printing of 5,000 copies within five months. But these figures, impressive though they are, tell only part of the story. To get a true notion of Ashbery's impact, one would have to enumerate the bonanza of critical articles that have been devoted to him; consider the diverse array of younger poets who list Ashbery as an influence or an inspiration; add the crowded audiences from his active schedule of poetry readings, and factor in the creative-writing seminars, coast to coast, in which Ashbery's poetry almost amounts to a rite of initiation. (His ''At North Farm,'' the keynote poem in ''A Wave,'' and a critical comment on it appear on page 84.)
Ashbery's literary reputation should properly be a source of astonishment in any case, because he has never deviated from the commitment to an experimental ideal that characterized his very first book of poems, ''Some Trees,'' chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets series in 1956. Ashbery's poems, then and now, do waken an anxiety in some readers. What, they wonder, does it all mean? ''Last night, at a poetry reading I gave at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, I said, 'I believe in communicating, but I don't believe in communicating something the reader already knows,' '' Ashbery tells a visitor to his Chelsea apartment in New York City. ''A man in the audience said, 'Yes, but what is it then that you do want to communicate?' I was rather at a loss to reply. I guess the answer is that I don't really know until I'm actually in the process of writing, and after that happens, I forget what it was. But my aim is not to puzzle and terrorize readers but to give them something new to think about.''
Ashbery speaks slowly, carefully, with the air of a man who is eager to clear up misunderstandings but is almost resigned to their taking place. ''I think that in the process of writing all kinds of unexpected things happen that shift the poet away from his plan, and that these accidents are really what we mean when we talk about poetry,'' he says, lighting an unfiltered Gitane. ''The pleasure one gets from reading poetry comes from something else than the idea or story in a poem, which is just a kind of armature for the poet to drape with many- colored rags. These are what one really enjoys but can't admit it, since there is this underlying urge to analyze and make sense of everything. But what is 'making sense,' anyway?''
Or, as Ashbery writes in the brilliant title poem of ''A Wave,'' his latest volume of poetry and quite possibly his strongest to date:
. . . And the issue Of making sense becomes
such a far-off one. Isn't this
''sense'' - This little of my life that I can
see - that answers me Like a dog, and wags its tail,
though excitement and fidelity are About all that ever gets expressed? What did I ever do To want to wander over into
something else, an explanation Of how I behaved, for instance, when knowing can
have this Sublime rind of excitement,
like the shore of a lake in
the desert Blazing with the sunset? . . .
MERELY TO LIST some of Ashbery's characteristic procedures will convey an idea of what makes his poetry so unusual and so compelling. Begin with his titles, for Ashbery does - he invariably chooses a title before writing the poem that it heads. ''I feel it's a kind of opening into a potential poem, a door that suddenly pops open and leads into an unknown space,'' he says. Like Wallace Stevens, whom he cites as a precedent, Ashbery favors picturesque titles that bear a quizzical relation to the lines that follow. If his poems were paintings, these titles would amount to an invisible extra color.
Look at examples from ''A Wave.'' Alliteration goes wild in ''Around the Rough and Rugged Rocks the Ragged Rascal Rudely Ran.'' Paradox turns into punch line in ''I See, Said the Blind Man, As He Put Down His Hammer and Saw.'' Critical reactions are anticipated, and perhaps disarmed, by ''Purists Will Object'' and by ''But What Is the Reader to Make of This?'' ''Try Me! I'm Different!'' and ''Ditto, Kiddo'' revel in Ashbery's affection for colloquialisms, cliches and ''plain American which cats and dogs can read,'' to quote Marianne Moore. Ashbery would sooner celebrate the language of the tribe than purify it. ''It's sacred for me, just because it's the way we all talk,'' he says, adding with maddening logic: ''We must know what we're doing or we wouldn't talk as we do.''
Perhaps it is a striving for universality that lies behind his audacious disregard for an exactness of reference. Writes Douglas Crase, one of the best in an emerging generation of poets upon whom Ashbery has had a profound influence: ''Ashbery is insouciant about place; he is prodigal with pronouns, profligate with tenses and extravagant with evasion and hyperbole. Who, what, where, why and when - they are spun off like freed electrons.''
