John Ashbery


A Conversation with Kenneth Koch

Kenneth Koch

John Ashbery

Ashbery, John. Selected Prose. Ed Eugene Richie. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2004. 55-68.

K. K.: John, do you think we both might be too much concerned with matters of taste? Or don't you think it's possible to be too much concerned with it?

J. A.: What else is there besides matters of taste?

K. K.: How would you change that statement if you wanted to put it in a poem? I think that statement would seem too pompous to you to put into a poem. Or too obvious.

J. A.: I would not put a statement in a poem. I feel that poetry must reflect on already existing statements.

K. K.: Why?

J. A.: Poetry does not have subject matter, because it is the subject. We are the subject matter of poetry, not vice versa.

K. K.: Could you distinguish your statement from the ordinary idea, which it resembles in every particular, that poems are about people?

J. A.: Yes. Poems are about people and things.

K. K.: Then when you said "we" you were including the other objects in this room?

J. A.: Of course.

K. K.: What has this to do with putting a statement in a poem?

J. A.: When statements occur in poetry they are merely a part of the combined refractions of everything else.

K. K.: What I mean is, how is the fact that poetry is about us connected to the use of statements in poetry?

J. A.: It isn't.

K. K.: But you said before

J. A.: I said nothing of the kind. Now stop asking me all these questions.

K. K.: I'm sorry.

J. A.: Now I'll ask you a few questions. Why are you always putting things in Paris in all of your poems? I live there but it seems to me I've never written anything about it.

K. K.: Isn't "Europe" mainly set there?

J. A.: No. Reread that poem. It all takes place in England.

K. K.: What about the gray city and the snow valentines and so on-even though the main part of the narrative obviously takes place on the flying fields of England, the real psychological locale of the poem always seemed to me to be in Paris. No? Where were you when you wrote it?

J. A.: In Paris. But there is only one reference to Paris in the entire poem.

K. K.: Well, I wrote Ko in Florence.

J. A.: I wish you would answer my question and also explain--

K. K.: And there is only one reference to Florence in it, but the way things come together and take place always seemed to me very dependent on the fact that it was written in Florence. What did you want me to answer?

J. A.: Let's ignore for the moment at least your enigmatic statement that the way things come together reminds you of Florence

K. K.: I did not say that.

J. A.: Anyway I wish you would explain for me and our readers

K. K.: Listeners.

J. A.: why we seem to omit references to the cities in which we are living, in our work. This is not true of most modern American poetry. Shudder.

K. K.: Hmm. I guess we do. I did write one poem about New York while I was in New York, but the rest of the poems about America I wrote in Europe.

J. A.: I repeat, why we seem to omit ALMOST all references-?

K. K.: I find it gets to be too difficult to get through my everyday associations with things familiar to me for me to be able to use them effectively in poetry.

J. A.: Snore.

K. K.: I myself am bored by my attempts to make abstract statements and wish I could do it facilely as you do. I'm going to cut out my previous statement. What made you snore?

J. A.: Well, if you're cutting out your statement, then my snore naturally goes with it, I suppose.

K. K.: Maybe I won't cut it out. Or I might just keep the snore.

J. A.: It sounded too much like the way all artists talk when asked to explain their art.

K. K.: Yes, I agree. I dislike my statement. Why do you suppose we are so bothered by such things?

J. A.: It's rather hard to be a good artist and also be able to explain intelligently what your art is about. In fact, the worse your art is the easier it is to talk about it. At least, I'd like to think so.

K. K.: Could you give an example of a very bad artist who explains his work very well?

J. A.: (Silence)

K. K.: I guess you don't want to mention any names. Why don't you want to mention any names, by the way? Especially since I once heard you say that names are more expressive words than any others.

J. A.: Some people might get offended. I don't see the point of that.

K. K.: Do you mean you're afraid?

J. A.: No. Just bored in advance by the idea of having to defend myself.

K. K.: Have you ever been physically attacked because of your art criticism?

J. A.: No, because I always say I like everything.

K. K.: Would you say that that is the main function of criticism?

J. A.: If it isn't it should be.

K. K.: How can one talk about what should be the function of something?

J. A.: Our problem seems to be to avoid it.

K. K.: To avoid what?

J. A.: Talking about what you said.

K. K.: Let me go back a little.

J. A.: That's always a mistake.

K. K.: All right, I'll take you at your word. But we were getting on to something interesting-but it went by so quickly.

J. A.: This is true of much great poetry.

K. K.: And even truer of the rest of it. I was thinking today as I drove over here what my poetry could possibly do for me or for anyone who reads it. I thought it might make people happy temporarily.

J. A.: That's a pretty tall order.

K. K.: I know. I was just going to change the word from happy to something else.

J. A.: I'd be interested to know what you were going to change it to.

K. K.: Maybe to pleasantly surprised.

J. A.: Now you're talking!

K. K.: I was thinking about that and about what seemed the uselessness of it all. In fact I think about that a lot.

J. A.: Is Joseph Dah your ideal?

K. K.: In which phase? As an action poet or as a regular poet, which he becomes after the death of Andrews?

J. A.: As an action poet.

K. K.: I was thinking about that in the car today, though I didn't think about Joseph Dah. I was wondering if there was some way to make one's actions as varied and interesting as poetry; I then thought probably not, since I would get too tired, and also there is the problem of getting older and weaker. This made me think about whether it really was possible to retain some degree of strength and youth in one's poetry even though one's body were getting weak and old. Then I wondered if there were any point in doing this. I thought that if I was wondering if there was any point in remaining young and strong and in being great and happy then I must be bothered or depressed about something else, since in what I have usually considered my normal states I am very interested in these things. Thinking thus, I drew into the Hazans' driveway and we began this interview.

J. A.: Do you have any idea about how you could make your actions more varied than they are?

K. K.: Absolutely none.

J. A.: Your witness, Mr. Defense Attorney.

K. K.: You're a wit and I see that you are obviously going to win this interview.

J. A.: I don't like to think that I might have wit. It's the one chink in my nonexistent armor.

K. K.: Your last remark would indicate you don't have to worry too much about it.

J. A.: I'll pass over your use of the subjunctive and return to the "problem." What is the nature of our poetry? I mean, first, is it poetry? And second, does it have a nature?

