In the autumn of 1966, I began to attend the readings and writing workshops at the newly opened St. Mark’s in the Bowery Poetry Project. In the poetry workshop, which was taught by Joel Oppenheimer, the Black Mountain poet, the talk was of a hierarchy that included William Carlos Williams and, to a lesser extent, Ezra Pound, and then filtered down to Oppenheimer’s own teachers at Black Mountain College, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. In between these gods (Williams and Pound) and the demigods (Olson and Creeley), there were the bountiful, nearly mythological presences such as the Objectivists, including George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Resnikoff, and Lorinne Neidecker.
Outside the workshop, it was an entirely different matter. Everyone at the Poetry Project was talking about Frank O’Hara, who had been killed on Fire Island a few months earlier, and John Ashbery, who was now back in New York after many years of living abroad. Anne Waldman was Joel Oppenheimer’s assistant, along with the poet Joel Sloman, both of whom were more interested in the New York School than Black Mountain poetry. The World magazine, which Anne edited with her husband Lewis Warsh, was decidedly a bastion of New York School poets, particularly its next generation, which included Ron Padgett and Ted Berrigan, among many others. You could not avoid being conscious of this different kind of poetry than the one that Oppenheimer promulgated in his workshops; it was the poetry (New York School) for which the Poetry Project was becoming known beyond the Lower East Side and Manhattan south of 14th Street.
The tension between the two camps (the third-generation New York Schoolers and the second-generation Black Mountaineers) was at times palpable. The new generation of New York School poets were quite hostile to the Black Mountain esthetic. There were even fist fights which I witnessed between the two groups, and verbal shouting matches was the daily rule. It was serious business, this poetry, I remember thinking, and lots of fun; I loved a good fight, whether it was verbal or physical, it didn’t matter to me, and I was sat on a fence between the two camps, as was most of my other friends and workshop-goers. I also remember that despite being indoctrinated by Joel with his Black Mountain poetic ideology, I had an immediate fondness for Frank O’Hara’s poetry, and five days a week when I commuted uptown on two buses to work at the newly opened library at Lincoln Center, I invariably travelled those buses with a copy of Lunch Poems in my pocket. Anne and Co. perceived of me as a clone of Joel Oppenheimer, but I was more attached to Frank O’Hara’s esthetic. A few years after the Poetry Project started in the late 1960s, I remember doing a group reading with Tom Weatherly and Ron Edson at the church, which was located at the corner of East 10th Street and Second Avenue. After the reading, Ted Berrigan came up to me and said, “I wish Frank (O’Hara) were still alive, he would have loved what you just read tonight.” I had read from a manuscript entitled Gulfweed Voices, a novel (so to speak) that Grove Press was going to publish, but then never did. It was the only time that Ted and I ever had an extended conversation. I can still recall it vividly today.
The poets in Joel’s workshop who were infatuated with and influenced by John Ashbery were legion, but two who come immediately to mind were Joel Sloman, one of Joel Oppenheimer’s assistants, and Scott Cohen, one of the young stars of the workshop, a City College student, as most of the participants were. Scott would drop out of Oppenheimer’s workshop eventually and migrate over to Ted Berrigan’s class, where he felt more at home with the New York School esthetic. Eventually he became a journalist for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, and later still got into advertising. I remember Joel Sloman and Scott Cohen trying to get me to expand my horizons and read John Ashbery. This was compounded by my friendship with Andrei Codrescu, the recently arrived Romanian poet, who had come to New York via Detroit. Andrei and I both worked the night shift at the Eighth Street Bookshop, and during lulls in the proceedings, he would lecture me on John Ashbery’s poetry. It was Andrei who made the first intelligent arguments for Ashbery’s greatness.
Andrei blurted out: “The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing darkness.” I had no idea what he or that line meant, but it has stayed with me for scores of years, while other less opaque lines from other poets have dissolved away and disappeared. “Leaving the Atocha Station” comes from The Tennis Court Oath, and immediately I was aware that Ashbery’s poems were not easily accessible the way a poem by Robert Creeley was or, for that matter, Frank O’Hara. It was both annoying and captivating, and I had the good sense to tell this to Andrei, who understood that I was open to learning more about this poet, even if I didn’t understand his poetry at all in 1966-67, working in the bookshop with Andrei and the other future luminaries of the arts in downtown Manhattan.
