Interview with John Ashbery

Ashbery in Lund

John Ashbery interviewed by Vasilis Papageorgiou

New York, April 5, 1989

This interview was first published in Swedish (“«Jag kan tygla mitt undermedvetna»: John Ashbery samtalar med Vasilis Papageorgiou“. Translated by Maria Ekman. ARTES 4, 1989). One year later it was published in Greek («Τζων Άσμπερυ. Η ποίηση βγαίνει μέσα από άλλη ποίηση. Συνομιλία με τον Βασίλη Παπαγεωργίου». ENTEYKTHΡIO 13, 1990).

Picture: John Ashbery and Vasilis Papageorgiou photographed by Tommy Olofsson in his garden outside Lund, 1990.

A. I am always surprised when critics say that my work has now become more accessible than it used to be. I’m not aware of having attempted this and, since I never tried to make my work inaccessible to begin with, I saw no need to make it accessible. But I think this is merely a question of time passing and that so many things that seem strange, even outrageous when they first appeared, come to seem normal just because they have grown older. I think it’s as simple as that perhaps.

P. Is it true that you are occupied with the themes of getting older and death and isolation?

A. I think so, yes. I used to look at my poetry and it’d seem as though it didn’t really have any subject except the movement of my mind as I was writing, and my attempt, I suppose, was always to mirror that movement and to hope at least that this would result in poetry. But as I become older I’ve noticed that indeed there is a theme and it is precisely the theme of getting older, the one thing that nobody anticipates really and nobody expects and it’s always a shock. When one is old, one is old for the first time. It’s something that we really have no way of anticipating and no way of seeing the reality of it until it happens to us, and at that time the fact that it’s indeed rather late in the game makes it… gives it an added poignancy.

P. Which is your relation with your own poetic innocence? Is it like you say in a poem from Shadow Train that, you speak to somebody and say that “if you have curled and dandled your innocence once too often, what attitude isn’t then really yours?”. Could one say, somehow, that this applies to your poetry also?

A. I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.

P. You are so playful in your poetry, so evasive, so when one tries to find, in a romantic sense, your poetic core, one fails. How does this innocence, this poetic innocence, how do you feel it, which is the relation you have towards it?

A. I don’t really know very much about my innocence and perhaps that’s a result of being innocent. The question you asked me before you began taping [Before I began taping I asked Ashbery if I were right to read his poetry in tragic terms. I explained that by tragic I meant a decisive movement, the passage from one world into another, and that the more difficult to identify the new world, the stronger the power of the tragic] and this question are questions that can really only be answered by someone other than myself who reads my poetry. I don’t know what constitutes innocence or my innocence.

P. I say that because whenever I read a poem of yours or a new book so I realize that there is always a freshness there, an innocence as if there is no [Thunderbolt]…

A. Heavens (He laughs). Yes, interrupted by god.

P. …as if there is no pattern of ontological or metaphysical concerns behind it.

A. My innocence fortunately prevents me from seeing the innocence in my work.

P. You are truly innocent.

A. Probably. That may be why my innocence is invisible to me and probably it is best that way.

P. Harold Bloom has written that you combine the romantic idea of writing poetry with the very modern ways of writing poetry. You are a person of the past and the present at the same time.

A. You want me to comment on that or agree with it? (He smiles) I don’t know what to say. Certainly my work comes out of other poetry, although people don’t always see that, and this can be modern poetry or ancient poetry, I read both and there is no longer much of a distinction between them for me when I’m reading for something that I will use. I think that writers read differently from other people who read. We read in two ways. One for the same reasons that everybody else does, to learn something, and two for something that will be useful to us when we write, and I mostly read the latter way. What my reading seems to be aimed at is something that is going to make a difference to my writing, hopefully a good difference. And this frequently happens to be nineteenth century poetry probably more than anything else.

V. Any particular poet?

A. I read Hölderlin a great deal. Of course I only can read him in translation but it seems to me that English translations are quite good, and what else, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth. I am particularly fond of the rather obscure nineteenth century English poet Beddoes, who’s considered very minor figure but I consider him quite important, at least in my pantheon he is important.

P. You believe, that is, that minor poets have many things to tell us.

A. Well, they have a lot to tell me that is useful for me and my own perceptions of what is major and what is minor are quite different from what is taught at universities. I consider Beddoes to be a major poet.

