Over a career that spans 57 years, John Ashbery has picked up many literary prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. Although the majority of critics have duly recognized the fruits of his talent, many have also pointed to the fact that his poems don’t have – in the traditional sense – a specific subject matter.
Inspired by the chaos of the French Surrealist art movement, as well as the unpredictable music of classical 19th-century Russian composers, Ashbery’s poems are experiments in language, which refuse to tie themselves to a specific location or meaning.
While Ashbery shares a number of characteristics with another American poet, Wallace Stevens, his style is undoubtedly original.
His idiosyncrasies include a fondness for making connections between high and low culture, as well as an ability to leap into several worlds, through the use of multiple voices in the space of a single poem and the enormous capabilities of his Surrealist imagination.
In a telephone call that lasted nearly two hours, I talked to Ashbery primarily about poetry. Browsing through some of his earliest, and recent work, Ashbery, very patiently read me some of his poems, giving me the background to their subject matter in the process. But as he explained over the course of our long chat, trying to put ordered sense into a chaotic world through language is not an easy task.
Could you talk about the poem ‘What is Poetry’ from your collection "Houseboat Days"?
Like most poets, I’m constantly being asked the question: What is poetry? And of course there’s no real answer. Like the famous definition of pornography, you know it when you see it. Trivia from daily life may or may not be part of it. The first line of that poem is one possible answer: ‘The medieval town/ with frieze/ of boy scouts from Nagoya?’ That is actually a conflation of two remote memories, the first being when I was visiting the city of Chester once with a friend. We were between trains and actually running around the ramparts, and collided with a troop of Italian boy scouts. And then another time in the elevator of the Empire State Building there was a bunch of Japanese boy scouts, who had the name Nagoya on their uniforms. For some reason I began to think of these things when I thought of the question: What is poetry? It’s perhaps meant to imply that poetry can be just about anything the poet happens upon when trying to write.
The poem ‘More Reluctant’ from your latest collection, begins ‘It’s time for a little chamber music/ of Arensky or Borodin, something minor and enduring.’ Could you speak about the importance that you place in the music of your poems?
I have a great love of 19th-century Russian composers, such as Arensky and Glazunov. (In my first book there’s a poem called ‘Glazunoviana.’) These minor figures I find very moving. I’ve always been envious of composers because they have the ability that poets will never have of expressing themselves without being pinned down to one particular meaning as language is. After listening to a piece of music we often feel a sense of satisfaction and understanding. Poetry aims for this as well, but it’s limited by what the words mean, whereas in music, the message is exact and intelligible but without being paraphrasable like language. Music is also something that has to be experienced over a period of time, unlike a painting. Poetry requires time but somehow you look at it, as you can with a work of art, and kind of get it, before you finish reading it.
Has there ever been a point when you thought the reader is not going to understand this? I’m thinking of your second —and challenging – collection "The Tennis Court Oath." When you were writing this, did you imagine yourself in the readers’ shoes?
Since my first book went nowhere, I was really disappointed and decided to write in a different, experimental way. But what could that be? Did I expect people to read those poems? Well, I didn’t because I thought nobody would publish them. On the one hand I have always felt the most important thing that a writer should do is to write something that people will understand. But I also want to write poetry that expresses my usually tangled thoughts without condescending to a reader. How is it possible to have both of these things happen? I sort of hope they somehow will. But I can’t be the judge of whether they do or not.
You once wrote that "I want to stretch the bond between language and communication but not to sever it." Could you explain what you meant by this?
The bond between language and communication – which some would say is non-existent because they are the same thing – is something that preoccupies me. Language has its own meaning, which is separate from meaning as communication, or so it seems to me.
For example, the language that we hear in dreams is very important to me. I wake up with these words that have just been spoken, and they somehow have a meaning beyond what is possible, even beyond expression. So what is that? It’s almost like the meaning of music. It’s a sort of super meaning that I don’t know much about except that it constantly attracts me and makes me want to include it in my poems.
Could you speak about the use of clichés in your poetry?
I’m attracted to well-worn clichéd language that has been used for ages, when people are trying to express something that is really important to them, and thus it ends up sounding banal, which for me is somehow holy because this speech has served so many times for so many people at important moments in their lives.
Can you tell me about when you first began to become interested in Surrealism and how it changed your perception of the world, or how you related ideas to language, or aesthetics to language?
