Ashbery Discusses Lifetime of Poetic Achievement

December 31, 2007 at 5:45 PM EDT
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Prolific poet and writer John Ashbery has long been honored as one of the country's most important writers. Ashbery shares some of his poetry and talks to the NewsHour about his life and artistic endeavors.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, another conversation in our occasional series on poets and poetry, and to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: For much of his life, John Ashbery has been a walker in the city.

JOHN ASHBERY, American 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.

Ashbery known for cryptic style

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." Later, in the same poem, this strange exchange occurs.

JOHN ASHBERY: Well, I never said my system was foolproof. You did, too. I did not. Did, too. Did not. Did, too. Did not. Did, too. Hell, I only said, "Let's wait a while and see what happens. Maybe something will." And if it doesn't, well, our personal investment in the thing hasn't been that enormous, you crybaby. We can still emerge unscathed. These are exceptional times, after all.

JEFFREY BROWN: 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'd 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: You never understood about understanding?

JOHN ASHBERY: No, at least as far as poetry goes. I frequently, when I'm reading a poem, react to it, and enjoy it, and even love it before I've actually figured out what it's saying, what its literal sense is.

Blurring lines between music, word

JEFFREY BROWN: Meghan O'Rourke is a poet and a critic for Slate, and she wrote an essay called "How to read John Ashbery." And she suggests, she says, "Rather than struggling to understand the poems, to take pleasure in their arrangement the way you listen to music."

JOHN ASHBERY: Well, I think maybe she's right. I certainly -- 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.

"The History of My Life."

Once upon a time there were two brothers.

Then there was only one: myself.

I grew up fast, before learning to drive,

even. There was I: a stinking adult.

I thought of developing interests

someone might take an interest in. No soap.

I became very weepy for what had seemed

like the pleasant early years. As I aged

increasingly, I also grew more charitable

with regard to my thoughts and ideas,

thinking them at least as good as the next man's.

Then a great devouring cloud

came and loitered on the horizon, drinking

it up, for what seemed like months or years.

Despite fame, business as usual

JEFFREY BROWN: You're now routinely described as one of the leading lights of American letters. You're described as one of the great poets of your era. You're sort of in danger of canonization.

JOHN ASHBERY: Yeah, how did that happen anyway? I sort of went from being sort of unknown and considered remote and incomprehensible to being a sort of household word without any intervening period of warm, gracious understanding. I don't know what, how this...

JEFFREY BROWN: And you're baffled.


JEFFREY BROWN: You told me before we started that you're still writing regularly, but you may have written enough poetry for the world at this point -- or too much?

JOHN ASHBERY: Oh, no, I intend to go on as long as I can. But one wonders sometimes, sometimes just how much is too much? I try to stay at enough...

JEFFREY BROWN: You try to stay at just enough.


JEFFREY BROWN: All right, John Ashbery, thanks for talking to us.

JOHN ASHBERY: Thank you.