K. K.: A third question might be whether your poetry and mine are sufficiently similar to be discussable as "our poetry." Let's just say that they are; otherwise we'd have to make too many distinctions as we went along.

J. A.: Can you think of an example of poetry?

K. K.: Yes. Though it depends on what you mean by the word. There is, after all, a certain well-deserved opprobrium attached to it.

J. A.: Mmmm. But just what is this opprobrium and who deserved it? I was reading recently in a book by Jean Paulhan that ever since the nineteenth century poets have been contemptuous of poetry and novelists of novels. In fact, somebody-I believe it was Sainte-Beuve-once criticized somebody else, Balzac, I think-by saying, "Ça tombe dans le roman"; and Victor Hugo prided himself on not being "Just a poet." On the other hand, you hear a lot of painters these days say that the only thing that interests them is painting. Since I brought up the subject of painters, I would like to mention that the spaces between things seem to be getting bigger and more important.

K. K.: Do you mean in painting or in life?

J. A.: We'll work this out later. Meanwhile, I once read that as music becomes less primitive and more advanced the intervals between the notes get bigger. Compare the ''Volga Boatmen" with the Love-Death from Tristan und Isolde. A lot of our good painters seem to rub out most of the picture these days. It gets harder to make the connections between things. Now I'd like to quote a line of your poetry in order to prove this. (Long silence.)

K. K.: Why don't we use some of your lines instead?

J. A.: Okay. Toss me my book.

K. K.: Do you mean you couldn't find any examples in my poetry?

J. A.: Mmmm. You cut out all of your incomprehensible poems.

K. K.: No, I didn't. What about 'January 19th?"

J. A.: "Loma Doone fizzled the dazzling icicle pencil by sheer blue shirts."

K. K.: What are the spaces in it?

J. A.: The words that would explain the relationships between these various things.

K. K.: You mean that would explain how one could fizzle a pencil by shirts?

J. A.: That's right.

K. K.: Could you please give me an example from your own poetry, to make it clearer?

J. A.: I think it's already clear enough but I will if you insist.

K. K.: It is quite brilliant.

J. A.: Nonsense. "Night hunger / of berry . . . stick." This isn't such a good example as a matter of fact.

K. K.: Why?

J. A.: What with the prevailing climate in poetry, these lines seem perfectly crystalline to me and should to any reader with a normal I.Q.

K. K.: When you say "crystalline," do you mean that the lines mean only one definite thing?

J. A.: Well, not more than about four at the most.

K. K.: It does seem obvious. A man is hungry for berries at night and goes out to get them with a stick. Or else he goes out to get them and he is touched on the face by a stick (part of a branch). Or the berry itself is hungry at night and looks to the stick for refreshment, which it does not get from it. Or the berry is so hungry at night that it dies, its whole branch die s and later becomes a stick. Or a man is hungry for berries at night, goes out to get one and it sticks to him. Or the berry gets so hungry at night that in its hunger it attaches itself to something else and gets stuck to it. These seem to me just a very few of the meanings related to all the possible meanings as our galaxy is to the sum total of all galaxies.

J. A.: Since none of these meanings is very interesting, what was the poet's point in making it all so ambiguous, assuming that this itself was not the point? I mean making it ambiguous so as to conceal the apparent lack of interest in the various ideas expressed.

K. K.: Well, if you are following the poem and if you come to a place where you don't know if you're a man or a berry and you keep going along anyway, then you're having a mystical experience. Lines like these enable the reader to escape from his ordinary consciousness of himself. Aside from which, it's very enjoyable to feel like a berry or a stick or a person you know nothing about.

J. A.: I don't know as I'd care to feel like a berry, let alone a stick, and I too often feel like a person I know nothing about.

K. K.: What's his name?

J. A.: If I knew his name I'd know something about him.

K. K.: Go on with what you were saying about your line. What's your answer to your question?

J. A.: No, I was just wondering if ambiguity is really what everybody is after, but if it is the case, why?

K. K.: People seem to be after it in different ways. Actually one tries to avoid the Cleanth Brooks kind, no? It seems an essential part of true ambiguity that it not seem ambiguous in any obvious way. Do you agree?

J. A.: I don't know. I'm wondering why all these people want that ambiguity so mucho

K. K.: Have your speculations about ambiguity produced any results as yet?

J. A.: Only this: that ambiguity seems to be the same thing as happiness-or pleasant surprise, as you put it. (I am assuming that from the moment that life cannot be one continual orgasm, real happiness is impossible and pleasant surprise is promoted to the front rank of the emotions.) Everybody wants the biggest possible assortment of all available things. Happy endings are nice and tragedy is good for the soul, etc., etc.

K. K.: You speak after my own heart but you speak more as an aesthetician than as a man. Perhaps there is really no distinction between the two, but some pleasures do free one from desiring others.

J. A.: Name one.

K. K.: The pleasure of relief from pain frees one temporarily from the desire to suffer.

J. A.: SO the desire to suffer is a pleasure?

K. K.: No desire is a pleasure. But suffering is accounted a pleasure by many. Let me put it another way. Relief from pain frees one momentarily from the desire to take great risks involving pain but which might lead to some small pleasure.

J. A.: I think that ambiguity includes all these things.

K. K.: An obviously evasive answer, but I'm afraid we're off the subject anyway. A better example is that if one is passionately in love one does not desire a lot of other people. In fact love sometimes makes people indifferent to pain and even death. I know this is true both from books and from experience.

J. A.: I won't embarrass you by calling attention to the obvious flaws in your argument. Getting back to my favorite theme, the idea of relief from the pain has something to do with ambiguity. Ambiguity supposes an eventual resolution of itself, whereas certitude implies further ambiguity. I guess that's why so much "depressing" modern art makes me feel so cheerful.

