John Ashbery (in New York) was interviewed by John Tranter (in Sydney), in May 1988. This interview was edited by John Tranter, and broadcast on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National program ‘Radio Helicon’, on Sunday 19 June 1988, from 8.15 to 10.00 p.m., with other material. This piece is about three thousand words or ten printed pages long.
[ John Ashbery reads the poem ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’ ]
John Tranter: [ brief introduction ]
[ John Ashbery reads the poems ‘Two Scenes’, ‘Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers’, and ‘Some Trees’ (which was written, he says, in 1948). ]
John Tranter: ... I asked John Ashbery how he came to publish Some Trees, his first book, in 1956.
John Ashbery: Let’s see... it was published when I was 28... and some of the poems were dated from my nineteenth year. I didn’t expect that I would ever have a book published. When I decided to submit this manuscript to the Yale Series of Younger Poets I put together what I thought were the best ones of what I had written, and I sent them to the Yale University Press.
The judge for the competition was W.H.Auden, whom I knew slightly, but the rules of the competition were that one had to send them to the Press, which would then forward the good ones to Auden.
Mine was returned to me by the Press, as was Frank O’Hara’s. He sent a manuscript at the same time I did.
As it happened, Auden decided not to award the Prize that year, on the basis of the manuscripts that were sent to him. And after he’d made this decision someone happened to mention to him that both Frank O’Hara and I had had our manuscripts returned by the Yale University Press, so he asked to see them. And I sent them to him in Ischia where he was spending the summer, as did Frank, and he chose mine.
He had a couple of problems with three or four poems that were in my manuscript, and asked me if I would take them out. In fact they were ones I didn’t particularly like myself, so I removed them. I think there was some sort of slightly scatological language in them that he objected to. He was quite prudish, in his way. I thought he was right, really, in these particular instances.
So this was not a collection that was composed and that had a shape to it. It was merely what I had written at the time... I was... I guess... twenty-seven, when I sent them the manuscript.
And indeed that’s the way all my other books have been, too. I’ve never looked at a collection of poems as anything but that. I know that many poets like to give theirs a shape and a... a beginning, a middle and an end... but mine really are just whatever poems I have lying around. And I don’t arrange them, really, except to alternate the long ones and the short ones, and to have the strongest ones at the beginning and the end, and the weaker ones in the middle.
I think that’s my rule of thumb for putting together a book of poems.
I was going to mention The Tennis Court Oath, which was the second book you published. I think it interested a lot of readers because it was so hard to read. Would you like to talk about...
... about how you came to write that...
It antagonised a lot of readers.
My first book had very little success. It only got a few reviews and the only favourable one was written by Frank O’Hara, which was very... decent of him, considering the circumstances of the publication, which I’ve just narrated.
And by the time it appeared, I was already living in France, so if there was any... ah... feedback to be had, I wasn’t getting it. It seemed to me that my book had fallen into a bottomless pit, and that I would never have another chance to publish another book of poems.
And I was also rather interested in trying something new, [and] having difficulty in doing this, living in a country where the language spoken was not my own. And I began a lot of experiments, using collage techniques, especially from American and/or English books and magazines, perhaps to feel that I had a toehold in the English language.
One that seems to give people the most trouble is a long poem called ‘Europe’, which... I cannibalised a book for teenage girls published in England during World War One, that I found in a bookstall along the Seine in Paris, called Beryl of the Biplane. Ah... and the only idea, if there is one, in the poem, is that this poem contains a lot of things that can be found in Europe. But of course they can also be found anywhere else.
The title ‘Europe’ was suggested to me by the title of one of the stations of the Paris Metro which is in a section called ‘Europe’, where all the streets are named after European capitals.
These were... experiments which I thought would perhaps lead to something, but I didn’t really intend them to be finished poems. I didn’t at that point know how to write a finished poem in the way that I felt I had done so before, at least in the new way that I wanted to write. And quite unexpectedly I had an opportunity to publish another volume. So I used what I had.
My intention was to be after... kind of... taking language apart so I could look at the pieces that made it up. I would eventually get around to putting them back together again, and would then have more of a knowledge of how they worked, together.
