ASHBERY SIGHTINGS: THE LUMINOUS AND POETIC SONG OF JOHN ASHBERY (LA RAZÓN)

The following is a translation (by Google Translate) of a long piece appearing in La Razón de Mexico, which originally appeared partially in El instante de la memoria (Editorial Praxis, México, 2014). The first half of the article is of little interest, but the interview with Ashbery (here, amusingly translated from English into Spanish and then back into English) has some interesting comments pertaining to “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Note that other than fixing some very obvious misspellings, the awkward translation has been left mostly as is:

The luminous and poetic song of John Ashbery*

By: Miguel Ángel Muñoz

[Cover of what is likely a chapbook, titled after Ashbery’s 2013 poem, “Gravy for the Prisoner”]

[Cover of what is likely a chapbook, titled after Ashbery’s 2013 poem, “Gravy for the Prisoner”]

New York

June 23, 2019

John Ashbery (Rochester, New York 1927- New York, 2017), is undoubtedly the most important living American poet today. Endowed with a plural capacity of form, Ashbery has been developing a writing increasingly mobile and more accurate, in whose precise mechanisms can be captured all the invisible, including "the smell of light", and the epic of everyday life, conceived as a "going through the same street in different times", knowing that it is never possible to "alter the heart of things", because we are all "between nothingness and paradise," which does not prevent you from discovering "the rainbow of tears" "In the midst of the discomforts of an increasingly complex society.”

For the critic Harold Bloom, Ashbery is the last of the canonicals. He graduated from Harvard University in 1949 and Columbia in 1951. In 1955 he moved to Paris and worked as an art critic for the European edition of the Herald Tribune and as editor of the quarterly magazine Art and Literature (1964-67) He also appeared in the prestigious magazine Locus Solus (1961), getting in touch with a group of New York writers and artists, among whom were James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Frank O 'Hara, and some of the painters of the New School York as Esteban Vicente or Franz Kline. The early death of O'Hara in the sixties already disbanded the members of Cedar Tavern in the Village.

John at Home.jpg

Ashbery's first book, Some Trees, was published in 1956, and had strong praise, like that of O'Hara, who wrote: "It is the most beautiful book that has appeared in America since Harmonium". That same year WH Auden wondered: “Is it possible to write poetry today?” Remembering that he is only worthy of the title of poet who knows how to return to the regions of the sacred, and affirms that "From Rimbaud to Ashbery the imagination is still attached to the values of magic." It was followed by The Tennis Court Oath (1962), Three Madrigals (1966), Three Poems (1972) and The Vermont Journal (1975), until his most important book, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Award and the National Critics Circle Award, adding to the endless list of prizes that embellish his literary career, Anglo-Saxons almost all, although there is no Grand Prix of International Biennials Poésie awarded in Brussels. In Ashbery, vision is not-or not only-theory, but elevated experience to the highest degree of fiction. His first books, give an account of that: of a poet very little to use, special, who has introduced into the poem a new mode of discourse and has been fine-tuning it until the verse loses its conventions, and the details are the only part of the things that every observer can see. We could speak of something like a meaning in flight, which is made in the fragmentation of all movement and that, in that movement, is superior to everything that moves or floats within it. Indeed, the poetry of Ashbery, especially in its beginnings and until the consecration that supposed Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror was considered "original until the unintelligibility." The sources of his work are on the one hand, Auden, Stevens, Perse, Whitman, Eliot, Valery, Roussel, Hölderlin, some epic folk poetry, and much American and English poetry of the thirties. "I try to use words in an abstract way “- says the poet - “as an abstract painter uses painting... At first I wanted to be a painter, and I painted until I was eighteen, but I have the feeling that I could best express myself musically ..." But it is necessary to emphasize the strength of the avant-garde, both pictorial (Pollock, Rothko, and abstract painting) and music (Carter, Cage), which intersect with the legacy of North American romanticism.

Collected poems cover.jpg

Following the publication in 1971 of his book of poems in prose, Three Poems, Ashbery had referred to "romanticism", not "lyricism", which he preferred and perhaps had its origin in the torrential tone of a Whitman. Therefore, it is necessary to fix in lyricism and meditation the two essential coordinates of his poetics ("Whitman, as father" and "son of Stevens"). They are thus following the poems of the book a sinuous line that colloquialism facilitates and the sudden images are recharging with tension. Sometimes, a single verse, a single question, reveals that dual attitude of the poet who so well characterizes it: "were the tombs well placed in their bearings?". Or two phrases:: "Hail a flying hawk. / Make everyone return to the city." His poems present a multitude of schemes, records and an ironic structure as deep as functional: “the ellipsis, which is one of its features, is the sole depository of meaning”; the "words that music expresses / almost fully" are a "mysterious andante"; and the colloquial language, the key in which a caustic and desperate irony unfolds, to which the grammar of colors lends a bloody plasticity.

That it is an absolutely exceptional work in the poetry of our time can be stated without caution. Ashbery refers to it, with a cutting and shocking pathos, an exodus built on the mystical and daily patterns of the stripping of the clothes of the world. Total poet in many ways, and "the first great poet” - as Harold Bloom says - “of the Postmodern Age.” Its importance is only comparable to that of Yeats or Stevens. " His book A Wave can be considered as his testament, a volume on death and memory in which Ashbery demarcates all his mastery in the handling of metaphors, the long-winded poem and even prose.