K. K.: Could you go back now and explain what you felt when you wrote those lines about the berry?

J. A.: Afraid not. I had even forgotten the lines, let alone having written them. And this has some bearing on our topic of discussion.

K. K.: Many poets don't ever forget what they've written. I can see our forgetting our lines either as good or as bad. Do you forget any place in which you've lived or anyone you've liked very much? I mean within the last five years.

J. A.: I don't quite see what the point of that is. I mean writing a line of poetry isn't the same as living someplace.

K. K.: I was just thinking of how your forgetfulness might be criticized-that is, from the point of view that what you write doesn't mean enough to you for you to remember it. I don't agree with this criticism at all. I just thought my remark might stir you into explaining why you don't necessarily remember your poems.

J. A.: If you don't agree with this criticism, then perhaps you'd be kind enough to explain why, since I fear it's a very telling one.

K. K.: I don't believe that you do. If you did you'd memorize your poems.

J. A.: It seems to me that forgetting plays a bigger role in our poems than either of us is willing to own up to. Not only do we forget the place where we live, as I pointed out earlier

K. K.: You did not say that. You said we didn't write about the place in which we live.

J. A.: Well, we might just as well have forgotten it, for all the difference it makes. Also what about sex, which seems to make no appearance in either of our works-that I can think of at the moment.

K. K.: Do you mean the details of sexual intercourse? Practically every poem either of us has written seems to me to be about love in some form or another.

J. A.: Well, so what happened to those details?

K. K.: I hope they are still there.

J. A.: Look again.

K. K.: Yes, I've just gotten word that they are still there. On the other hand, there are a number of things that would not be there at all if we didn't write about them.

J. A.: Does this mean that you think these things are important?

K. K.: What things?

J. A.: Whatever it is that's there.

K. K.: Do you mean the things we write about or the details of physical love?

J. A.: The things that wouldn't be there unless we wrote about them, blockhead.

K. K.: It is you who are the blockhead for not making your questions clearer.

J. A.: Maybe this has some bearing on the topic of our discussion.

K. K.: In what way?

J. A.: I can't remember what it was that we were talking about.

K. K.: You seemed to be talking about ambiguity; and then you seemed to think that being a blockhead had something to do with it.

J. A.: I think we should clear up the question as to whether the ambiguity in our work is the result of modern life's having made us so ashamed of our experiences that We cannot write about them in any other way, or whether we feel that if we turn quickly around we'll discover something that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

K. K.: The first possibility you mention I don't understand-how can "modern life" make us ashamed?-but the second is very appealing. I don't feel, by the way, that what I am after in my work is ambiguity.

J. A.: What do you feel that you are after?

K. K.: Guess.

J. A.: I give up.

K. K.: Do you mean to say that you have been reading my poems all these years thinking ah there he's succeeded in getting that ambiguity he's after, and oh there he hasn't? I mean you don't really think that a main aim in my poetry is to be ambiguous, do you?

J. A.: Well, it would help if you would consent to give a straight answer to my last question.

K. K.: I think the difficulty of my doing so has considerable bearing on the topic under discussion.

J. A.: Since you refuse to reply unambiguously, I must conclude that ambiguity is the central thing in our work.

K. K.: I have always liked your poetry, but your command of logic leaves me speechless with admiration.

J. A.: Perhaps this has some bearing on the topic of our discussion.

K. K.: I don't see how.

J. A.: I assume that you were being ironic when you said my command of logic left you speechless with admiration. Therefore poetry is not logical or is not necessarily so.

K. K.: What you say is very unclear, but I suppose you mean that since I find one of your remarks illogical and since I like your poems, that therefore I must like poems which are illogical. But I don't find your poems either logical or illogical. If you want this interview to have the logic of a poem and not ordinary logic we will have to start over again.

J. A.: If you don't find them logical or illogical, then what do you find them?

K. K.: Your question doesn't make any sense.

J. A.: Neither does your poetry.

K. K.: Do you think there's only one way of making sense? (We seem to be trying to trap each other into making pompous statements.)

J. A.: Yes, we seem to be determined both to discuss poetry and not to discuss anything at all. This is probably what we do in our poetry. I only wish I knew why we feel it to be necessary.

K. K.: I should think if we really wanted to know why we felt it to be necessary that we could probably find out. I don't think we really care.

J. A.: You're right.

K. K.: Perhaps there's an element in our poetry of not wanting to be too definite, not wanting to name things too clearly, in order that nobody else can possess any one of them independently of the whole poem. But the statement I have just made, although it seemed rational to me when I made it, now seems to me to make no sense.

J. A.: Does this ever happen to you when you write poetry?

K. K.: Constantly. It's very exciting when it does; if one writes fast enough when this is happening one can catch the movement of the mind, which is I think something I care about very much, more than ambiguity for example. Of course it's true that the mind perceives everything ambiguously. I think we may be close now to an answer to our problem.

J. A.: Why does catching the movement of the mind seem important to you?

K. K.: I knew you'd pick up on that bit of critical gibberish. But I rather think you know what I mean and that you are stalling for time.

J. A.: Whenever I read a sentence, including a line of my own poetry, I am beset by the idea that it could have been written any other way. When you are conscious of this while writing, it can often be very exciting. I respond to works of art which express this idea, such as the music of Busoni, the main element of whose style is that it didn't necessarily have to sound this way.

K. K.: Do you think the kind of art that you and I like and create might be called "evasive"? Do you think we like the feeling of ambiguity and multiple possibilities partly or wholly because we don't want to be pinned down to anything we've done or are about to do?

J. A.: Possibly. But I think that if we like things that are evasive it's because there's no point in pursuing something that is standing still. Anything that is standing still might as well be dead.

K. K.: What about overtaking something that's moving clearly in one direction or meeting something head on? I mean, why this passion for two things at once? Obviously it corresponds to reality. One sleeps and is in bed at the same time. But why is this so important to us and other artists?

J. A.: I don't understand what you mean about sleeping and being in bed at the same time.

K. K.: Oh. That was just an example of how simultaneous actions or states in reality correspond to those in art. I mean, all aesthetic attitudes or ideas correspond to the real state of things. We could just as easily be so warmly interested in the concreteness of everything, or in its human or divine qualities, as we are in its ambiguity and multiplicity.

