They Knew What They Wanted, edited by Mark Polizzotti and out with Rizzoli this week, places a lifetime of John Ashbery’s collages in conversation with his poems. The book selects poetry that either references the visual arts or uses collage as a compositional method, such as the ‘The Painter’, from his first book, Some Trees (1956), the pantoum ‘Hotel Lautréamont’ (1992) and the fragmentary ‘37 Haiku’ (1984) (‘Old-fashioned shadows hanging down, that difficulty in love too soon’). The collages share many traits with Ashbery’s poems: the collision of literal and figurative meanings, and of high and low culture, hilarious mise-en-scène, the intrusion of the comic on the sentimental and emphasis on games and formal playfulness.
The best of Ashbery’s collages date from the early 1970s, when he made a body of work from postcards in the company of artist and poet Joe Brainard and poet James Schuyler, including one called ‘Diffusion of Knowledge’ (1972) that shows Captain America and some other sinewy superhero looking inappropriately triumphant while blocking our view of the Smithsonian Institution. The collages offer a useful glimpse into Ashbery’s impish mind, and while almost always entertaining they could never match the range or inventiveness of the poetry. Sometimes the title – ‘Bingo Beethoven’ (2014) anybody? – outwits the collage itself. Yet the book serves to demonstrate the enduring importance of collage, in both poetry and the visual arts. Comte de Lautréamont, in his long poem Les Chants de Maldoror (1869), may have invented the collage when he couldn’t find a metaphor that would adequately express the beauty of a 16-year-old boy. ‘As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!’ he wrote, replacing conventional emotion with comic violence. Lautréamont’s collision of images summoned a fresh, unstable beauty. Driven by juxtaposition, the poem becomes a self-rejuvenating machine. It’s a method that Ashbery has taken to heart.
After the poet, translator and reluctant art critic died in September last year, I thought I could whip off a brief, objective tribute. Instead, I froze. As I tried to write, lines from particular poems came to mind, or memories from the few times I met him, and I started to wonder how a long engagement with a writer (or an artist for that matter) might involve quixotic longings, fruitful misreadings, quests and cul-de-sacs, an adoration you’ll never fully understand. An extravagance, sure, to suggest that Ashbery rerouted my fate, but he definitely placed a heavy swerve on it. Considering Ashbery’s work today, I’m aware of how his poems have stuck themselves onto my consciousness, inflecting my every perception of art and literature.
‘Fukuoka U’, he grinned, before going to the kitchen to make some coffee.
I didn’t know John very well. I wrote a letter to him as a grad student, writing my master’s thesis about play and humour in his work. He responded with a letter that was witty and generous, mentioning that he considered the phrase ‘the storm finished brewing’, from the Popeye poem ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape’ (1970, and included in They Knew What They Wanted ...), very funny, but that it had ‘elicited nary a chuckle’ at readings. We later spoke on the phone, mostly about the recently published Hotel Lautréamont. I met him for the first time in spring 1996, over lunch at a workaday diner called Angela Maguire’s, on 9th Ave in New York, across the street from his apartment. I remember catching my first glimpse of him as he passed across the frame of the diner’s window: the heavy wobble in his walk (the vestige of a spinal infection), his surprisingly plaid blazer, his white hair and big glasses. He was kind and open-hearted as soon as he sat down – a quality conveyed by his voice, not to mention his delight in cornball jokes. He had a turkey salad sandwich and an iced tea, which could be a line from one of his poems. Afterwards, back at his apartment, I sat on his sofa looking at stacks of LPs, piles of literary journals and other papers, including a poem submission chart on the coffee table. On one wall was the Jane Freilicher still life on the cover of Reported Sightings (1989), his book of collected art criticism, and on another there were a few Japanese prints (he loved Hokusai and Hiroshige). When I mentioned that I’d taught in Japan, he rejoined that he’d given a reading at Fukuoka University. ‘Fukuoka U’, he grinned, before going to the kitchen to make some coffee.
Eight years later I showed up on a snowy afternoon to interview him for frieze and we sat down on the same sofa. This time David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive was on the coffee table. With the mic off, we talked about the poets James Tate and Robert Creeley, painters Trevor Winkfield and Freilicher, his aversion to contemporary art writing, which somehow led to him trying to remember the name of a painter he liked. He described the work, mentioned that he thought he was Canadian, and I realized that it was Peter Doig. He served whisky as it grew dark outside, and I hit the blizzardy streets. We had a brief chat at a London reading a couple of years later, and I visited for tea one afternoon (afternoons for John were usually set aside for writing) in 2008, and we gossiped about the art world and discussed A Worldly Country, then his latest book.
If disequilibrium has always been part of the package with Ashbery, you also get a dose of divine, playful benevolence.
