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."
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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?Skip to next paragraph
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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.