Yes, when I was nine years old, Life magazine in one of their first issues had an article on a big show of Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art. I had never seen anything like those paintings. I immediately fell in love with them and thought that when I grew up I would be a Surrealist. Of course I hadn’t read any Surrealist literature at that time, but I was ready for it when I encountered it. With a few exceptions though the actual literature of Surrealism has been less meaningful to me than the films and paintings it inspired.
What do you take from the Surrealists?
The idea is that you can use the material of dreams and the unconscious: it’s something that has stayed with me ever since. But I should point out that I don’t believe in completely abandoning the conscious, as, say, Breton would have insisted on. Since we do actually use our conscious minds – quite consciously – all the time, why not give them a voice in what we are creating.
Could you speak about the movement that you became known in as ‘The New York School of poets’? Friends of yours like Frank O’ Hara, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, and others.
Well, Kenneth was the first one of us to go to France, on a Fulbright fellowship. He spread the word when he came back about writers we had never read, and couldn’t read as yet in French, people like Raymond Roussel. But we never saw ourselves as being a movement, just a group of miscellaneous poets who happened to know one another. Our poetry was obviously not what was considered poetry in those days, so we read each other’s work and got together and discussed it. The art dealer who published our first pamphlets decided on the term "New York school of poets," thinking that the prestige of the New York school of painters would somehow rub off on us. If someone wanted to call us that, fine, but it becomes restrictive after a while, and people begin to construe it as sort of French, frivolous, involved with word play and so on. And so it gets left at that.
Aesthetics and art has always been a huge influence on your work, particularly on a collection like "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror." Could you speak about the differences you see between painting and poetry?
You look at a painting and say, oh there it is: I see it and I get it. But in poetry you have to follow, and really pay close attention. I’ve just remembered that you asked me earlier about the Wallace Stevens line "The poem must resist the intelligence/ almost successfully". What Stevens was saying, actually, was that the poem must not resist the intelligence. But he throws the reader off with this one word, almost.
The reader thinks, oh, he’s saying the poem must not be understandable, it must resist the intelligence, what kind of [bs] is that? It’s because they are not paying attention. Poetry, especially for somebody like Wallace Stevens, deals in very fine degrees of meaning and shading, which are there if you look for them and absorb them.
Much has been made by many critics and readers alike of the term "you" or "we" in your poetry. Your poems never seem to really give away who that "you" or "we" is that you are writing about is. Could you speak specifically about this shifting between voices or pronouns, in the narratives of your poems?
Yes, those have caused a great deal of trouble from day one. It must be that I "hear voices" when I’m writing, but also I think because I’ve never had a very strong sense of my own self, and therefore to have other voices cropping up and speaking their mind in my poetry always seemed perfectly natural. I remember when I was writing plays the idea of writing dialogue attracted me very much because I could imagine what other people would say more easily than what I myself might say.
One thing that seems to get under people’s skin is my frequent use of the word “it”, without any particular attribution, and that again was something that I guess came naturally to me, maybe from seeing so much abstract art. “It” is something that’s both vague and specific, and it doesn’t need to be called anything other than it, which is what it is.
When you began writing poetry would you agree that you were very skeptical of what had traditionally been the function of the lyric poem: capturing a moment in time?
When I first wrote poetry in my teens, I imitated 19th-century poems, with rhyme and meter and all those wonderful things, and those poems were probably attempts to capture a moment in time. But I guess as I grew older the idea of flux supplanted that of static reflection.
When you finish a poem do you believe you have put order into that chaotic world of random language without a form?
Well, I wish. I’m not sure poetry can do that. I think I’ve always proceeded on the assumption that it can, but it’s asking a lot from it to make ordered sense of the world, especially the one that we happen to be living in at the moment. I suppose that might actually have been the original impetus: to put some sort of order into the chaos that random language is, but without sacrificing the randomness, because that itself is essential to communication.
- JP O Malley is a Monitor Contributor.
When I asked each student in my freshman-level college writing class to name a favorite writer, the responses proved diverse, including everyone from J.K. Rowling to Bill O’Reilly. I also got quite a few votes for Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, which raised my eyebrows.
(Either there’s a wave of transcendentalism among members of Generation Y, or some of my students had drawn a blank from my question and decided to pencil in a placeholder from their “Norton Anthology of American Literature.”)
I’ve seen writing students shrug when asked about their reading habits, presumably because they do little or no reading that isn’t assigned. But as I like to explain to any aspiring writer, writing without reading is a little like trying to excel at baseball but knowing nothing of Babe Ruth, or aiming for a life in the NFL without watching professional football. Just as athletes can improve their skills by watching sports heroes, writers can learn by finding a writing hero and following his work.
