Interview with poet John Ashbery
John Ashbery is recognized by many critics as one of the most eminent American poets of the 20th-century. He published his first awarding-winning book of poems "Some Trees" in 1956. Today, at 85, Ashbery shows no signs of putting his pen down any time soon. He has recently published a collection of poems entitled "Quick Question."
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.