J. A.: But all these things you mention do constitute multiplicity. It seems necessary to illustrate this fact by examples.

K. K.: Would you say that's why you write poetry?

J. A.: Yes.

K. K.: For whom do you do this illustration?

J. A.: For the average reader.

K. K.: Do you expect to help him in this way?

J. A.: No, I expect him to help me.

K. K.: How?

J. A.: By drawing attention to the fallacies in my approach.

K. K.: Has any average reader ever done this for you?

J. A.: No, but I'm still hoping that he will. That's what keeps me going.

K. K.: You would say that you write then chiefly in the hope of being corrected?

J. A.: I think I've made myself sufficiently clear and would welcome a few statements from you. How about criticizing some of my poetry, for instance?

K. K.: Which one?

J. A.: Well-"The Suspended Life" for instance. I rather like this poem but I don't like the first part so much; as often happens it was necessary to write it in order to get to the more interesting part, but by that time the uninteresting part had gotten thoroughly enmeshed with the rest and could not be removed without causing its collapse.

K. K.: What part do you mean by the first part? I think the whole poem is terrific.

J. A.: The part up to the first space.

K. K.: Why do you like the first part less?

J. A.: The lack of connection between the sentences doesn't refresh me. Also there are too many things like your work. Such as the "tooth weather information clinic" and "the buttons' pill." I am more interested in the conversation in the middle and I only really like the landscapes at the end.

K. K.: I think "And sudden day unbuttoned her blouse" is one of the prettiest lines in the world. I'd like to talk about "Europe" for a moment; it seems to me to present a whole new way of relating words to experiences and to each other. Since many people find it very hard to read, could you give them any suggestions for making it less so?

J. A.: No.

K. K.: Were you consciously trying to be ambiguous in "Europe"? Were you conscious of having big spaces between things?

J. A.: I guess so. I was trying to conceal the plot of a book I picked up on the quais, Beryl of the Biplane. At the same time I heard a piece on the radio by an Italian composer [Berio] who had taken a recording of a poem by Joyce and transformed the words until they were incomprehensible but still gave an idea of the original. I got the title from the name of a subway station in Paris. It seemed to me that I was at last permitting myself to allude to Europe, which had been my center of activity for several years, but by merely listing a lot of things and situations that could be found in most other place s as well and by keeping the ceramic title of the subway station firmly in mind it seemed to me that I could convey the impression that Europe was just another subject, no more important than a lot of others. I suggest that you not ask me why I was doing these things.

K. K.: It seems clear enough why. You didn't use any cut-ups in writing "Europe," did you?

J. A.: Yes. I used some passages from Beryl. I think I might also have put in a few words from an article in Esquire as well as a mistranslation of something I saw written by an automatic toy in the toy museum at Neuchátel (des mécanismes précis nous animent, which I misread as nous aiment).

K. K.: There's no key to understanding the poem, of course, no hidden meaning?

J. A.: No, it's just a bunch of impressions.

K. K.: Why is the idea of keys and hidden meanings not appealing to you?

J. A.: Because someone might find them out and then the poem would no longer be mysterious.

K. K.: I feel the same way. Do you use any deliberate methods to make your poems mysterious?

J. A.: I don't know, but it just occurred to me that detectives and detective work crop up quite often in our poems. As for example, your sheriff searching for a walnut, a poem which I have always found beautiful without knowing why. Perhaps it's because

the idea of someone searching scientifically for something is beautiful, even though I have no desire to imitate that person.

K. K.: I think what I was feeling when I wrote those lines was that the frenziedness of the search for the walnut was like the emotion I felt for the woman the poem is about. I wasn't thinking of a scientific search, actually. Could you tell me why the figure of the janitor occurs so often in your recent work?

J. A.: Possibly because of "The Janitor's Boy" by Nathalia Crane. He's a love-death symbol. On page 93 of Ko is the memorable line, "Some towns of course are famous for two things." This seems to be typical of your habit of making an absurd abstract statement as though there was no point in trying to make any other kind. I find this typical of the defeatist attitude which pervades your work and which I greatly admire.

K. K.: Such statements seem to me not so much defeatist as affirmative. I feel that we need a lot of new things to think about.

J. A.: I'll accept that. It seems to me a reasonable place to end this interview.

Ashbery: Criticism, in general, has less and less to do with my work. I'm sometimes kind of jealous of my work. It keeps getting all the attention and I'm not. After all, I wrote it.

I really don't know what to think when I read criticism, either favorable or unfavorable. In most cases, even when its sympathetic and understanding, it's a sort of parallel adventure to the poetry. It never gives me the feeling that I'll know how to do it the next time I sit down to write, which is my principal concern.

I'm not putting down critics, but they don't help the poetry to get its work done. I don't have much use for criticism, in general, even though it's turned out I've written a lot, mostly art criticism.

Very few people have ever written a serious mixed critique of my poetry. It's either dismissed as nonsense or held up as a work of genius. Few critics have ever accepted it on its own terms and pointed out how I've succeeded at certain moments and failed at other moments at what I was setting out to do.

I will quote one of my favorite lines from Nijinsky's journal: "Criticism is death." He doesn't elaborate on that statement at all.

Gangel: You mentioned before you get inspiration from conversations overheard in the streets. Where else?

Ashbery: I'm very much of a magpie as far as reading goes. I read anything which comes to my hand. National Enquirer, Dear Abby, a magazine at the dentist, a Victorian novel. I don't have a program in anything, as a matter of fact.

Someone remarked about an obscene passage in a poem. I replied that this shocked him not because it was there, but because there were not more of them.

There is an American feeling that if you do one thing, you've got to do that and nothing else. It goes against my grain.

Poetry includes anything and everything [...]

My best writing gets done when I'm being distracted by people who are calling me or errands that I have to do. Those things seem to help the creative process, in my case.