P. Now that you mentioned universities, which is your attitude towards the new literary theories?

A. I don’t really have any because I don’t follow them. I hoped you weren’t going to ask me about this because people are always asking me what I think of Derrida and Deleuze and I have to embarrass myself by saying I haven’t really read them but in fact I read very little criticism.

P. What about Harold Bloom who has written about you?

A. Well, I haven’t read very much of his criticism and I have read almost nothing of the criticism that has been written about me.

P. That Harold Bloom wrote?

A. Or anybody (Laughs). I tend to read bad reviews much more attentively than good ones, and I suppose what really interests me when I’m reading is how I am going to be able to write again, and good or favourable critiques of my poetry, flattering as they are, cannot do this.

V. Would I be right if I say that you remind me sometimes of Kavafis? There is a kind of resignation in the way you approach the world, a wisdom that comes from a kind of defeatist feeling.

A. Well, it could be. I think of myself as a more cheerful poet than Kavafis and less world-weary, but I think that this may be due to my misperception of what I am like, I am quite apt to be mistaken on many subjects, especially my own writing and my own character, and I know most people find my work rather gloomy, if not tragic, as you yourself were saying a little while ago. I am not sure that it strikes me that way. Perhaps it’s because in the very act of writing it I manage to purge myself of the tragic feeling that I was having and therefore I am wondering why everybody looks so solemn, since I now feel good and can’t remember having felt the other way. I think it’s a question of, sort of, naming all of the drawbacks, the bad things in life in order to be able to concentrate on the others. Perhaps I never got around to that part of the operation, but it seems to me that the effort to exorcize the tragedy goes on in my poetry and might be mistaken for tragedy itself, but it doesn’t strike me that way.

P. Often you speak to somebody in your poetry in a very intimate way, familiar way. Do you do this consciously, do you have a need to talk with somebody even if this is yourself?

A. Well, I suppose I do, yes.

P. Could you define this “you” in your poetry?

A. I’ve never really understood why this proves to be such a stumbling- block for people who are reading my work. Even someone so receptive and enlightened as Harold Bloom in a lecture a couple of days ago said that the inability to distinguish between the “I” and the “you” in my poetry is the strength and the weakness of this poetry. I don’t see why it’s either a strength or weakness, I must say. And also it doesn’t seem to me that this is so very different from normal poetic practice. All poets address “you” and we understand that to be either a beloved or somebody close to the speaker at the time, close enough so that he wants to express himself in poetry, and it’s not uncommon for poets to address themselves, to talk to themselves and call themselves “you” familiarly. I suppose if we had the two forms of tu and vous in English it might help clarify matters a little. And then again there is the impersonal “you” as in expressions like “you never know”, where you are not talking about a specific person but a kind of general audience or listener. And perhaps my poetry gets complicated because I frequently switch from one of these to another without bothering to inform the reader that I am now talking to myself when I was addressing my beloved a few moments ago.

P. Harold Bloom wrote some years ago that in your poetry we recognize the American isolated individual. Do you think that this “you” you use so often is a way to abandon this isolation, to come out of it? Do you think that the way you have grown up in the countryside maybe… I don’t know if you were isolated there, if you felt isolated…

A. Yes, I was actually, and before that, my earliest childhood I spent with my grandparents living in a city and there were plenty of children to play with, you could walk from one street to the other and visit people. Then I was transplanted out to the middle of the country and there were no children close by. I went to school in a village, and after school I would be taken home so I never had much of a social life as a child. I kept regretting the earlier time when I had been part of a little society. So, perhaps that is a trigger of loneliness, a feeling of loneliness in my writing, plus the fact that my brother died when we were children. He was younger than me.

P. Of what?

A. Of leukaemia.

P. How old was he?

A. He was nine and I was almost thirteen at the time. He was my only sibling and I was feeling much more alone than I had been before. But I don’t know that I feel now that I am lonelier than anybody else or that people are lonelier in America than they are elsewhere. I think in fact people are less lonely here. I lived in Europe for a long time and in France at least it seemed to me that people’s social life was largely in the framework of the family and they don’t tend to have bands of friends whom they see a great deal of and are with almost like an extended family, which is the case often in America.

P. How is it to live in New York?

A. Well, you have a pretty wide choice of how you’ll organize your life and most of my friends happen to be here, so I would be at a loss to live elsewhere now. I mean there are so many possibilities, so many things, so many more of everything, not just in New York, but in America when you start to think. I mean there are… so many bad things but so many good things too.

P. Could one say that your poetry has a great deal to do with New York? The spirit of New York, if one can speak of a New York-spirit?

