from “BBC Sounds - Sunday Feature,” May 5th, 2019.
John Ashbery is one of the towering figures in American poetry of the last 50 years. Up until his death in September 2017 at the age of 90, he produced a vast and hugely acclaimed body of poetry and prose, often characterised as a surrealist river of ideas and playfulness: the reader tossed around, seldom entirely sure what's going on, yet swept along by the sheer exuberance and mischievous glint of Ashbery’s writing.
The life story is compelling: from an isolated farm in upstate New York, and a childhood family tragedy, a gifted young writer went to Harvard, and found himself in a class of soon-to-be-successful literary talents. There were years in Paris, and then home to the buzzing experimentalism of Warhol’s New York.
In a writing career whose trajectory took him from enfant terrible to national treasure, Ashbery achieved a dazzling string of literary successes including a 1976 Pulitzer; and at a point where alcohol-fuelled self-destruction was ominously close, Ashbery met David Kermani, the man who would become his partner for nearly fifty years. Together they eloped upstream from Manhattan, and bought a house at Hudson, on the banks of the river. It would become a magical space: gallery, museum, studio, and home. From it, the couple would build on Ashbery’s achievements of the 50s, 60s, and 70s by providing a stable and happy place from which to continue writing, but also to provide lavish and warm welcomes for a constant stream of guests.
Standing squarely in a long and distinguished tradition of American poetics, and making a vivid and distinctive contribution to it, Ashbery was strongly influenced by John Cage, Abstract Expressionism, Warhol’s progressive modernism, surrealism, the daily clashing of high and low culture, and the sheer joy of being alive. His audacious mastery of the English language dances on the page; and one of his greatest qualities, perhaps, was an irrepressible playfulness.
Drawing on the testimony of many who knew him, including Ann Lauterbach, Karin Roffman, Robert Polito, John Yau, and Mark Ford, Colm Toibin draws on his own memories of Ashbery to present an intimate portrait of the brilliant, unpredictable, mischievous, Pulitzer-winning American poet.
Produced in Cardiff by Steven Rajam and Lyndon Jones