In Ashbery's poetry, ''I'' can turn into ''you,'' ''he'' into ''we'' without warning - as though the pronouns all represented aspects of a universal consciousness and functioned like the variables in an ever-changing equation. This has its humorous side, too, of course. Quipped fellow poet Kenneth Koch, when he and Ashbery were colleagues on The Harvard Advocate in the late 1940's: the paradigmatic Ashbery line is, ''It wants to go to bed with us.''
Not that Ashbery eschews logic in his poetry. It's just that the logic he leans on resembles that of an unedited dream - or a musical composition. ''What I like about music is its ability of being convincing, of carrying an argument through successfully to the finish, though the terms of this argument remain unknown quantities,'' Ashbery wrote 20 years ago, and the statement applies as strongly today. Cheerfully calling himself ''a frustrated composer,'' Ashbery speaks of polyphony and polytonality as ''privileges which I envy composers for having'' and which he tries to incorporate in his poems not only through his patented proliferation of pronouns but through ''a choir or cluster of voices'' that speak as if between invisible quotation marks. Just when the ''argument'' seems headed toward resolution, a new voice will interrupt; a concrete image will appear where further elaboration seemed called for. ''This mirrors my own attempts to acquire knowledge,'' says Ashbery. ''At the very moment when abstract thinking seems about to produce a result, something concrete steps in and takes its place.'' The result very often reads like a ''visible soundtrack'' of a mind in motion, a mind that can be quite mindless a split second before, or after, it hits upon an insight or a truth.
Ashbery is nowhere near as doctrinaire as the French Surrealists were about the significance of the dreaming mind to the creative process. ''I feel there are other mental states as interesting as dreams, or as uninteresting,'' says Ashbery, ''but in order to present a complete picture of one's experience, what goes on in one's head, one needs to use lots of them.''
It's the structure or grammar of a dream, the part that defies interpretation, that especially endears itself to Ashbery. ''The logic of a dream has a persuasiveness that logic doesn't have,'' he declares. ''Suppose in a dream you found yourself in two different places at the same time. If somebody argued that you weren't, you wouldn't believe him, you would believe the dream situation, which would seem right to you for reasons you are unable to guess.''
Does he attach any special significance to tarot cards, astrology or other forms of divination? No, because ''the occult is not mysterious enough.'' Nevertheless, these have provided the poet with some incidental imagery in the past, and they appeal to him, one suspects, for the same reason that dreams do: they're a means of stirring up the unconscious in pursuit of ''the real reality, beyond truer imaginings'' - a phrase, like so many in Ashbery's poetry, that stops one in one's tracks. In dreams begin paradoxes:
. . . I never think about it Unless I think about it all the
time And therefore don't know except in dreams How I behave, what I mean to
myself. . . .
ASHBERY RECENTLY moved into a larger apartment in the high-rise building he has lived in for the last dozen years, and signs of the move are everywhere. Books remain boxed, but Ashbery's old living room has reassembled itself. At its center is a low glass table that makes the room look more spacious than it actually is. A wall-to- wall window faces the Hudson River, treating the poet to ''pollution-pink sunsets'' on a daily basis. On an adjacent wall hangs a painting of an artist's worktable by Jane Freilicher, a longtime friend. An art critic for much of his professional life, Ashbery currently serves in that capacity for Newsweek, and he himself has been the subject of portraits by such painters as Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers and, most recently, Francesco Clemente, the Italian neo- Expressionist.
It was during a 10-year stay in France - where he'd gone as a Fulbright fellow in 1955 - that Ashbery ''backed into a career as an art critic.'' To support his poetry and other literary activities, he wrote hundreds of reviews for the Paris edition of The Herald Tribune between 1960 and 1965.
The task of writing a weekly article, ''rain or shine, exhibitions or no exhibitions,'' convinced Ashbery that ''I could sit down the same way with apoem and type if I wanted to.'' This remains his modus operandi : Ashbery approaches his typewriter once a week or so to write poetry, confident that he will tap his unconscious in the very act of tapping the keys. With a journalist's discipline, he imposes a deadline on himself when he undertakes to write a long poem.
''I began 'A Wave' around NewYear of 1983 and finished the first draft at the end of February, my cut- off date,'' he says. ''That's probably what caused the poem to end. I mean, the fact that I realized I was now within a day or two of the limit I had set for myself caused me to produce an ending.''
