Remembering John Ashbery, acclaimed writer who pulled poetry ‘from the air’

JOHN YANG: Finally tonight, we take some time
to remember a great writer and a noted musician. First, John Ashbery, considered one of the
country’s most important and influential poets. He died yesterday in Hudson, New York. He won the Pulitzer Prize and the National
Book Award, among many other accolades. Jeffrey Brown profiled him back in 2007. Here’s an excerpt. JEFFREY BROWN: For much of his life, John
Ashbery has been a walker in the city. JOHN ASHBERY, Poet: I used to have a little
recording device I took around with me, so I could record those and other things that
occurred to me while I was walking. JEFFREY BROWN: The words, phrases and sounds
he collected often ended up in his poetry, a body of work that has led him to be considered
one of the nation’s most important writers of the last half-century. Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, in
1927. As a young man, he and friends like Frank
O’Hara and Kenneth Koch formed what came to be called the New York School of Poetry. His first book of poems, “Some Trees,” was
published in 1956. In 1975, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”
cemented his reputation and earned Ashbery a triple crown, the Pulitzer Prize, National
Book Award, and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Now, at age 80, he’s just garnered a rather
different and unusual honor, being named as MTV’s first poet laureate. In all, he’s published more than 30 volumes
of poetry, criticism and essays, including, in recent months, a new book of verse, “A
Worldly Country,” and a collection of selected later poems called “Notes from the Air,” which
includes the poem “This Room.” JOHN ASHBERY: “The room I entered was a dream
of this room. Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine. The oval portrait of a dog was me at an early
age. Something shimmers. Something is hushed up. We had macaroni for lunch every day, except
Sunday, when a small quail was induced to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things? You are not even here.. JEFFREY BROWN: I talked with John Ashbery
recently at his New York apartment. “Notes From the Air,” now, is that a good
description of where words or phrases come from, from the air, in a sense? JOHN ASHBERY: Yes, I would say that it is. Poetry comes to me out of thin air or out
of my unconscious mind. It’s sort of the way dreams come to us and
the way that we get knowledge from them, through television, old movies, which I watch a lot
of. Lines of dialogue suddenly seem to be part
of a poem there. JEFFREY BROWN: Those “Notes From the Air”
that he turns into poems — yes, he still drafts his poetry on an old typewriter — have
earned him a reputation for being hard to read. An Ashbery poem often has no clear narrative
and a bewildering, if humorous, wordplay. “We’ll party when the millennium gets closer,”
he writes in the poem “Tuesday Evening.” “Meanwhile, I wanted to mention your feet.” Is it sort of a conversation with yourself
going on? JOHN ASHBERY: Yes. Very often, not with — maybe not me with
myself, but of two personalities in my head who are arguing and sort of ignoring me at
the same time. JEFFREY BROWN: They’re arguing and ignoring
you? JOHN ASHBERY: I sometimes feel that that’s
what happens. JEFFREY BROWN: So you have this reputation
for being difficult. Does that bother you? JOHN ASHBERY: Well, it kind of does, because
I think that it precedes my poetry and may discourage people from picking it up and,
“Oh, he’s so difficult. I would have to read a book about him before
I could appreciate anything that he wrote.” JEFFREY BROWN: Does a poem have to be understood
in the way we normally think of understanding language? JOHN ASHBERY: Well, I never quite understood
about understanding. My ideas for poetry, in fact, tend to come
more from music than they do from poetry or literature. JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean by that? JOHN ASHBERY: One listens to a piece of great
music, say, and feels deeply moved by it, and wants to put this feeling into words,
but it can’t be put into words. That’s what — the music has already supplied
the meaning, and words will just be superfluous after that. But it’s that kind of verbal meaning that
can’t be verbalized that I try to get at in poetry. JOHN YANG: John Ashbery was 90 years old.

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