Sue Gangel, "An Interview with John Ashbery" in Joe David Bellamy, ed. Poets On Their Work: American Poetry Observed. Urbana: U Illinois P, 1984, 14.

The Harvard Advocate :: Spring 2002 :: Features ::


John Lawrence Ashbery '49, Advocate alumnus and author of over 20 books of poetry, recently read for the Advocate alongside Jamaica Kincaid and Salman Rushdie. Mr. Ashbery is the recipient of nearly every poetry award in the English-speaking world. We had the pleasure of spending some time with Mr. Ashbery in early March; what follows are some of our exchanges on his life and poetry.

Cody Carvel: Did taking classes at Harvard and being on the Advocate contribute to the evolution of your work?

John Ashbery: Yeah, it did. It did it by giving me an environment where I could talk with like-minded people and actually get my poems published, get them into print. Life growing up was very lonely. I lived on a farm, and I wasn't very happy with my father, and, actually, I stayed with my grandparents in Rochester for some of my childhood. Deerfield1 was kind of horrible in many ways, but it was better than home. Harvard was a big improvement. Boston and Cambridge passed for a metropolis. It was very exciting. On the other hand, there was the threat of the war. Two months after I arrived, the war was over. I actually did have to go to the recruiter's unit at Winthrop House, where there was a sort of army detention center, but they weren't interested in taking on personnel at that point.

Rob Dennis: Were you worried about being drafted?

A: Oh yeah. I was obviously not cut out for combat duty.

C: Why did you choose the Advocate? Why not the Crimson or Lampoon, which were still being published when you first arrived?

A: Well, those were always jock-oriented publications. George Plimpton was on the Lampoon, though I don't know if he can be considered a jock. Much of Harvard was closed during the War, and I arrived in the summer of 1945, just about a month before Hiroshima, expecting to be drafted. Magazines like the Lampoon and the Crimson were still put out, but it took about a year for things to get back to normal. I think it was in 1947 that the Advocate reopened. I guess I sent some poems to Kenneth Koch, who was already on the Advocate and the first full-fledged poet I ever met. I guess he liked them very much and got in touch with me, and we developed a friendship that still continues. It was Kenneth who managed to get me onto the Advocate's Editorial Board.

D: What was the process for that?

A: I guess they had to vote. Donald Hall tells a story that I don't remember. I think Carl Bernstein of the Pentagon Papers was presenting himself for the Advocate, and after the meeting, we said, 'We can't have him. Did you see the tie he was wearing?' [laughs]

C: You and Kenneth met on the pages of Poetry magazine in 1945 before you met in person at Harvard.

A: Is that right?

C: Yes, his contributor's note mentioned that he was in the infantry fighting in Europe. You wrote those poems [for Poetry] at Deerfield?

A: Yeah, the way those poems made their way into Poetry was that a William Haddock had briefly been my roommate, and I never really liked him. He was interested in some of the same things I was, though. He read Djuna Barnes and stuff like that with me. But on the other hand, there was something really kind of unsavory about him. From a well-to-do family, I guess.

There was an unofficial poet-in-residence at Deerfield, David Norton, who was a friend of Robert Frost's, and he wrote very Robert Frostian poetry. He was rather well known sometime in the '30s. So William gave him some of his and my poems, not indicating which ones I wrote. Norton took some and sent them to Poetry. And as you know, they eventually published two of my poems. Meanwhile, I sent them some poems, including the ones Norton sent. I got a very odd rejection slip. Somebody just wrote, 'Sorry!' The magazine came out, and I was beside myself. Not only were the poems not published under my own name in Poetry, but also I was probably labeled as a plagiarist there. Back then, there weren't many places to publish poetry. Haddock apologized profusely for submitting my poems without my knowledge, but then he did same thing in this magazine called Voices, which was a kind of a schlock publication. In that case, I think they published two poems of his and one by me. I don't remember which one.2 Do you know, did Haddock ever publish in the Advocate?

C: I don't believe so. I think he went on to have a long career in real estate in Connecticut. I guess the 'po business really wasn't cut out for him. He couldn't find anyone else's work to submit.

A: [laughs]

C: In 1949 you were Class Poet. You choose to contribute 'A Sermon: Amos 8:11-14,' which was your first poem published in the Advocate. What sort of message were you trying to convey to your classmates? What were you trying to leave them with?

A: [laughs] I tried very hard to write a poem for the occasion but couldn't come up with anything, so I decided to recycle that. I don't know. I haven't read it in a long time. I don't know what sort of a message. . . probably sort of gloomy.

D: Did you think, when you were at Harvard with Frank O'Hara, Edward Gorey, Donald Hall, and Kenneth Koch, that you would all go on to do amazing things?

A: No. If I had, I probably would have paid more attention. It's strange that all these people--Ken, O'Hara, Bly, Donald Hall, Robert Creeley, Adrienne Rich, Sissman. . . we had no inkling--at least I didn't, maybe they did--that we were going to become famous. It was exciting to me personally just to be in an environment that was encouraging. I don't think Harvard is perhaps the best place for poets to be, but it's better than most. One of the reasons I came here was because there was a poet teaching here, Theodore Spencer, who became my advisor/tutor. I took a poetry workshop my first year with him, which was sort of amazing because I don't think there were poetry workshops--certainly at Harvard it was amazing--and there wouldn't be any for sometime to come. He died at an early age of forty. I also wanted to study with Delmore Schwartz and ended up not doing it, I can't remember why. It might have been because he would cancel his courses. At the time he was sort of like the Great White Hope of poetry, and of course now he's semi-forgotten.

C: Did you have any tense interactions with your professors?

A: I don't think so. My senior year I had a different tutor, Professor Munn, who'd been around since the Victorian Era. On the surface he was very genial, and actually, it was through him that I started reading Henry James, which I plowed through very vigorously. He taught a course on the Bible, which I took my senior year.