The poem that seemed to open up Ashbery for me, if that is the right metaphor—and probably it is not—was a long poem called “The Skaters,” which appeared in his book Rivers and Mountains. Both Scott Cohen and Andrei Codrescu had told me that the poem had to do with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy, so I tried reading some Wittgenstein, but to no avail. His work was as opaque as Ashbery’s was for me at that time. Then came 1968, and a stint I did at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I had gone away to work on a novel, which I did complete while there; it was Gulfweed Voices, which Grove had contracted to publish, but ultimately never did. But that is another story. One of the books I brought along to read was Ashbery’s Rivers and Mountains, which I would dip into nightly. I did not worry about meanings, a fruitless exercise with any poetry anyhow, nor did I read for sense, though I did read the poems for their sensibility, and that became how I would read Ashbery from there on out, riding the poem’s drifts and currents, like a leaf in a storm.
I still have that copy of Rivers and Mountains somewhere, filled with my notes, most of which were written in the Keene County Jail. One night I had gone to the airport with another colonist, a painter, to pick up the writer Rudy Wurlitzer, who had flown in from Los Angeles, where he was working on a movie script. His novel Nog was just about to be published by Random House and Rudy, though a good ten years older, had become friends with me while he was at the colony. He had flown off to LA a week earlier, and now was coming back. As he came off the airplane, lights began flashing, and the next thing we knew, all of us were being spread across the hood of a police car and put under arrest. The cops had found some drugs on Rudy, so we were all carted off to jail as accessories. During those days I spend in the Keene County Jail, I only had a copy of Rivers and Mountains to read and nothing else, and I became immersed in its poetry in a way I had never been before with John Ashbery. This is how the poet put it himself: “Most of my poems are about the experience of experience.” I have the Keene County Jail to thank for allowing me to experience John Ashbery’s poetry in a fully immersive way.
The experience of experience becomes more evident with each passing book that Ashbery would publish. Two of my favorite Ashbery poems appeared in The Double Dream of Spring, which followed Rivers and Mountains. Those two poems are “Soonest Mended” and “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape.” The former poem had the oddest title I could imagine, but then it became clearer once the origin of the phase was known. Of course, the saying is least said soonest mended, which means that a bad situation can be quickly forgotten if people stop talking about it. The experience of experience of this poem includes Ingres’ painting and Happy Hooligan, a memorable character from childhood Sunday comic strips. “Farm Implements…” also makes reference to comic strips, in this instance, Popeye, Swee’pea, the Sea Hag, Wimpy, and Olive Oyl. The poem is a sestina, a Provencal verse form of six six-line stanzas in which the end words of each line are repeated throughout the stanzas, culminating in a three-line stanza, in which all the key end-words are repeated. Combining Popeye and Co. with a Provencal verse form is brilliant beyond all imagination, at least IMHO. It is a poem I read often, and it is certainly a favorite.
With Three Poems, published in 1971, Ashbery dipped into the world of lyrical prose, not exactly prose poems, the three poems of the title bear more resemblance to a prose work like Robert Lowell’s “91 Revere Street,” but with this caveat: Lowell’s writing is memoirlike, and Ashbery’s prose more resembles his poetry, with the same opacity and lack of autobiographical details, at least not obviously so (more about this anon). I had met Ashbery on several occasions, mostly in rooms packed with other poets, his time and focus divided among many people anxious to converse with him. He did not know me or my work, as far as I know. The British writer Peter Ackroyd, who was a friend from graduate school at Yale, had once taken me to John’s apartment in Chelsea, New York, where I spent most of the afternoon talking to the painter Fairfield Porter, not the poet himself. My funniest encounter came at one of those crowded Gotham Bookmart parties in the upstairs gallery. The experimental fiction writer Walter Abish introduced me to Ashbery, and being drunk, I said, “I love Four Poems, John.” There was a pause in which you could hear Walter’s mind go into a flurry of worry over my remark. But then John saved the day by saying, “Well, it’s Three Poems, but if you have an idea for a fourth one, I’d like to hear about it.”