Besides deadlines, poetry and journalism have something else in com-mon for Ashbery. ''A newspaper article does have a form,'' he explains. ''Nobody is going to tell you what it is. It's something you have to find out for yourself, and the same thing is true of poems.''
Ashbery insists that music rather than painting has been the more immediate stimulus for his poetry. He writes while listening to an all-classical FM station; he is receptive to other kinds of music as well, and, in fact, his poem ''The Songs We Know Best,'' with its hilarious couplets - ''Too often when you thought you'd be showered with confetti/ What they flung at you was a plate of hot spaghetti'' - was written to the rhythms of the pop lyric ''Reunited and it feels so good.'' An important breakthrough in Ashbery's poetic development occurred when he attended a concert of John Cage's music in the early 1950's. ''In the case of Cage, the idea that chance can be the determining element in a work of art was very exciting,'' Ashbery says. ''It wasn't only the actual music that I found exhilarating, but the possibilities that this way of composing seemed to open up, not just for musicians but for artists in general.''
The parallels between Ashbery and a composer like Elliott Carter - whose musical setting of Ashbery's poem ''Syringa'' invites the comparison - have been explored in a perceptive essay by the critic Lawrence Kramer. ''It is not that the poems have no meaning, or hide their meanings,'' Kramer maintains. ''It is that they, like Carter's compositions, consist of a plurality of meanings woven into one fabric.'' Other critics contend, with perhaps equal justification, that Ashbery's poetic practices approximate a literary equivalent of Abstract Expressionism. An Ashbery poem, they point out, is very nearly as opaque and self-referential as a canvas by Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning; it chronicles its own development, serving as a metaphor for the mind of its maker.
Certainly Ashbery's art criticism helps illuminate some of the fundamental principles that govern his own poetry. From 1965 until 1972, Ashbery worked as executive editor of the New York-based magazine Art News, in which he published major essays on de Kooning, Saul Steinberg, Joseph Cornell and avant-garde art in general. One such article saluted the gambler's instinct that experimental art seems to require. Ashbery drew a surprising analogy to religion. ''Most reckless things are beautiful in some way,'' he argued, ''and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing. We would all believe in God if we knew He existed, but would this be much fun?''
More recently, in an appreciation of the American expatriate artist R. B. Kitaj, Ashbery virtually defined the common ground between painter and poet. After ''The Waste Land,'' Ashbery wrote that ''the randomness and discontinuity of modern experience'' could no longer be ignored. ''Art with
any serious aspirations toward realism still has to take into account the fact that reality escapes laws of perspective and logic, and does not naturally take the form of a sonnet or a sonata.''
But for all his affinities with modern artists, Ashbery's most celebrated poem takes its title and its point of departure not from a work of abstract art, but from a 16th- century painting by the Italian Mannerist Parmigianino. It's hard to look at the several convex mirrors in Ashbery's apartment without thinking of his magnificent ''Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.'' ''That was the first time I ever took a painting as the subject for a poem,'' Ashbery recalls. ''And I did it only after I left Art News and supposed that I wouldn't be involved with writing about art anymore. It was as though I had been consciously avoiding this particular input while I was in the business of being an art editor, as though I shouldn't be writing about what is so close to my daily business.''
During the winter of 1973 in Provincetown, Mass., Ashbery happened upon a small bookstore on an obscure back street and bought a book of Parmigianino reproductions. Soon he found himself using the painting as the pretext for poetry, the motive for metaphor. ''The funny thing is, when I went to find that bookstore it had completely disappeared. There was no trace of its ever having been there. It was like De Quincey looking in vain for the store where he first bought opium. Being kind of susceptible to all kinds of mystical, superstitious ideas, I felt that this bookstore had just materialized for a few moments to allow me to buy this book, and then vanished.'' Seen in the light of a crucial passage near the end of the poem, this eery anecdote seems almost a parable about poetic inspiration:
. . . the ''it was all a dream'' Syndrome, though the ''all''
tells tersely Enough how it wasn't. Its existence Was real, though troubled,
and the ache Of this waking dream can
never drown out The diagram still sketched on
the wind, Chosen, meant for me and
materialized In the disguising radiance of
my room. . . .