A. It probably does but I never really thought about it in any systematic way. It’s certainly not directly involved with it in the way that many theorists would say the poetry of Frank O’Hara was. I think he was certainly a poet who used the city as his subject in a way that I don’t, but certain attitudes here I am sure come into my poetry, for instance the fact that New York has always been demolished and rebuilt, and if you walk down a street that you haven’t seen for a few months you suddenly realize that there was an old building there that’s not there any more, in fact there is a big new building where it used to be. And somehow the fact that… everything is so disposable and recyclable no doubt influences not just my poetry, but the lives of everybody who lives here. I think if I lived in a European city where every street was very much as it was six or seven hundred years ago I might feel more intimidated about how I was going to express myself. But the fact that one can be careless here, which is certainly not a good thing all the time, is nevertheless stimulating to artists. There is not much to intimidate one in that sense. One is also less rich for the resonances that surround one in Europe, but, at the same time, one is not stifled by them either.

P. Is there any place you long for apart from your house outside New York and your house here in New York?

A. (Laughs) Yes, there are lots of places I would like to live. It turns out really one isn’t free to choose where one wants to live. I live here almost by default, more for negative reasons than for positive ones. I have a job here, I have an apartment here, I have friends here, all my books and records are here. It’s not that I sort of chose this place because I feel that life is richer or more fulfilling than it is in other places. Most New Yorkers tend to be very cynical about the town, wondering what’s the next terrible thing that is going to happen to the city. However if you live in a place like San Francisco which is really much more agreeable in many ways than New York, I think you feel you’re making a statement by living there, you can congratulate yourself when you get up in the morning that you live in this wonderful place. But this perhaps gets in a way of one’s business, literary business in my case.

P. I would like to know if there is somewhere a deeper reason why you write, what is behind your way of writing.

A. I’ve never been able to answer that question. I’ve been asked frequently “why do you write?”. It’s a favourite question to ask writers and many of them seem to know. I don’t. I suppose I want to express something but I don’t know what it is or why I want to express it.

P. How come you wrote the first time? When was that and why?

A. I wrote a poem when I was about eight years old. At that age I was actually trying to read Shakespeare and I often stayed with my grandpapa [mother’s father] who had a pretty large library and with the help of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare as well as looking at the plays themselves. I found that very fascinating. And I read children’s poetry also, and this was an attempt to I guess write a poem for children; even though I was a child myself I wanted to write for other children. In fact I have a little hand printed folder of some poems at that time called Poems for Boys and Girls. But I found these poems so successful that I saw no need to continue writing. So I gave it up for quite a few years and I wanted to paint instead. I studied painting as a child. In fact there is a painting of mine in there on the desk, which is one of the last I did when I was about eighteen. But then I discovered an anthology of modern poetry when I was about fifteen, and gradually tried to imitate some of the poems in it. It became more absorbing to me than painting. So they overlapped for several years. I really gave up painting when I went away to college and took up writing seriously there. And that was when I first met other poets and I was on a literary magazine at Harvard and started being a poet.

P. You have written prose and plays, but you don’t seem to put much energy in that direction as you put on poetry.

A. I have ideas for plays and as soon as I finish all the projects that I have I would like to write one. When I wrote the ones that I wrote, which was thirty years ago, I wasn’t known as a poet. It seemed unlikely that anybody would ever perform these plays, so what was the use of writing them really. I stopped it after I thought a rather interesting beginning. I became quite fascinated by the mechanics of plays, of the devices the playwrights use to get characters on and off the stage, move them along so they can have a conversation. That machinery I thought could be used for another kind of theatre of the absurd than the kind we were faced with which usually results in very little activity on the stage and a certain enforced boredom. Nevertheless I didn’t get around to this but I have ideas for it, except every time I sit down and try to write some fiction I end up writing a poem instead, so it gets continually postponed. In fact I often think it’s become for me a device for tricking myself into writing poetry. If I haven’t something else to do, if I didn’t have this, would I write the poems, I don’t know.

P. How do you write? You keep notes while walking? You have to concentrate many hours in your room?

A. No, I don’t. I write down phrases or little thoughts on scraps of paper and I use these when I write sometimes, if I happen to have any, but if I don’t, I write anyway. I don’t have any preconception about what I am going to write before I write. I don’t think about it. That’s what seems to work best for me. And when I write I write very rapidly, working on a typewriter, without even being very aware of what I am writing. It’s a very unconscious kind of writing. But not in the sense of the unconscious writing that the surrealists for instance practiced which is sort of like taking dictation from their unconscious mind. I don’t think that that’s a successful way of working either. I manage my unconscious.