My senior year was totally unhappy. I was. . . I was madly in love with someone. I was unhappy. I couldn't do any work. And I ran into Professor Munn in the Yard one day. 'John, what's the matter with your work? You didn't do very well on that exam.' And I said, 'Oh, I'm sorry. I'll try to do better, sir.' And then he said, 'Are you in love?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Oh, I see. Well, you just do the best you can.' So I thought I'd at least passed. He gave me an F! He could've given me an E. [laughs] He had no tolerance for this kind of behavior. Students would ask him for letters of recommendation, and then he would write very negative ones. The Dean finally told him that if he wasn't going to write favorable ones, not to write any.

C: Did you ever feel misunderstood at Harvard, or ever worry about being misunderstood?

A: I think I've always felt that way. [laughs] I probably did. First of all, I never really felt that my poetry would emerge into the world, and so it was just the group of writers here that I was dealing with. Kenneth and I sort of had this mutual admiration society of two and it was enough to sustain us against anybody. . . like Robert Bly, who would criticize our work. I think it wasn't until after my poetry began to attract some attention, probably negative attention, that I most worried about being misunderstood. After I graduated and was living in New York, I couldn't get my poetry accepted. I did get very discouraged. There weren't many outlets for poetry. There wasn't anything like the explosion that occurred after the Beat poets arrived on the scene. After I got out of graduate school at Columbia, there was a period of about a year and a half when I didn't write anything at all. I got this menial office job for a university press. I was a glorified typist, actually. It just seemed like I was going nowhere.

D: What was it that kept you going?

A: I had to stay alive somehow. Eventually, after not writing for a while, I felt I got sort of an epiphany going to a John Cage concert with Frank O'Hara. It seemed to open up great possibilities in poetry for me, because I began writing very experimental poetry. I ended up not publishing much of the stuff, but I definitely started once again. By that time, of course, I knew O'Hara and Schuyler, and we used to get together and read our poems to each other. We didn't know we were going to become the New York School.

C: While you were at Harvard, you met Auden, the man who would later give you the Yale Younger, in a café. Was Auden the poet you really looked up to then?

A: We met a couple of times. Once at a reading. I went to the reading and talked to him. I couldn't think of much to say. I guess a couple of years later, when I decided to write my thesis about him, I saw him in a coffee shop on Mount Auburn Street, so I went over and introduced myself. And then I didn't meet him again until about three years after I graduated, after I met Schuyler who'd known him. Auden was the first 20th-century contemporary poet whose work I became enamored of, and I couldn't really understand it very well. He hadn't written his later poetry then. A lot of his early poetry was very obscure.

D: Did Auden's obscurity in his poetry affect how you use obscurity in your poetry?

A: No. I never use obscurity in my poetry. [laughs] No, it certainly did have an influence on me. He published a Collected Poems in 1945. At the time, he would have been 38 years old, and that collection contains all of the poems of his I loved then, probably still do.

C: In 1963 you had a conversation with Kenneth. There's a great playful dynamic between the two of you. You state at one point that you hoped readers would find the fallacies in your approach to poetry. Do you stand by that?

A: [laughs] Probably I was just goofing. Kenneth and I were still not very successful, but apparently some well-to-do woman in the West got in touch with Kenneth and said she would pay us $300 to record the interview. That was quite a large sum at the time, so that's why we did it. Again, I hadn't dreamed that however many years later I would be discussing this.

C: Do you feel that in the course of your career readers or critics have contributed to your writing?

A: The early reviews were negative or nonexistent. After I got over the shock and disappointment of that--and my first book was a disappointment, my second one fared even worse--I think I sort of debated with myself whether I was going to go on writing poetry, which no one would ever read or write about, or take on some other work.

C: What kind of work would that have been?

A: I don't know. Macramé perhaps. I don't suppose it was a conscious thing, but I think over a period of time these thoughts must have occurred to me. I thought, 'I really enjoy doing this sort of thing even if no one else ever sees it or likes it. At least I'll get some pleasure out of it.' And then by the time my work did get some favorable attention, I think it was the next book, Rivers and Mountains, I was very happy. By that time I was sort of inured to negative criticism. It was never pleasant to read it, but it wasn't as cutting as it was originally.

D: Do you keep your negative reviews?

A: Yeah, I keep them all. But, actually, I don't read my reviews.

C: Does that have anything to do with John Simon?

A: [laughs]

C: I know you were published in the Advocate together, and he was the Teaching Fellow for one of your classes. Do you not subscribe to New York magazine?

A: I think Simon just came out with a volume of essays on poetry, which I read about but never bothered to rush out and buy. [laughs] No. [laughs] It's no fun to read an invective about yourself. I knew Simon through a mutual friend at Harvard. I sensed that he took an immediate dislike to me. During the 80's, I was a critic at New York magazine. He was there and we got on civilly. He's sort of what they call a monstre sacré, sacred monster. I think people that read him always take into account that it's John Simon. He throws in some additional bile to whatever he has to say. I think he's probably an intelligent person. It's sort of regrettable that he enjoys insulting people, their looks . . .

C: Simon asserts that there are two schools of thought in poetry. An aesthetic road to Larkin, and a diverging one to you. Do you think that one can't enjoy both your work and Philip Larkin's?

A: I don't see why they couldn't. I like lots of more traditional poetry, though I don't write it. It's a pleasure to read something different. I haven't read Larkin in a while. I think I got kind of set up in opposition to him by other people, as well as Simon. I guess I shouldn't apologize for not reading Larkin, since I doubt if he had ever read me. He was asked during an interview once what he thought of Ashbery, and he said he preferred strawberries, which was perhaps an unfair example of his wit. [laughs] There are other poets, like Anthony Hecht and Seamus Heaney, who are much more traditional and whose work I enjoy and am enriched by. And there are others who I don't think are good.

C: Who would you say was overrated?

A: [laughs] I think I'd rather not say. Actually, for the moment I can't think of anybody.

C: One of the major themes in Larkin's work is growing older. How do you feel about tackling this theme in your poetry?

A: It's not something I tackle. It tackles me. I think it was only gradually, over time, as I began to grow older, that I realized I was writing about growing older. I guess it's probably the topic as far as I'm concerned. Again, when I sit down to write, I have no preconception of what I'm going to be writing. It's kind of hard to explain.