SINCE 1974, ASHBERY has directed the graduate poetry-writing program at Brooklyn College. The assignments he gives to his students differ dramatically from the usual agenda in creative-writing workshops. One Ashbery assignment is to write in a constricting form like the sestina, whose intricate rules can prove curiously liberating. (A sestina consists of six six-line stanzas followed by a terminal three-line stanza; the same six words that conclude the lines in the opening stanza recur in a predetermined order as the end words of all the subsequent lines in the poem. Writing a sestina, Ashbery has said, is ''rather like riding downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push your feet'' - you wind up speeding into unknown terrain.) The students are also asked to translate a poem from a language they don't understand - without the help of a dictionary; to solve a rebus; and to transform ''a poem that's in the public domain'' into a poem of their own. Robert Frost once defined poetry as ''what gets lost in translation.'' For Ashbery, it sometimes seems, poetry is closer to an inspired form of mis translation.
Ashbery's students speak of him - and his exotic methods of composition - with unabashed enthusiasm. ''He was marvelously laid-back in class,'' recalls Star Black, who was well advanced in her career as a photographer when she enrolled in the Brooklyn College writing program in 1980. ''He wanted us to subvert - and expand - our minds. He also wanted to undermine the cranky standards we had for judging poetry. One time he asked us to write a deliberately amateurish poem. I found that, much to my amazement, my poem really worked. I wrote one of my better poems trying to write a bad poem.''
John Yau, a former student whose book of poems ''Corpse and Mirror'' was selected by Ashbery for the National Poetry Series in 1983, singles out the mistranslation assignment. ''Dealing with a page of Egyptian hieroglyphics forced you to make other connections, to manipulate your syntax so that it did things that declarative sentences can't do,'' says Yau. ''Ashbery taught us that a poem could follow a logic of its own. It didn't have to fulfill a traditional expectation. Most poetry in America is anecdotal, a form of storytelling, and he made you go beyond that. He encouraged you to try to go beyond the mainstream of what's acceptable.''
Although his academic credentials include a Master of Arts degree in English literature from Columbia University, Ashbery is a self- taught instructor - he was close to 50 when he taught his first class - and this may help to account for his unique pedagogical style. ''What startled me most about Ashbery's teaching was his seemingly off-hand manner,'' says Elizabeth Brunowski, a student in the program. She is a clinical psychologist and is completing a book about Nijinsky. She says she entered the program largely because of a published interview in which Ashbery made frequent reference to Nijinsky. Ashbery's commentary on the great dancer's diary - on ''the quality of language of someone going into a psychotic state'' - impressed her enormously. ''His psychological insights were nothing short of brilliant,'' says Miss Brunowski.
For the last several years, Ashbery has taught only during the fall semesters, a decision dictated by the life- threatening illness he suddenly came down with in the spring of 1982. A common staphylococcus infection in an uncommon place - the spine - required that he be rushed to the hospital for major surgery. The operation was a success, but for months thereafter Ashbery needed a mechanical walker to get around, and he continues to suffer from an assortment of permanent, if slight, disabilities.
On the subject of his health, Ashbery assumes ''the stoic pose, tinged with irony and self-mockery,'' that he describes in one of his poems. ''I can't run, and I get tired if I walk a long time or stand a long time,'' he says. ''These seem a small price to pay for being alive, so I'm not really unhappy about them.'' How has the death's-door experience affected his poetry? ''I don't know that it has,'' is the somewhat surprising reply. ''Many of life's major disasters and calamities don't seem to have made much of an impression on me.''
The illness and its aftermath have scarcely deterred the poet from leading his customarily active social life, though he admits to having become ''more of a stay-at- home in the past few years.'' His is a familiar presence at literary events and celebrations in New York. He has an extremely wide range of friends and acquaintances, many of long standing, and though he is besieged by visitors he erects few barriers between himself and the outside world. At an impromptu post- dinner party in Ashbery's apartment, guests might find themselves listening to recordings of the Firesign Theater comedy group, as Ashbery guffaws delightedly. Or he might play the works of little- known 19th-century and early modern composers on his stereo. Ashbery, who once referred to himself in a poem as an ''insatiable researcher of learned trivia,'' has a phenomenal memory that enables him to recite recondite lines off the top of his head - or to speak about flowers or cooking, two of his passions, with expertise:
. . And then the results are
brilliant: Someone is summoned to a
name, and soon A roomful of people becomes
dense and contoured And words come out of the
wall To batter the rhythm of generation following on generation. . . .