P. I know this is a naive question and Harold Bloom would like it nevertheless. If one tries to trace your poetical genealogy what would one find there?

A. Of course he has traced it from Stevens back to Whitman and Emerson. I don’t see it that way, although I’ve certainly learned much from Whitman and Stevens. I haven’t read Emerson that much although every time I read him I feel I am in agreement with whatever he happens to be saying which is basically the same thing over and over in many different ways. But I feel that I didn’t really appreciate Stevens until I had already been writing for some few years. When I first came to his poetry it left me cold and it wasn’t until later when I had a course in twentieth century poetry at Harvard that I really became interested in him. But I think by that time I was more or less formed, so certainly much of what I got from reading him was grafted on to what was already there but I don’t think it was the basic influence, which I think it was Auden. He was the first major modern poet that I read with great understanding, his early work, mostly what he wrote before he left England for America was most influential on me.

P. Could you describe a difference between Europe and America?

A. Well, other poets, European poets that have been particularly meaningful for me are Pasternak and Mandelstam, Rilke, Trakl. I don’t really know any foreign language though except French and I don’t feel French poetry has had much of an influence with the exception of Rimbaud and Roussel. But Roussel in a way is a special case. I don’t know whether one can even call him writer. He is sort of a phenomenon… sui generis. Maybe that very notion is something that rubbed off on me as we say. But it’s too bad that I can’t read German or Russian because my sensibility seems to lie in that direction. In fact I had a German grandmother [father’s mother] who spoke German, so maybe I have some distant link to German Romanticism. But I feel French as a language is too clear and mathematical for poetry, at least for my kind of poetry. As Heine pointed out when one is a foreigner one is always told that there are all kinds of things that one cannot say in French, the French tell you this: “ça ne peut pas se dire en français”. I heard this when working with French translators of my poetry. It turns out that the things that can’t be said in French are always the ones that I particularly want to say. Well, it’s sort of hard for me to judge really so I won’t pursue that.

P. And there is your art criticism.

A. In fact I have a selection of my art criticism that is going to be published later this year. It was edited by somebody else who went through everything that I have ever published and came up with about four hundred pages of it and he said that this is less than the third of all the art criticism that I’ve written, which struck me as a little sad since I never really intended to be an art critic. I came into it quite by accident and as a means to support myself when I was living in Europe. And then I continued when I came back here and I was looking for a job. There were not that many jobs that I could qualify for and that happened to be one of them. The volume of my writing of this kind far exceeds that of the rest of my writing, I guess. I’ve always been much more intrigued by music than by the visual arts. Probably I would have been a composer if I had known how to compose, but I never studied music except for one theory course with Henry Cowell. But I think the possibilities of music are much closer to what I see in poetry than, say, a painting, which sits on the wall and more or less tells you its tale in the first few minutes. Both music and poetry have a sort of linear quality. You begin reading a poem and if it’s a long poem you turn the page. An experience that has the passing of time built into it just as music does. You have to concentrate a piece of time to do this and you can’t stop it at some point unless of course you listen to it on a record, but that’s not the understanding that it was created out of. And this flow or movement are what is so intriguing to me.

P. In your poetry you use very much pictures, depictions. One could somehow speak of the music not of your words but of your pictures.

A. I am not so aware of the pictures in my poetry. I know that they are what a painter friend of mine calls, speaking of my work, “visuals”. He said “there are lots of “visuals” in your poetry”. I tend to think of myself more as somebody who hears than sees. But I put in enough visual imagery I think to sort of keep the ideas from bumping together. But what I am aware of particularly in my poetry is a sort of movement from point to point, those two points might be two different pictures or images. But it’s what’s in between, or the getting from one to the other that is most important for me so that the visual imagery may really be just a sort of armature or a framework which gets partly concealed perhaps by the activity, the buzzing of poetry.

P. Do you like to collect other things than postcards?

A. (Laughs) Yes, I have done a great deal of collecting and that’s why I bought a house really to put all the things that I’ve accumulated. I have vast quantities of books and records and old pictures and objects. I have almost an unfortunate capacity for accumulating things, which then tend to get in the way of daily life. It would be much simpler I think if one could just divest oneself of all this furniture, but I haven’t been able to do so.