D: Do you ever start with a line in your head?

A: Yes, very often, or a couple of lines that I may have jotted down. And then I try to combine them and see what happens, or try to go from one to the other.

C: You spoke about going to a John Cage concert. Does music play a large role in your writing? Do movies?

A: Yeah. It seems to be what people consider postmodernism to be. In my case, one reason I use old movies is because when I was a child, it was really hard to get to the movies. There was a movie theater in town nearby, but to go there my parents would have to pick me up from school, then they'd have to drive me back after our early supper, and then come back and get me. I always felt starved for movies, especially since the ones of the '30s were these glamorous musicals and so on that were trying to divert the American public from the Great Depression. I was all in favor of that. I always felt that I hadn't seen enough movies. Maybe using movies in my poems is sort of a delayed satisfying of these early, frustrated desires. I do remember, actually, seeing The Orchestra Wives when I was living in the little town where I grew up. And I saw Her Cardboard Lover,3 which was the last movie starring Norma Scherer. It's a film that escapes people today. James Schuyler also mentions Scherer. She was fascinating because she was so famous and we couldn't really figure out why.

D: Many critics have talked about the different voices in your poetry. Are these voices something that you consciously construct, or more like things you just hear?

A: I guess I probably hear voices. [laughs] But that sounds like I'm a medium or something. My fascination for music has something to do with it. One of my favorite composers early on was Bach, and today one composer I like very much is Eliot Carter, whose works are often conversations between the instruments. One of the pieces I really like is called Duo for Violin and Piano. I went to the premier at Cooper Union in New York, which has a very wide stage. The pianist was on one end and the violinist was on the other. It was sort of like a duel between these two instruments. The violin would actually get the better of the piano, or one of them would stop and sulk and not say anything. Carter describes his music, especially his chamber music, in that way. And then there's Charles Ives, who of course influenced Carter. He has a string quartet and names one of the instruments Rollo, who is the troublemaker and always screwing up the music. It seems natural to me to express myself in different voices. I wrote some plays, and I regret in many ways not having gone on to do that, but at the time it was a lot of work, and nobody would ever produce them. But that's not really an excuse if you're destined to be a playwright. I found a way to express myself in terms of what other people were saying, which was much better than what I would have said or have to say. Maybe the voices that are in my head are a way of avoiding my own voice.

D: Do you feel that when you're writing a poem, it's a conversation you're having with yourself, or is it more like you're writing to someone else?

A: I think it's probably like a conversation I'm having with myself, but, again, not consciously, even though I've done it over and over. When I'm writing, I don't have the sensation that I'm having a conversation.

C: Do you feel like you write for writers? Or for readers?

A: I write for readers. . . and I hope for writers. In America it always seems like you have to write one thing or the other. When I first began writing art criticism, you couldn't like abstract and figurative art. You had to choose one or the other, and at the time it was abstract. It's probably inevitable that the people who read poetry will be poets, though certainly not everybody. There are readers of poetry who don't write poetry.

D: Do you feel that the type of instruction that you received at Harvard had an effect on your teaching style? What advice would you give to young poets?

A: I mainly teach poetry writing. There's not too much of that at Harvard. My advice to younger poets is to read as much poetry of the 20th and 21st century as possible. In writing workshops I assign books of poems, but there's never time enough to do that and attend to the students' poetry, which is all they're interested in. They never take my advice. I was once telling somebody that if you don't read what's been written, you may end up sounding like some poet you've never read. This has happened. I had a student once who reminded me quite a bit of Hart Crane. He had never heard of him, of course. I suggested that he read him. Some time later, he turned in another poem that reminded me of Crane. I asked him if he'd taken my advice, and he said, 'No, but I'm going to.' [laughs] I just don't think young poets today read enough poetry. They're more into expressing themselves and their personal dramas. Sometimes the workshops turn into group therapy. I think sometimes the students are even communicating with other people in the class that they may have designs on. [laughs] I try to get them to be more objective, and I sort of propel them into the further reaches of consciousness by using assignments designed to derail their first instincts. My old favorite is the sestina. You're interrupted at every line. What you want to say is derailed. Somehow, at the end, the students write the poem they were going to write anyway, but it turns out more satisfying because their attention was deflected from themselves for a little while. Sometimes I ask them to translate a poem from a language that I assume they don't know, which is practically any foreign language, it turns out. Something like Finnish. I even tried Egyptian hieroglyphics once, but then I was getting a lot of eyes and fish. Sometimes I use pictures, like Max Ernst's collages.

D: How do you feel about being an influence on your students?

A: I try to not encourage students to write like me because they should be writing like themselves. Of course, many of them who study with me do so because they like my poetry. I'm rather good, I think, at uprooting the Ashberyisms that I find in their work.

C: Just out of curiosity, I noticed that your Pulitzer Prize is in a box in Houghton library.

A: That's a mistake, actually. I think I'm going to try to get that back because it was shipped off by mistake.

D: But just the fact that it was shipped off by mistake and you didn't miss it. . . well, you seem very humble.

A: John Simon would say that I have reason to be. [laughs] I guess that was probably the luckiest break I had, winning those three prizes.4 People have never gotten over it. I never get nominated for any more prizes because it seems to people as though this was in the recent past.

C: What about the Wallace Stevens Award?

A: Yeah, that's true.

C: You're up for many awards.

A: But why? Why me? [laughs]

D: Is that a pressure, the fact that you've won all those awards?

A: What I was going to say before was not only that I don't read negative reviews, but that I was saved from having my head turned by getting too much success. I somehow managed to function without thinking about it, because it didn't seem that there would ever be any.

D: Do you think it's healthy to be self-deprecating? To be hypercritical of yourself?

A: Well, I think that it can be very helpful in many ways not to be self-deprecating, but it seems to work for some people.

C: In 'The Don's Bequest,' you wrote, 'It's time to make my bequest to the land / we all landed on, and will be leaving at some point. . . .' What do you think your bequest to the land has been? Do you think the awards you've received have been the land's bequest to you?