SIPPING A CUP OF coffee in his living room, Ashbery explains that the assignments he prepares for his poetry classes ''work for the purpose of distracting the students to the point at which they're able to write the poem they were planning to write anyway, without worrying about it, because they imagine they're solving some problem.'' Asked whether he assigns these or similar tasks to himself, Ashbery at first demurs but then obligingly pulls out a new poem called ''Forgotten Song,'' which begins by juxtaposing two lines from folk ballads - ''O Mary, go and call the cattle home/ For I'm sick in my heart and fain would lie down'' - and branches off from there. Other recent works, too, come to mind as examples of Ashbery's fondness for fairy tales and once-popular ballads in the public domain. ''At North Farm,'' the keynote poem in ''A Wave,'' refigures a motif from a Finnish folk epic, and ''Description of a Masque,'' a prose poem in the same volume, more elaborately features Little Jack Horner (''a tall and roguish-looking young man wearing a trench coat and expensive blue jeans'') as well as Simple Simon and the Pie Man (two vaudevilleans, it appears) among its nursery-rhyme heroes.
Ashbery readily acknowledges folklore as an influence - or at least as a fund of poetic material. The distinction is an important one to Ashbery. ''I don't see influence the way literary critics see it,'' he says. When pressed, he mentions Auden and Stevens, ''hybrid'' French Surrealists like Pierre Reverdy and Max Jacob, German Romantic poets like H"olderlin and Novalis. ''But I don't sit down to write a poem and think, well, since I've been influenced by Wallace Stevens, I will now write a poem that's influenced by Wallace Stevens.''
Virtually everything, on the other hand, can serve Ashbery as a source of material or as the occasion for a poem. It might be a comic strip that sets him off - he has published a sestina about Popeye as well as a poem titled ''Daffy Duck in Hollywood,'' whose range of references includes Speedy Gonzales, the Princesse de Cl eves, and Milton's Satan in ''Paradise Lost.'' Should the telephone ring during the hour or so a week that Ashbery reserves for the writing of poetry, he'll welcome the interruption - and allow it to modify the poem in progress. Nothing is excluded or suppressed: Ashbery can leap in an instant from Sydney Carton to a wrong number to an affirmation of love, and make it seem the most natural thing in the world.
''When I began writing poetry, I was a compulsive reader of all the contemporary poetry of that time,'' Ashbery says. ''Now I look for ideas for poetry elsewhere - in other kinds of writing, movies, daily life in New York City.'' Ashbery considers ''the New York School'' of poetry - in which he, Koch, James Schuyler and the late Frank O'Hara are commonly thought of as charter members - a misleading tag. ''I never really thought of myself as being a sort of spokesperson for New York,'' he tells his guest. ''But I was wondering, when you were asking me about the simultaneity of high culture and low in my poems, whether that might be a result of living in New York City, where everything is mashed together that way. I look out my window and see what seems to be a Gothic church tower and a big building that says ABIE'S BABY on it right next door.'' The latter is an ''office furniture supermarket''; the former is the spire of the General Theological Seminary, where South African Bishop Desmond M. Tutu, lately awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, is currently a visiting professor. ''It must be a state that I find it profitable to reflect on,'' muses Ashbery. ''The simultaneity of conflicting states of being'' - something that New York City specializes in.
These days, Ashbery divides his time between his Manhattan apartment and an eclectic American Victorian house in the Hudson Valley, a convenient train ride away. He shares his Hudson Valley digs with David Kermani, his companion for more than a decade, who works as a rug and art dealer in nearby Albany. The pair spend weekends together, until Monday classes compel Ashbery to return to the city.
Ashbery writes in either place, though his professional obligations - at Newsweek and at Brooklyn College - limit the time he has available. ''Being both a lazy and ambitious person, I want to get some work done and also get it over with so I can get back to being lazy,'' says Ashbery. ''I'm not sure that I'd write much more poetry than I do. But I'd like very much to try other kinds of writing, such as fiction, that I don't have the time for. I have ideas for some short stories.'' CONSPICUOUSLY ABSENT from Ashbery's poetry are the autobiographical tales and details of his life. You wouldn't know from reading his verse that Ashbery grew up on a farm in Sodus, N.Y., during the Great Depression - ''Actually, I had a sort of Victorian childhood,'' he says - or that he was extremely close to his maternal grandfather, a prominent physicist at the University of Rochester.