I think most everyone agrees that John Ashbery went from being a somewhat obscure avante-garde poet to a mainstream one with the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror when he won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Book Critics Circle Award in the same year. These awards were all well deserved, as the book is quite astonishing, particularly the long title poem inspired by a painting by Parmigianino.
As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises.
This book then is the watershed in which John Ashbery crossed over into the mainstream of American poetry, and in a way unlike any of his friends and contemporaries. But something else begins to happen, too; the poems take on another quality, besides being quintessential John Ashbery works. From Houseboat Days to the present, I have thought of John Ashbery’s poetry, whatever it is he is writing about, as also being a repository of the English language as it is spoken by Americans in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Want to learn how people spoke in 2005? Read some John Ashbery poems from that time, especially a book such as Flow Chart. Interestingly, the two other writers who also were accumulating the odd words and phrases of late 20th century American speech were Gilbert Sorrentino in his various experimental novels and the editor turned fiction writer Gordon Lish, in various stories he was publishing later in the century. The poet and critic Ron Silliman, to some extent, also does this in his prosey poetry in such works as Tjanting, and Silliman is a direct link between the Language poets and Ashbery, as is the poet Charles Bernstein.
But this is an appreciation about John Ashbery, so let me get back to him. As with any poet and how we read him or her, there is an element of what we bring to the proposition. We are the readers; it is our job to respond to these poems. Reading John Ashbery from the time I was twenty years old to the present, when I am now in my seventies, I would have to say that I have changed more than he did because my first encounters with this poet were, if not hostile, then not sympathetic, though gradually I came to see the grace and intelligence, the originality, and even the lyrical necessity of what it was this poet was doing. It turns out that all the poets at St. Mark’s Church in the Bouwerie, back in 1966, were right; John Ashbery is a truly original and great poet. I was terribly late coming to understand just how important he really was. In my own case, the realization came from living abroad. I spent fifteen years in London, and reading Ashbery in that context I began to understand that he was an American original, like Whistler, Whitman, Elvis, Frank O’Hara, William Carlos Williams, and Thelonious Monk.
In 2000, I left Boston with the idea of moving abroad. But first I took a detour to Hudson, New York, where my old friend Rudy Wurlitzer—the same Rudy with whom I shared jail-time in Keene, New Hampshire, where I immersed myself in Ashbery’s Rivers and Mountains—lived in an old rectory on the courthouse square in the center of this old Hudson Valley town. Coincidentally, just adjacent to Rudy’s house—where he lived with his partner the photographer Lynn Davis—was John Ashbery’s house, the one he once described as reminding him of his grandfather’s place in Rochester, New York, on the other side of the state. I lived on Allen Street, renting place there for a year and a half before picking up and moving to London for fifteen years. Ashbery’s house was only steps away from where I lived, though I rarely if ever saw him out and about in this odd, tiny hamlet. In the eighteen months I lived in Hudson, I did not see Ashbery so much as a stream of people who would come to visit him, usually at the weekend, writers as diverse as John Yau and Frank McCourt, pulling up in their cars and going into the big, old house where the poet lived with his husband David Kermani.
Ashbery was not a recluse, but he stayed home and did his work, plus as I understood it, as he got older, there were mobility problems. I was introduced to his partner David several times, and I once looked at a property he owned on Warren Street, a loft space that they wanted to rent out. At the end of the day, I decided against it. But I did enjoy speaking with David; we didn’t talk about John, though. I sensed that was out of bounds, a private moment, if not for friends, then certainly for newly met strangers. I was having a show at a gallery on Warren Street, small drawings I had done, and I remember David telling me how much he liked one of them, a penis drawing. I had the sense he was going to buy it for John, but then he never came back to the gallery, and eventually the show ended. It was just one of those experiences about experience, something that John Ashbery might have rendered into an unmistakable poem. In a prose-writer’s hands, the transformation is less startling, but nonetheless equally significant. Several months later, I put my things in storage, and moved to England.
M.G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (“a great, great book,” says Roddy Doyle), and the essay collection Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the notable nonfiction books of the 20th century in Best American Essays of the Century. His new book of poems just out from Spuyten Duyvil is called Top Boy.