When I read ‘Worsening Situation’ and other poems almost 30 years ago, it made me want to figure out why I was enthralled by the lines ‘This severed hand / Stands for life, and wander as it will, / East or west, north or south, it is ever / A stranger who walks beside me’. Was it the humour, the surreality, the grace? I found myself in an Ashberian playground: ‘His head / Locked into mine. We were a seesaw’ as he writes in ‘And Ut Pictura Poesis Is her Name’ (from Houseboat Days, 1977). There is an interchange of minds that takes place between reader and writer, viewer and artist – an exchange of which the artist is, of course, only partly aware. Ashbery has been called difficult, and the language in The Tennis Court Oath (1962), his second book, much of it collaged and disconnected, can be tough and atonal. In ‘The Anxious Music’ and ‘Playing in Darkness’, from his most recent Commotion of the Birds (2016), shifts in tone can be both goofy and alienating, laced with intangible irony. But I love those poems, and if disequilibrium has always been part of the package with Ashbery, you also get a dose of divine, playful benevolence. Screwball and highfalutin allusions sit side by side – from Daffy Duck to Giorgio de Chirico, not to mention hints of John Keats, William Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens – fuelled by language both clichéd and enigmatic, interspersed with conceits that simultaneously jar and transport. I decided years ago that I enjoyed his poetry so much because it was, well, funny.
A bald prof called Dr Hair directed me to Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, and from that book I set out to trace the history and significance of humour, play and irony in Western aesthetics. When I met John in 1996 and asked him about the presence of play in his poems, he raised his eyebrows in disbelief. (He agrees, in our frieze interview, that the word ‘play’ appears frequently.) I’ve since learned how important a kind of unknowing is to John’s writing, and while he often set out to experiment formally, he rarely revised, and the poems seldom have any predetermined content or subject matter, nor any argument. Many, including ‘Definition of Blue’ (1970) or ‘Caravaggio and his Followers’ (2000), seem to parody the essay form – or fan letter – in verse. He even thematizes his own absences of theme in what he referred to as his ‘one-hit wonder’ poem, which arguably does have a subject, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ (1976). There he writes of ‘the principle that makes works of art so unlike / What the artist intended’; ‘the artist finds / he has omitted the thing he started out to say / In the first place’.
If Ashbery’s form has stemmed predominantly from the rhythms of the sentence, and spoken English, he has always been a restless experimenter with traditional forms, from pantoums or sestinas or ones he invented (see Shadow Train, 1981). While I still think play and humour are key to Ashbery’s vision, these days I hear the never-ending conversation between time, subjectivity and language, especially in the long poems Three Poems and Flow Chart to ‘Can You Hear, Bird’ and ‘A Wave’. Apart from the frequent mentions of schedules, seasons, Zeno’s paradox (at least twice), and his own contention that his poems unfold in time like a piece of music, time seems to be the secondary substance of the poems, the immaterial yet objective space between words. Consciousness is time, the feeling of time, and language is the chief medium we have to negotiate that feeling, even though language – that severed hand – is ever a stranger who walks beside us.
I probably wanted to write about art because of Ashbery – ironic, given that he hated writing art criticism, which I only found out later. (Thanks, John!) But, that’s not right, or not quite. I was attracted to his work because I recognized things I already loved: painting, jokes, surrealism, flawed beauty. ‘We who think we know where we are going unfazed / ’, he writes in ‘Like a Sentence’ (1995), ‘end up in brilliant woods, nourished more than we can know.’ Origins, certainties, self-analysis: these are dead ends for the poet. Better to lose yourself in the ‘brilliant woods’, that crucible of Ashbery’s particular mode of romantic irony. Ashbery’s oeuvre charts the gulf between desire and the limits of language, where we play with phrases and images like a kid sticking superheroes onto the façade of the Smithsonian.
John and I last exchanged emails through his partner David Kermani when I republished the poem ‘Love in Boots’ (1995) for a book to accompany ‘Revolt of the Sage’, an exhibition (based around the Giorgio de Chirico painting) I organized with Simon Moretti, in late 2016. In 2003, when I first contacted him about the frieze interview, I mentioned our lunch at Angela Maguire’s, and he complained that since the art-world’s colonization of Chelsea the old diner had become a ‘lounge’ called ‘Kanvas’. A few sentences later, he signed off, ‘Hasta la vista, as they say in Kalifornia’. Ever the prophet of good-humoured equanimity, he couldn’t help but enter the spirit of a joke, even a bad one. Hasta la vista, John.
John Ashbery: They Know What They Wanted, Poems & Collages, 2018, ed. Mark Polizzotti, is published by Rizzoli, New York.