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

September 4, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
Considered one of the country’s most influential poets, John Ashbery died Sunday at the age of 90. He was a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Jeffrey Brown revisits his conversation with Ashbery from 2007, where he spoke about his poetry and his journey from being unknown to one of the great poets of our era.
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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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