Perennial Voyager | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Perennial Voyager 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:33 pm

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Fifty years later, Ashbery remains on the cultural vanguard. He was recently named the first Poet Laureate of MTV-U. Last year, along with Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Isabella Rossellini, and other hipster celebrities, he performed live narration for Guy Maddin’s silent art film Brand upon the Brain, at New York’s Village East Theatre; he and Maddin now plan to collaborate on a screenplay.

Movie references abound in his poems, which also employ such cinematic devices as intercutting, montage, and flashbacks. He’s just as conversant with music, favoring contemporary classical and avant-garde composers. John Cage’s I Ching­­–based “Music of Changes” was “very influential when I heard it in my early 20s,” he relates. “I once heard John Cage talking to someone about music, and he said, ‘Beethoven was wrong.’ Several years later, having thought about this, I asked Cage what he’d meant. Cage replied, ‘He was wrong!’ ”

Ashbery often listens to music while writing or preparing to write. “Lately I’ve been listening with a lot of interest to “The Art of Finger Dexterity” by Czerny, which was written to torture piano students. It’s mostly silly little tunes ornamented in a very complicated way to stretch the fingers to the limits of endurance. It’s kind of beautiful because of having been written from that angle, to educate the fingers.”


The musical influence is reciprocal: Composers Ned Rorem and Elliott Carter, among many others, have composed settings for Ashbery’s verse. There’s a similar cross-pollination in visual art. Ashbery has provided texts for collaborations with Robert Mapplethorpe, Joe Brainard, and Archie Rand; Trevor Wingfield’s magazine Sienese Shredder recently reproduced some of the poet’s own early collages. Ashbery’s artistic vision infuses his writing as well. “Since I wanted to be a visual artist when I was a kid—I took art classes at the Museum of Rochester—I have a visual artist’s take on how a poem should be, for instance, ‘I should move a piece of this over there’; ‘This needs a certain color, rather than a certain word,’” he explains.

Bard colleague, poet, and longtime friend Ann Lauterbach says of Ashbery’s oeuvre, “There’s an open discussion among various art forms that goes back and forth in a kind of wonderful, rich way.” At the Bard celebration, she introduced the poet with fond recollections of their first meeting in Carnaby Street-era London. After Ashbery read an eclectic selection of poems old and new, Lauterbach joined him onstage to perform a long section of his poem “Litany.” Ashbery explained that the text, printed in two parallel columns is “to be read simultaneously, which confused a lot of people.” Aloud, the two voices overlapped, intertwined, and buried each other, casting up phrases like pieces of driftwood afloat on a river of sound. At the end, the audience rose for the sort of sustained standing ovation rarely seen outside an opera house.

Rather than academics, Lauterbach, Conjunctions’ Morrow, and Gizzi chose a distinguished array of poets and art historian Jed Perl to discuss Ashbery’s work. “John is essentially not interested in academic writing,” Lauterbach observes. “He thinks in the work and through the work. Analysis and theory have so little to do with his own processes.”

Ashbery concurs. “I don’t know why I would want to analyze my own poetry. If I knew too much about it, I wouldn’t be able to write it.”

Larissa MacFarquhar’s 2005 New Yorker profile detailed a day in the creative life of John Ashbery, full of the procrastinatory-yet-somehow-essential practices most writers embrace: cups of coffee and tea, phone calls to writer friends, reading, playing significant music. “What he is trying to do is jump-start a poem by lowering a bucket down into a kind of underground stream flowing through his mind—a stream of continuously flowing poetry, or perhaps poetic stuff would be a better way to put it. Whatever the bucket brings up will be his poem,” MacFarquhar reported.

This method has changed little over the years. “I suppose what’s changed is that when I was young I was more intimidated by the process of writing,” says Ashbery. “I didn’t try to do it very often—maybe I felt that I’d sort of use up my artistic capital. And I would revise endlessly. As the years go by, I’ve become much more casual about writing. If I’m not pleased with something, I tend to discard it rather than reworking it to death.”

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