I think in fact that I have done this, at least to my own satisfaction. There are a few poems in that book in which a synthetic rather than analytic (to use terms of cubist painting) attempt was being made... no, actually, that’s not until a later book... a few of the earlier poems actually satisfied me in the way I was talking about. The one that you asked me to read, ‘Thoughts of a Young Girl’, for instance, and another one called ‘They Dream Only of America’... these were the earlier poems in the book, and actually preceded the violently experimental ones.
I don’t really know why I didn’t proceed along the lines of those poems, which I find much more satisfying, myself, now, than the poems such as ‘Europe’, which were experimental and more controversial. I don’t mean controversial, I mean... ah... well, perhaps ‘dubious’ is the word.
Let’s listen now to two poems that illustrate the shift in technique that John Ashbery was talking about. ‘Thoughts of a Young Girl’ was an early poem in the second book The Tennis Court Oath, and it looks back to the style of his early work, as well as echoing the French conversation lesson. Then, the poem ‘Last Month’, more daring, and because of its fractured surface, a more difficult poem. John Ashbery.
This was the first poem I wrote after I went to France on a Fullbright scholarship in 1955, and in fact it was a long time really before I wrote anything else. I hadn’t yet begun to adjust to living in a new country and after this poem came along, I proceeded to do so, and eventually did, I think.
[ John Ashbery reads the poems ‘Thoughts of a Young Girl’ and ‘Last Month’. ]
I was wondering if the fact that you were away from America and away from the magazines and reviewers and friends and so on, whether that may have had something to do with the fact that you felt you could go right out on a limb.
Yes, I think it did. My idea probably was ‘Well, if nobody’s listening, then why not go ahead and talk to myself, and see what I get out of it.’
What did the reviewers say about the book?
Well that was even... the reception was even... more minimal and more hostile that that of the first book. I remember a couple of reviews. One was by the poet Samuel French Morse, who actually edited Stevens’ posthumous books, who said that I had given the reader stones instead of bread.
And John Simon, the dreaded theatre critic of New York magazine, reviewed it for the Hudson Review, and quoted a line from [the poem] ‘Europe’ which was ‘he had mistaken his book for garbage’, and he said ‘If the poet says this, what more can the reviewer add?’
A very unkind remark.
(laughs) Yes, I thought so.
When you were in Paris, you began to write for Art News. I was going to ask you about the connection between painting and poetry in New York during the fifties. People have said that the New York School poets wrote the way they do because they wanted to write like the painters of the time painted. That’s not quite true, of course, but I think there is a link there, somewhere.
Yeah. There certainly is in the case of O’Hara. I, on the other hand, was not as involved in the art scene as he was. I was at somewhat of a remove, and I wasn’t that... although I did go to some exhibitions, and probably was influenced by the zeitgeist of Abstract Expressionism, that you could go ahead and do whatever you wanted to do, I didn’t ever think of myself as a critic, and particularly an art critic. But after I’d lived in France for two years I came back and spent a winter in New York, and was very short of cash. I was taking some graduate courses in French literature at New York University. And so I began to review for Art News at that time. It seems as though the more I tried to get out of this line of work, the more I got wedged into it. A friend of mine, Harry Mathews, the novelist, told me once that I seemed to have backed into an excellent career as an art critic.
You’ve taught at Brooklyn College for some time.
How do you like doing that? Do you teach writing, or do you teach reading?
Well, uh, I don’t really like it very much. I now only teach creative writing courses. I taught some literature courses but I didn’t like that very much. In fact I don’t really like teaching at all. I hate... I’ve always tried to avoid telling people what to do. So it’s rather ironical that I’ve ended up being both a critic and a teacher, and am forced to assume this role. But I don’t feel that I in most cases really know what people should do, whether they’re artists or students, and it’s a bit of a strain having to pretend that I do know.
You mentioned, when we were talking some years ago, that you’d discovered the Australian poet Ern Malley in the 1940s. Was it in the 1940s that you’d discovered his writing?
Well it was actually written up in Time Magazine, the hoax that was successfully played on... I think... the editor of Angry Penguins, the name of the magazine, that first published the work of your... your non-existent modern poet. I think it was the first summer I was at Harvard as a student, and I discovered a wonderful bookstore there where I could get modern poetry — which I’d never been able to lay my hands on very much until then — and they had the original edition of The Darkening Ecliptic with the Sidney Nolan cover.
