April 16, 2011

Poets for April 16, 2011 - John Ashbery

Like I mentioned yesterday, I will feature two poets every day for the rest of the month. Also, I've decided that for the next week or so I will feature poets who have written mostly in the post World War II era. In many cases, these poets may be still alive and I'm hoping will be bringing us their wonderful poetry for some more years. I feature today two poets today whose poems I have enjoyed a lot in the last three years -- John Ashbery and the US's current poet laureate, W. S. Merwin.

John Ashbery is arguably the greatest living poet today, according to many and his vast body of work over the last 50+ years is testimony to his lasting legacy. Little wonder then that over the years Ashbery has won all major awards for poets, starting with his very first book of poems in 1956 with the Yale Younger Poets Prize when W. H. Auden chose Ashbery's first collection, Some Trees, for the award to 1975 won his book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won all three major American poetry prizes (the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award) to many other awards in between and since. (Note: The poem is a long poem and cannot be reproduced here but do enjoy the title poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; a great poem about a painting of the same name by the Italian painter, Parmigianino. For more about the poem and the painting read:  Ashbery, Parmigianino, and the Convex Mirror and also Edward Bryne's post about it: John Ashbery: 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror'. Note that Ashbery, besides being a poet, is also a noted art critic. You can enjoy some of his art criticism pieces as well as other prose in Reported Sightings, Art Chronicles 1957-1987 as well as Selected Prose (1953-2003)).

That said, I will agree with some people who say Ashbery's poetry can be "difficult", if I may use that word, while adding simultaneously that, for me, there is still much to enjoy in poems that are difficult and not easy to grasp at first or even a second reading. That is what draws me back to Wallace Stevens back again and again and the same thing happens with Ashbery lately, though I have read far more of Steven's work than Ashbery. Like Stephen Burt, Harvard professor of English, whose book of essays about reading poetry - Close Calls With Nonsense - I enjoyed reading recently, wrote about Ashbery, he is the "last figure whom half the English-language poets alive thought a great model, and the other half thought incomprehensible". I am still not a fan of the kind of abstract poetry that the so-called language poets (Rae Armentrout and more specifically Lyn Hejinian) write but the poems of Ashbery, like those of Wallace Stevens, or even some of the more deeper and more involved poems of T. S. Eliot, while difficult, have something about them that draws me to them again and again, trying to unweave the words and get at something fundamental about being human that the poet has captured in his poems. The promise of the unknown beguiles and even if I walk away without understanding it, I leave having experienced something which was not part of me before I read the poem. 

Also, do read this article in The Slate: The Instruction Manual - How to read John Ashbery. Like Meghan O'Rourke writes in it: "Being difficult, after all, is not the same thing as being incomprehensible. And the truth is that Ashbery's poetry is still very much invested in the reader's pleasure.........The best thing to do, then, is not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It's only then, for most readers, that the meaning begins to leak through." Or as the critic Harold Bloom has written elsewhere: "In the struggle of the reader both with and against a strong poem, more than an interpretation of a poem becomes the prize. What instruction is more valuable than that which shows us how to distinguish real or illusory dangers to the self's survival, and how to ward off the real menaces?". In the words of the poet himself:

"Since I don't understand myself, only segments 
of myself that misunderstand each other, there's no 
reason for you to want to, no way you could 
even if we both wanted it." 
- John Ashbery (A Poem of Unrest)

John Ashbery (Born: July 28 1927, Rochester, NY)

Anyways, presenting now John Ashbery - "ungraspable, inexplicable, and as mysterious as the Delphic Oracle" - a video of Ashbery reading one of his (relatively) recent poems - "Interesting People of Newfoundland",  followed by one of his poems.

And now couple poems:

by John Ashbery

The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow
That came when we wanted it to snow?
Beautiful images? Trying to avoid
Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving
The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it
As we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:
What was left was like a field.
Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.
Now open them on a thin vertical path.
It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?

And the second poem.... absolutely love the first paragraph. (I have interestingly chosen and juxtaposed two poems here that almost read like sequels. The flowers "given" to us - these poems - must keep on flowering, for "love to continue".

Late Echo
by John Ashbery
Alone with our madness and favorite flower
We see that there really is nothing left to write about.
Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things
In the same way, repeating the same things over and over
For love to continue and be gradually different.

Beehives and ants have to be re-examined eternally
And the color of the day put in
Hundreds of times and varied from summer to winter
For it to get slowed down to the pace of an authentic
Saraband and huddle there, alive and resting.

Only then can the chronic inattention
Of our lives drape itself around us, conciliatory
And with one eye on those long tan plush shadows
That speak so deeply into our unprepared knowledge
Of ourselves, the talking engines of our day.

I'll leave you with a link to a number of posts about Ashbery that Edward Bryne, editor of Valparaiso Poetry Review, has written at his wonder blog on contemporary poetry and poetics:

And also two websites dedicated to John Ashbery - the first at the Electronic Poetry Center  at the Univ. of Buffalo and the second at the amazing archive of poetry readings being put together at the PennSound website.

Note: Since this has already become a long post, I will create a separate post for W. S. Merwin.

Ed. - Update in 2013 from the NPM celebration in April 2013, which started on day 1 with Ashbery. That post can be read here.

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