His poems won't tell you that the bookish lad became a radio ''quiz kid'' and later attended Deerfield Academy, ''an uncomfortably conservative, WASP, jock school,'' where he gradually gave up painting for poetry - and where another boy pirated two of his early efforts and published them in Poetry magazine under the pseudonym ''Joel Michael Symington.''
Ashbery attributes his reticence to a feeling that ''the circumstances of my own life are of no compelling interest to me.'' It isn't really a question of privacy; on the contrary, it's a predilection for writing poems about ''paradigms of common experience,'' poems that invent their own experiences rather than simply record events in the life of the poet. ''My own autobiography has never interested me very much,'' Ashbery once told an interviewer. ''Whenever I try to think about it, I seem to draw a complete blank.
''There is the title of a Japanese film by Ozu: 'I was born, but . . .' That's how I feel about it.''
. . . Heck, it's anybody's story, A sentimental journey - ''gonna take
a sentimental journey,'' And we do, but you wake up under the
table of a dream: You are that dream, and it is the seventh layer of you. We haven't moved an inch, and everything has changed. . . .
John Ashbury has never made it easy for critics to predict the course his work will take. Each of the 50 poems in ''Shadow Train'' (1981), his last collection before ''A Wave,'' consisted of 16 lines broken into 4 equal stanzas. Ashbery gravitated to this form, he reports, in reaction against the ''fearful asymmetry'' of the sonnet. Yet ''At North Farm,'' the lead poem in ''A Wave,'' is recognizably a sonnet - though an unrhymed and inverted one; its 14 lines are divided into two stanzas, which behave very much like the octet and sestet of a traditional sonnet. Ashbery thanks his interviewer for pointing this out to him. ''I was doing this completely unconsciously,'' he says. ''I wasn't counting the lines. The poem ended when it ended, as usual. So I guess it is a good thing we have critics around to tell us what we're doing.''
Playing the critic, to oblige his guest, Ashbery allows that the two stanzas enforce a set of contrasts. The messenger in the first stanza ''is coming across deserts, but once he arrives he'll be in a place where there are a lot of people. He may not find the right person to deliver the message to.''
The second stanza takes us away from the city and back to the farm, where ''we'' reside, ''we'' being passive observers of the drama involving ''you.'' ''The idea is, I think, that the plenty alluded to has an unnatural origin, some magical reason for being there, since it didn't grow there, which would be borne out by the act of leaving a dish out for the goblin to ensure that the plenty would continue.'' What about the paradoxical ''sometimes and always'' in the last line? ''Just as feelings can be mixed, so 'sometimes and always' can coexist,'' says Ashbery.
The title ''At North Farm'' derives from the Kalevala, a Finnish folk epic. ''It's a place referred to frequently in that poem, with the epithet 'gloomy and prosperous north farm,' '' Ashbery says. ''It's situated somewhere near hell.'' The critic Helen Vendler, reviewing ''A Wave'' for The New York Review of Books last June, interpreted the poem's ''gloomy and prosperous'' locale - a barren place whose granaries are bursting - as a metaphor for middle age. According to Miss Vendler, the traveler in the poem is ''the Angel of Death'' and ''Ashbery's propitiatory dish of milk for the goblin'' is a folk remedy to keep death at bay.
But Ashbery, who had a close brush with death as the result of a spinal infection in 1982, prefers to think of ''At North Farm'' as a love poem. It ''was written before I became ill and had no inkling that I would become ill,'' he says. He identifies the ''someone'' in the first line not as an emissary from heaven or hell but as ''a lover, perhaps of a somewhat ominous kind that would remind one of mortality.'' But Ashbery is reluctant to press his own interpretation. ''I remarked to a friend, after I read Helen's review, that I had thought these poems were really dealing with love rather than death,'' he says. ''But sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between them.'' - D.L.
AT NORTH FARM
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously
toward you, At incredible speed, traveling day and
night, Through blizzards and desert heat, across
torrents, through narrow passes. But will he know where to find you, Recognize you when he sees you, Give you the thing he has for you? Hardly anything grows here, Yet the granaries are bursting with meal, The sacks of meal piled to the rafters. The streams run with sweetness, fattening
fish; Birds darken the sky. Is it enough That the dish of milk is set out at night, That we think of him sometimes, Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?Continue reading the main story