[The Ern Malley hoax
is discussed, and the Sidney Nolan cover
reproduced, in Jacket magazine, on the Internet. — J.T. ]
I always had a taste for sort of wild experimental poetry — of which there really wasn’t very much in English in America at the time — and this poet suited me very well. I agree whole-heartedly with Reed’s [Sir Herbert Reed’s] revised estimate of it. I just wish there were some more of his books around. (laughs)
Mr Malley, that is.
Perhaps you could write some... sequels?
I think perhaps I have. (laughter)
Have you used the work in a teaching context?
Oh yes. I am obliged to give a final examination in my poetry writing course, which I’m always rather hard put to do, since we haven’t really studied anything. The students have been writing poems of varying degrees of merit, and though I give them reading lists they tend to ignore them, after first demanding them. And the way the course is set up there is no way of examining them on their reading. And anyway they shouldn’t have to pass an examination because they’re poets who are writing poetry, and I don’t like the idea of grading poems.
So in order to pass the examination time I had to think of various subterfuges, and one of them is to use one of Malley’s poems and another forbiddingly modern poem — frequently one of Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Mercian Hymns’. And asking them if they can guess which one is the real poem by a respected contemporary poet, and which one is a put-on intended to ridicule modern poetry, and what are their reasons. And I think they are right about fifty per cent of the time, identifying the fraud... [the] fraudulent poem.
I was going to ask you if you’d like to talk about how you actually write a poem each day. What do you do?
I postpone it as long as possible, which is probably why I write in the late afternoon. I also think that my mind in the morning — though it might be fresher and have more ideas in it — is not as critical as it is later on in the day.
I don’t usually write every day but in fact I have been in the last six months. I’ve got this large grant which is for five years. I actually got it three years ago this month, so I’ve got two more years to go. It took me two years to recover from a lifetime of drudgery, and to rest up, and get my bearings, as it were.
I used to think that it wasn’t good for me to write very often. I thought one a week was perhaps the maximum. Otherwise it seemed as thought it was coming out diluted, or strained.
However I seemed to have changed my mind about this, and am writing just about every day. And feeling okay about what I am writing.
Also I think the fact that the older one gets — for many people, at least — the more prolific one gets, realising there aren’t the oceans of time that seem to be stretching ahead when one was young. And one learns to use it, and realise how precious it is.
I also used to think that I had to wait until I was ‘inspired’ before I could write, and then I realised that I hardly ever was inspired, so that I’d have to come up with something... something else.
So usually my poems, when I write, I’m just in a sort of... everyday frame of mind. Which is all I know, really, I suppose.
[ John Ashbery reads the poem ‘Forties Flick’ ]
‘Soonest Mended’. Ah, a couple of things about this poem, which in a way I feel is a kind of signature poem. If you know what I mean. I’ve often characterised it as my ‘One Size Fits All Confessional Poem’. Since it’s not really about me, but about — I guess it’s what Gertrude Stein called ‘everybody’s autobiography.’
The title, which I find puzzles some people, is from what I thought was a pretty common expression, ‘least said, soonest mended’. But perhaps it’s become obsolete like so much of the language I grew up with. Anyway, here it is.
[ John Ashbery reads the poem ‘Soonest Mended’ ]
‘And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name’. I really don’t know why I made the title that way. And in fact I question my having done so in the first line, which is ‘You can’t say it that way any more.’ So without more ado I’ll proceed to the poem.
[ John Ashbery reads the poem ‘And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name’ ]
I wrote that shortly after I began teaching, which I did relatively late in life, and found that I was constantly being asked by students what a poem was, and what it wasn’t, and why is this a poem and why is this not. And ah... I never really thought about that before. I’d written poems but it’d never occurred to me to question whether they were poems or whether other poems were or were not poems, so, suddenly, thinking about this, I wrote this poem, as well another one which is not in this collection called ‘What Is Poetry’.
[ John Ashbery reads the poems ‘My Erotic Double’, ‘Or in My Throat’, and ‘Purists Will Object’ ]
You can read another interview with John Ashbery, recorded in 1985, on this site.