I make this analogy with some hesitation, since writers are not, in the ideal sense, supposed to be hero-worshipers. The best writing is driven by critical thinking, which is based on intellectual discipline, not giddy adulation.
But writing can be a lonely, dispiriting business, and it helps to have a role model or two who can hold your hand and remind you of what words can do when used by a true artist. This doesn’t mean that the literary great at the top of your favorites list should be embraced as an infallible icon. In fact, one of the great benefits of following a gifted writer is learning from his mistakes and limitations, too.
Life would be much easier if I could simply pair each of my students with an appropriate writing hero and send them on their way. But finding a hero, like finding a spouse or a best friend, is a mysterious process that seems more governed by luck than design. Perhaps all one can do is be open to opportunity when it strikes.
My own writing life changed dramatically in high school, when I came across an H.L. Mencken anthology at a neighborhood rummage sale. My classroom teachers had told me that writing was important and useful and potentially elevating, but in reading Mencken, the irascible journalist and critic who held sway in the 1920s, I discovered that writing could also be a great deal of fun. I quickly sought out his other books, delighting in sentences that popped like firecrackers. Mencken’s bombast – “It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull” – seemed the perfect companion for a young writer feeling his oats.
In college, I found a strikingly different hero in E.B. White, whose essays fell into my hands during a stray hour in a bookshop before an afternoon matinee. White, whose prose was self-effacing and beautifully understated, was just the right complement to Mencken’s pyrotechnics, teaching me that a writer doesn’t always have to shout to be heard. A shelf of White’s books now sits next to Mencken’s in my library.
A couple of years later, an equally chance encounter with Eudora Welty’s memoir, “One Writer’s Beginnings,” yielded another lesson that’s deeply informed my writing life. Before Welty, I had thought of a writing career as a kind of extended road trip, with inspiration invariably tied to changes in locale. Welty, writing stories and essays of exquisite insight and grace from her native Jackson, Miss., affirmed the value of standing still. The conclusion of her memoir still rings in my ears: “As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
I don’t know how I could have pursued a life in writing without my writing heroes, and I hope my students find a few for themselves. The trick, though, is to open a book, and read.
Quidditch, the game all young "Harry Potter" fans wished was real (older ones secretly did too) is now an intercollegiate sport. And they have tournaments. This year, more than 80 college quidditch teams will meet in Kissimmee, Fla., for Quidditch World Cup VI.
In the "Harry Potter" books and movies, Quidditch was a mix of baseball, handball, soccer, rugby and basketball (and tag) played on enchanted broomsticks. Muggles, instead, have to make the best of dealing with four different balls while keeping an earth-bound broomstick between their legs at all times while in play.
Settling seems to be the standard for Muggle Quidditch: Quaffles become "slightly deflated volleyballs" and the golden snitch becomes a 15th player (each team has seven on its side) dressed in yellow with a ball inside of a golden sock sticking out of the back of his pants, says Bleacher Report.
Still, Muggle quidditch at the collegiate level looks like fun and its appeal is spreading rapidly. Begun just seven years ago at Middlebury College in Vermont, the International Quidditch Association now has more than 1,000 teams registered globally. This year, teams from Canada, Mexico, and France will all be playing in the tournament, as well as teams from US schools including Johns Hopkins, NYU, and UCLA.
In addition to the action on the quidditch field, there should also be plenty of entertainment on the sidelines. Described in press reports as "a cross between the superbowl and the medieval festival," the Quidditch Cup has been known to attract all sorts of family-oriented activities, including live bands, fans in costumes, improv comedian commentators, and a "kidditch pitch" to teach kids of all ages how to play the sport.
After months of tight-lipped secrecy, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” a 370-page novel about loss and isolation, arrived to long lines, applause, and instant bestseller status in the island nation.
According to the UK’s Guardian, “Hundreds of Huraki Murakami devotees queu[ed] at midnight outside Tokyo bookshops…. Newspapers and broadcasters rushed to post reviews of the book … [and] fans and journalists stayed up all night to get to grips with Murakami’s first major novel in three years.” (The UK’s Telegraph notes that one bookshop even temporarily renamed itself after Murakami to mark the novel’s release.)
According to a review by Japanese paper Aashi Shimbun, the book tells “the tale of a man who tries to overcome his sense of loss and isolation, which has accumulated in the dark part of his heart.” In it, protagonist Tazaki reflects on his past. Rejected by his friends due to his family’s lack of status, Tazaki is lonely, emotionally scarred, and constantly reflects on death. When he meets a woman, he is inspired to explore his past and his feelings of rejection.
