John Ashbery’s Art of Poetry | Daily News

John Ashbery’s Art of Poetry

John Ashbery by Lynn Davis
John Ashbery by Lynn Davis

The interview was conducted at John Ashbery’s apartment in the section of Manhattan known as Chelsea. When I arrived, Ashbery was away, and the doorman asked me to wait outside. Soon the poet arrived and we went up by elevator to a spacious, well-lighted apartment in which a secretary was hard at work. We sat in easy chairs in the living room, Ashbery with his back to the large windows. The predominant decor was blue and white, and books lined the whole of one wall.

We talked for more than three hours with only one short break for refreshment—soda, tea, water, nothing stronger. Ashbery’s answers to my questions required little editing. He did, however, throughout the conversation give the impression of distraction, as though he wasn’t quite sure just what was going on or what his role in the proceedings might be. The interviewer attempted valiantly to extract humorous material, but—as is often the case for readers of Ashbery’s poetry—wasn’t sure when he succeeded. Since that afternoon a few additional questions were asked and answered, and these have been incorporated into the whole.

INTERVIEWER

I would like to start at the very beginning. When and why did you first decide on a career as a poet?

ASHBERY

I don’t think I ever decided on a career as a poet. I began by writing a few little verses, but I never thought any of them would be published or that I would go on to publish books. I was in high school at the time and hadn’t read any modern poetry. Then in a contest I won a prize in which you could choose different books; the only one which seemed appealing was Untermeyer’s anthology, which cost five dollars, a great deal of money. That’s how I began reading modern poetry, which wasn’t taught in the schools then, especially in rural schools like the one I attended. I didn’t understand much of it at first. There were people like Elinor Wylie whom I found appealing—wonderful craftsmanship—but I couldn’t get very far with Auden and Eliot and Stevens. Later I went back to them and started getting their books out of the library. I guess it was just a desire to emulate that started me writing poetry. I can’t think of any other reason. I am often asked why I write, and I don’t know really—I just want to.

INTERVIEWER

When did you get more serious about it, thinking about publishing and that sort of thing?

ASHBERY

For my last two years of high school, I went to Deerfield Academy, and the first time I saw my work in print was in the school paper there. I had tried painting earlier, but I found that poetry was easier than painting. I must have been fifteen at the time. I remember reading Scholastic magazine and thinking I could write better poems than the ones they had in there, but I was never able to get one accepted. Then a student at Deerfield sent in some of my poems under his name to Poetry magazine, and when I sent them the same poems a few months later the editors there naturally assumed that I was the plagiarist. Very discouraging. Poetry was the most illustrious magazine to be published in at that time, and for a long time after they shunned my work. Then I went on to Harvard and in my second year I met Kenneth Koch. I was trying to get on the Harvard Advocate, and he was already one of the editors. He saw my poetry and liked it, and we started reading each other’s work. He was really the first poet that I ever knew, so that was rather an important meeting. Of course I published in the Advocate, and then in 1949 I had a poem published in Furioso. That was a major event in my life because, even though it was a relatively small magazine, it did take me beyond the confines of the college. But it was hard to follow that up with other publications, and it really wasn’t until my late twenties that I could submit things with some hope of them getting accepted.

INTERVIEWER

Was there ever a time when you thought you would have to make a choice between art criticism and poetry, or have the two just always worked out well together?

ASHBERY

I was never interested in doing art criticism at all —I’m not sure that I am even now. Back in the fifties, Thomas Hess, the editor of ARTnews, had a lot of poets writing for the magazine. One reason was that they paid almost nothing and poets are always penurious. Trained art historians would not write reviews for five dollars, which is what they were paying when I began. I needed some bread at the time—this was in 1957 when I was thirty—and my friends who were already writing for ARTnews suggested that I do it too. So I wrote a review of Bradley Tomlin, an Abstract Expressionist painter who had a posthumous show at the Whitney. After that I reviewed on a monthly basis for a while until I returned to France. Then in 1960 it happened that I knew the woman who was writing art criticism for the Herald Tribune. She was going back to live in America and asked if I knew anybody who would like to take over her job. It didn’t pay very much, but it enabled me to get other jobs doing art criticism, which I didn’t want to do very much, but as so often when you exhibit reluctance to do something, people think you must be very good at it. If I had set out to be an art critic, I might never have succeeded.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any aspects of your childhood that you think might have contributed to making you the poet you are?

ASHBERY

I don’t know what the poet that I am is, very much. I was rather an outsider as a child—I didn’t have many friends. We lived out in the country on a farm. I had a younger brother whom I didn’t get along with—we were always fighting the way kids do—and he died at the age of nine. I felt guilty because I had been so nasty to him, so that was a terrible shock. These are experiences which have been important to me. I don’t know quite how they may have fed into my poetry. My ambition was to be a painter, so I took weekly classes at the art museum in Rochester from the age of about eleven until fifteen or sixteen. I fell deeply in love with a girl who was in the class but who wouldn’t have anything to do with me. So I went to this weekly class knowing that I would see this girl, and somehow this being involved with art may have something to do with my poetry. Also, my grandfather was a professor at the University of Rochester, and I lived with them as a small child and went to kindergarten and first grade in the city. I always loved his house; there were lots of kids around, and I missed all this terribly when I went back to live with my parents. Then going back there each week for art class was a returning to things I had thought were lost, and gave me a curious combination of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. The Paris review 


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