The poet John Ashbery died on September 3, 2017, and I spent September and October reading the flood of reminiscences. It interests me that Ashbery—he of the slippery speaker(s) and the slippery subject(s) (if you can even use such stable terms to identify the voices and vectors of many of his poems)—seems to inspire such personal memories for so many people, even those who did not know him personally. I think of the final lines of Ashbery’s fellow New York School poet Frank O’Hara’s “A Step Away from Them“:
My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
It seems that, for many, this could describe the feeling of first encountering Ashbery’s work and carrying it close as well—his ironies, ironically, became intimacies with his reader. Despite the boatload of criticism that has been written about Ashbery, it can still be a challenge to talk in an off-the-cuff way about the poems themselves—I believe my only post in which I spent time with Ashbery’s work here at the Kenyon Review blog was one of my most personal posts here, in which I used fragments from Ashbery’s poems to frame my memories of a friend who had committed suicide. We had gone to hear Ashbery read together in New York, once upon a time.
Of course, Ashbery adored and translated Reverdy’s poems and prose himself. Mary Ann Caws, who edited the NYRB/Poets version of Pierre Reverdy that includes Ashbery’s translation alongside other literary luminaries, quotes Ashbery as saying “Reverdy succeeds in giving back to things their true name, in abolishing the eternal dead weight of Symbolism and allegory so excessive in Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and Joyce.” In the same piece, she quotes Octavio Paz describing Reverdy as “a secret poet for secret readers.” Revered died in 1960; we’ve had decades to mourn and remember him, but it seems somehow appropriate to mourn Ashbery, the erudite trickster, obliquely—remembering his sometimes less-remembered influences. (Folks may rightly take issue with my calling Reverdy “less remembered”; I suppose I’m speaking generationally. Many of us came to Reverdy through The New York School and O’Hara or Ashbery, not the other way around.)
Reading Ashbery can still strangely feel like a secret experience, though we know that secret feeling is widely shared. Perhaps all good poetry feels like the reader’s secret. James Wright’s “Prayer to the Good Poet,” first published in The New Yorker this month in 1972, begins:
Quintus Horatius Flaccus, my good secret . . .
Of course, the classical poet Horace, like Ashbery, or Reverdy, is no secret, but we know how it can feel so, as the beloved poems held close can be the “heart.”
“Grand Galop,” first published in Poetry in 1974, is a poem of Ashbery’s that will always be a “heart” of mine, its hilarious cartoonish moments (vomit noises and so forth) juxtaposed with introspection, juxtaposed with the moments of beauty (a kind of traditional lyricism in pieces):
But I was trying to tell you about a strange thing
That happened to me, but this is no way to tell about it,
By making it truly happen. It drifts away in fragments.
And one is left sitting in the yard
To try to write poetry
Using what Wyatt and Surrey left around,
Took up and put down again
Like so much gorgeous raw material . . .
I’ve been returning to “Grand Galop” this past month. This is all to say, Rest in Poetry, John Ashbery, and thank you.