“Tazaki feels as if he is an empty person who lacks color or personality – living as a fugitive from his own life,” writes Aashi Shimbun. That is emphasized by the fact that his four closest friends in school each had names that represented colors while Tazaki’s name was “colorless,” lending the book its title.
Besides its stark departure from his previous book, the biggest surprise in “Colorless” is the way it came about.
“One day I just felt like it, and I sat at my desk and started to write the first few lines of this story," Murakami said in quotations printed on the cover of the book. "Then for about half a year, I continued to write this story without knowing anything like what would happen, what type of people would appear and how long the story would be.”
According to Reuters, the book is already a bestseller in Japan, with an initial release of 600,000 copies.
For now, Murakami fans in the US will have to wait – or learn Japanese. Plans have not yet been released regarding English translations.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
The extremely rare manuscript, measuring a scant three square inches, sold at Bonhams Auction House for about £100,000 (about $140,000 USD) – more than twice its estimated worth, reported the Guardian.
Titled "I've Been Wandering in the Greenwoods," signed "C. Brontë," and dated December 14, 1829, the poem is one of about four of Charlotte Brontë's 200 poems in private hands. The rest have been collected by institutions. All the Brontë siblings (including Emily, Anne, and brother Branwell) wrote with small, cramped letters to get the most out of their limited, expensive supply of paper. The poem is difficult to read unaided.
"Greenwoods" appeared in "The Young Man's Intelligencer," the Brontë sibling's literary magazine that they wrote and edited themselves. Charlotte took over editing the magazine from Branwell in 1829, the year the poem was published.
Here's the text of the poem:
"I've Been Wandering in the Greenwoods"
I've been wandering in the greenwoods
And mid flowery smiling plains
I've been listening to the dark floods
To the thrushes thrilling strains
I have gathered the pale primrose
And the purple violet sweet
I've been where the Asphodel grows
And where lives the red deer fleet.
I've been to the distant mountain,
To the silver singing rill
By the crystal murmering fountain,
And the shady verdant hill.
I've been where the poplar is springing
From the fair Inamelled ground
Where the nightingale is singing
With a solemn plaintive sound.
-C. Brontë, December 14, 1829
Ben Frederick is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
B.J. Novak, a former actor and writer on “The Office,” has signed a two-book deal with Knopf for what is reportedly a seven-figure sum.
Novak’s first book is due in 2014 and his literary agent Richard Abate said the work is a collection of stories. The literary genre of the second title is unknown.
“The closest analogy for me is Woody Allen,” Abate, who is also the representation for other NBC stars like Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, and Mindy Kaling, told the New York Times of Novak's work. “Underneath these stories is a real intellectual curiosity. I think their appeal is that they’re incredibly accessible and comic, but at the same time they’re exploring the modern condition.”
Novak served as a writer, producer, and director and played temp Ryan Howard on the sitcom “The Office,” which he left last year. He appeared in the 2009 film “Inglourious Basterds” and recently did a guest stint on former “Office” co-star Mindy Kaling’s new show “The Mindy Project.”
Critics are raving over the musical adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book “Matilda,” which opened April 11.
However, as Guardian writer Emma Brockes noted in her review of the American show, “there is tough competition on Broadway, and not everything travels.”
But it’s hard to imagine how the reception to the Broadway production could be better.
“It would be easy to call it the best British musical since Billy Elliot, but that, I’m afraid, would be underselling it,” Time reporter Richard Zoglin wrote. “You have to go back to The Lion King to find a show with as much invention, spirit and genre-redefining verve.”
Chicago Tribune writer Chris Jones called it “the best family musical in years,” while USA Today writer Elyse Gardner, who gave it three-and-a-half stars out of four, wrote that it’s “the smartest musical to arrive on Broadway in years… Matilda is also affecting, and enchanting, in a way that homegrown hits of late haven't been.”
The literary version of “Matilda” was first published in 1988 and tells the story of the titular protagonist, the prodigy-level smart daughter of two neglectful parents who send her to a school ruled over by a cruel headmistress.
An American and European nonprofit organization called Worldreader is pursuing its mission of making electronic books available to families through their cell phones and e-readers. The group says that it is currently reaching hundreds of thousands of people.
Worldreader, co-founded by former Amazon executive David Risher, is particularly interested in bringing e-books to families through their cell phones because these are so readily available and many readers can easily access titles that way. The organization also brings e-readers to schools in developing countries.