A: I didn't really make that connection with the title and the way the meaning seems to characterize me. I should have seen the connection because, as I say, I'm always surprised by the way my poetry seems to mirror what I'm thinking. I don't really remember writing that poem at all. I don't know why I called it 'The Don's Bequest.' It was just a title that popped into my head. I usually think of a title first and then write a poem about it, but in this case I'm pretty sure the title came after the poem, which would seem to justify what you're saying about it. We all know that we're here for a limited time, and I don't know if I've added anything to this perception.

C: You've lived a life of poetry. How do you feel about that? What are your regrets?

A: In a way, I regret not having written other things, like fiction, which I know I wasn't really cut out to do. And the plays, I actually do think they had some promise, especially 'The Heroes,' my first one. But I didn't write other things, and therefore I obviously wasn't meant to. I think that the writing I have done was the writing I was meant to do and that I wanted to do, even though it doesn't always satisfy me. I regret that so many people are turned off by it. You seem to be implying that I'm the world's most influential poet, but I don't think that everybody would agree.

C: At the very least, America's.

A: Maybe you should tell me why you think so. It surprises me. It's not the first time somebody has said something like that. I don't know how it happened or what it is that grabs people. I'm glad that it happened.

C: In a letter to Kenneth in the late '40s, you talk about ending your poems with a kind of smokescreen, as a way of escaping unnoticed. Many critics also say you have a private writing style, or that your poems are hard to get into. I would say that this privacy lends itself to my kind of privacy, and when I read, I can put myself into this small world or this huge world. I can identify with things in the poem and make them what I feel.

A: That's exactly what I intended. When people say that my work is private, I mean it to be everybody's privacy, just like Gertrude Stein's Everybody's Autobiography. As I say about my poem 'Soonest Mended,' it's my one-size-fits-all confessional poem. That's what I'm trying to do with all my poetry. Any reader can bring his experiences to the poem and have them match up with what's there. One thing about my remark to Kenneth about disappearing from the poem before it is ended: I don't mean that it's something I do in all of my poems. It's something I did do in a few. It's sort of like letting actors leave the stage and leaving the semblance of something there that takes a moment to resolve before the eyes of the audience. I just wrote a poem recently which has the line 'if these shadows have offended,' which comes from the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I use the stage and the theater very often as imagery, although I don't go to the theater very much. Recently, though, I just saw the play Cymbeline. It's one of Shakespeare's most impossible plays, at the end there's about thirty minutes of resolution of all of these complicated subplots. The ending of it is similar to A Midsummer Night's Dream, especially since Shakespeare piles one unreal situation on top of another and then suddenly has them all sort of unravel. I guess Shakespeare was an early influence on me. When I was eight, I used to read him. My grandmother had a wonderful edition with these Victorian engravings, and I couldn't of course get that much out of it, but I had Lamb's Tales. Around that same time, there was a movie of A Midsummer Night's Dream that everyone went to see because it was the only real cultural event. It was the first Shakespeare play I had ever seen, since I didn't see any in the theaters.

C: I think the both of us are a little too tame to. . .

A: To what?

C: Too tame to follow up on our final question.

A: What was it again?

C: I think it was very poorly worded is what it was.

A: [laughs]

C: Oh boy. . . why don't you go, Rob?

D: Our final question was, well, we kind of led into it by talking about Auden's Platonic Blow and the epitaph he wrote for himself in that, which I think was kind of a sarcastic joke or a self-deprecating thing. I guess we were just wondering whether you had an epitaph or some kind of an ending in mind. Do you foresee yourself publishing that last collection of poetry, or have that last poem that you'd like to write in your head? Do you feel like you're working toward some last thing and you'll know when you get there?

A: I don't know. I can't imagine wanting to stop writing poetry. And I have another collection coming out, which I hope won't be the last. I've never thought about an epitaph, actually. Since you bring it up, you make me think about it, and I don't think I really want one--just something very chaste with the name and the date would be fine. I don't remember the epitaph, though I have read The Platonic Blow. In fact, I read it even before it was pirated and made public because Alan Ansen--he's the man who acted as Auden's literary executor--showed me. What did the epitaph read?

C: Um, something, let's see. . . um, I believe it is, we should have printed it out, I think it's: 'A cocksucker, yes. A poet, maybe. Good? And a Christian.'

A: [laughs]

C: Yeah, I thought it was a very biting farewell.

A: But he didn't really intend it for his epitaph, did he?

C: No, no.

D: In some sense, I think things like this are a kind of self-criticism, a 'this is what people think of me.' The idea of writing your own epitaph in some ways says more about how you're feeling at that point in time about yourself, where you see yourself in the world, than where you actually are.

C: We didn't mean to turn this into a dark interview.

A: [laughs]

C: We're just interested in what you want to leave behind for the world to see, what exactly you want the works to convey about yourself.

D: It's not something that we expected you'd just be able to tell us on the spot, like, 'Oh--'

A: What my last words will be? Well, I'd like to cooperate, but I haven't really thought about it. It's impossible to contemplate one's death. I mean, I realize that I'm going to be seventy-five in a few months and it probably will be happening at some point, though people tend to be rather long-lived in my family. I was asking this of Kenneth the other day. He's going through this terrible siege of leukemia that just started out of nowhere. He was asymptomatic, and then they did a blood test and said, 'You have leukemia and you have about a month to live.' So he went to Houston and had this long, weird, arduous treatment. Then he was in remission. Then he went back into the hospital. I asked him, 'How can you face the fact that this disease may turn out to be fatal?' I didn't say it quite that way but. . . he said, 'Well, what does one do? We don't want to think about our deaths, but at the same time we could always think about them. It doesn't really matter whether you're in the hospital attached to a life support system or out walking around somewhere, anywhere.'



1 Deerfield Academy, located in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Ashbery attended high school there from 1941-45.

2 The poem in Voices was entitled "Dark River."

3 See "Her Cardboard Lover" in this issue, a poem from Ashbery's forthcoming collection Chinese Whispers, due in the fall of 2002.

4 The Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Circle Critics Award, all in 1975, for the volume Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.