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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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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.

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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.


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