A visit to Ecuador inspired Risher to create Worldreader. He was working at an orphanage and was told that the library building was inaccessible because it was locked and the leader of the orphanage had lost the key. In addition, the months it took for books to arrive in the area meant young readers didn’t have a steady supply of new titles to try.
According to a recent blog post, the organization is now reaching more than 500,000 readers through their phones. Users download a Worldreader Mobile app that allows them to access the organization’s books, which include more than 1,200 free titles available through the app.
“There are more mobile phones than toothbrushes on this planet,” Risher said in a statement. “Together with our growing e-reader program, Worldreader Mobile connects us to millions of the world’s poorest people, providing the books they need to improve their lives.”
The organization’s statistics showed that their users read 60,000 hours per month total and that 70 percent of those using the program are women.
According to Worldreader, two of their goals are getting communities more focused on reading and pushing literacy rates higher than UN predictions.
“The opportunity to provide books for all is great, but so are the challenges,” reads a statement on the organization’s website. “This is at the heart of what Worldreader hopes to address.”
The Nobel medal, which is being auctioned with a draft of Faulkner’s acceptance speech, will be available for bidding at legendary auction house Sotheby’s in New York in June. The auction house estimated the medal and speech would fetch between $500,000 and $1 million.
Also being auctioned are Faulkner items such as manuscripts of some of his stories, including “The Trapper Story” and “Mammy Callie,” as well as multiple leather-bound copies of his books, letters written by Faulkner to various correspondents, and a book of poetry Faulkner hand-wrote for his wife.
The items are being auctioned off by Faulkner’s heirs, but the family has not spoken about why they decided to sell them.
“This auction is for people who are serious about modern literature," Justin Caldwell, a Sotheby’s books specialist, told the Associated Press. "This is not something they are going to see very often… this much Faulkner material in the same place.”
The selling of the Nobel medal is something that does not occur often. In 1976, an anonymous seller placed an ad in the Los Angeles Times, offering a Nobel Prize medal for at least $15,000. A spokesperson for the Swedish embassy stated at the time that it was the first medal being sold he’d ever heard of. In 1985, the medal of Sir William Cremer, who had won the prize in 1903, was sold at an auction for more than $40,000.
In addition, by an odd coincidence, today – the same day that the news that Faulkner's medal would be sold was made public – the family of scientist Francis Crick announced the sale of Crick’s Nobel medal, which he won in 1962, for $2 million.
This year includes the 50th anniversary of Robert Frost’s death, and April’s observance of National Poetry Month is a good time to remember the 20th century’s most celebrated American poet.
Frost (1874-1963) is perhaps best known for poems such as “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” compositions inspired by the New England countryside that nevertheless attained universal appeal.
Not surprisingly, this master writer was also a master reader, and when the Massachusetts Library Association asked Frost to name his favorite books, he wrote an interesting top 10 list in 1934.
“‘The Odyssey’ chooses itself, the first in time and rank of all romances,” Frost told readers in introducing his first pick. “‘Robinson Crusoe’ is never quite out of my mind,” he added in offering his second choice. “I never tire of being shown how the limited can make snug in the limitless.”
“Walden,” Henry David Thoreau’s classic, came in at No. 3. “Crusoe was cast away; Thoreau was self-cast away,” Frost observed. “Both found themselves sufficient. No prose writer has ever been more fortunate in subject than these two.”
The tales of Edgar Allan Poe ranked fourth on Frost’s lists. “Here is every kind of entertainment the short story can afford,” Frost wrote.
For his fifth and sixth choices, Frost picked “The Oxford Book of Verse” and editor Louis Untermeyer’s “Modern American and British Poetry.” James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” earned a No. 7 spot because, wrote Frost, the novel “supplies us once and for all with our way of thinking of the American Indian.”
Frost recommended his eighth choice, Anthony Hope’s “The Prisoner of Zenda,” as “surely one of the very best of our modern best-sellers.”
“The Jungle Book,” Rudyard Kipling’s famous adventure story, was No. 9. “I shall read it again as often as I can find a new child to listen to me,” Frost explained.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Essays and Poems” rounded out the list at No. 10. Frost found in Emerson “the rapture of idealism either way you have it, in prose or in verse and in brief.”
Frost’s Top 10 list appears in “Frost: Collected Poems, Prose & Plays,” a 1995 Library of America edition that’s a handy introduction to his work.
Meanwhile, as spring deepens its hold on the calendar, it’s not too early to start thinking of a summer reading list. Half a century after his passing, Frost’s recommendations seem a good place to start.