The self-portrait of the painter ends up being, after all, the self-portrait of the poet, of the clear poet of our time: “an agonized being in his questions, but knowing where the saving roots can be found, to which he clings after the vain reflect. The referent, again, the painting, not as a theme, but as a method or technique.” Those, for example, that figure in your country (America), where the author asks the decisive question: "Is there something that is central?" Whitman's forests and orchards are no longer what Ashbery sings (now " urban forests ,""fenced areas"). Today, like yesterday, the poet must follow "sinuous paths" to find the "roots": those of nature, those of time, those of being.

In his short poems Ashbery tells the reader what he does not manage to transmit to him in the longest. A lake, a barn, a symphony, are the symbols that open the way for the night of being. That night and that silence that the poet claims. They are the grimaces, the gestures of our time that old images silence. It is the fertile colloquialism of Ashbery. His poetry is characterized by the heterogeneous simultaneity of its planes, by capturing in each repeated occurrence the call or trace of the unknown, and by introducing a diffuse and complex sense of time. Hence the river that is its channel, and that rhythm that is suggested only by the rumor of its flow. The uniqueness of each analysis is also given by the nature of its materials and by an unusual tendency to combine lyricism and reflection.

In Ashbery the vision is not theory, but experience elevated to the highest degree of fiction; he has introduced into the poem a new mode of discourse, and has been fine-tuning it until the verse loses its conventions. It is an exact and mobile poetry, in whose mechanism can be captured all the invisible, including "the smell of light", the epic of everyday life, conceived as a "passing the same street in different times", because we are "between nothing and paradise. " Poetry of survival, which pays homage to the American humor of Mark Twain and the meeting of places ("Collected places") that one wants to hear. Each of his books is complex, in which the materials of demolition join with those of construction and form, together, not the description of a building but the chronicle of an existence.

Hence the form of the poems, which is never one or the same, but changing its appearance as time varies the figures of its composition: "Die on the right page" knowing that "nothing is dry enough or wet enough, "and that life, filtered" through “venetian blinds with a vanilla flavor,” "is a race for light. " That same intensity and beauty that dazzles and calls those who are capable, like John Ashbery, to hear and see a new spirit that claims us: "I thought that, if I could put everything down would be one way. / And then it occurred to me that leaving it out would be another, even truer, way ... " Poet of a unique mental torrent, total poet, and at the same time, poet of the everyday and the mundane, very much in the style of Wallace Stevens, who was mentally precocious.

Reading and listening to Ashbery evokes the silent and stubborn figure of Shitao, the Buddhist monk who made Chinese painting in the Beijing of the late seventeenth century with the rigor of a new time. Poet, calligrapher, public man painter of recognized criteria and prudence: "I aspire in my painting to perfection, but to a triple perfection that conceals a madness, too, triple crazy myself, crazy my language and crazy my painting ... I look for everything moment a voice ... To reach the end, to pure madness: the complete work of art ". For Ashbery, a dazzling universe of forms that light multiplies and composition transforms into enigmatic poetic signs. How close to old Cézanne, so close to the convictions of the poet.

I remember that the first time we met was in Spain, thanks to the generosity of Esteban Vicente, and that he, too, was returning to his "country" after many years. What impression did the Spanish artists give you? I ask you because you already knew many, right?

-Well, I remember it perfectly. Esteban Vicente was a great friend and a painter that I admire a lot. First I went to Spain during the 50's, and then I returned in the 90's. My first trip was with Frank O'Hara, and really, it was wonderful. He had to choose artists for an exhibition of MoMA in New York about contemporary Spanish art. Consequently the artists treated us in an extraordinary way. In addition to Manolo Millares, Rafael Canogar and the charming Chirino in Madrid, we saw Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona, and Eduardo Chillida in San Sebastián, a city that always roams my dreams: the ocean emerging in the center of the city is such a surreal image.

I ask you this question because in that first meeting you affirmed that you wanted to be at the beginning of your life a painter. Didn’t you want to be a painter?

-Not that was, as you say, at the beginning of my life. And I’ll tell you something else: when I discovered and grew up in New York with the first generation of abstract painters, like Vicente himself, Tobey, Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Rothko and Franz Kline, what was I doing there? It was then, when I decided to write not only poetry, but also about painting.

Do you think that art has influenced your poems?

-I don’t think so, because I think my poetry has nothing visual. Many of the images I notice are the result of listening, not only to the street, but also to the people around me. I find it interesting to see how Americans try to communicate and fail. Although we speak in English, it is not the same one spoken in England, here in the United States, ordinary people get stuck in their sentences, they leave them in the air for the other to complete their idea. I think that happens to my poetry.

Don’t you think your poetry is visual?

-There are points of contact - going back to your previous question - between my poetry and painting, but my poems are not eminently visual. I think there is more relation with contemporary music, for example. I have always felt in constant communication with musicians like Elliot Carter or John Cage. That does not mean that there are no convergences, although the final result is uncertain, unusual. When I write it is never easy for me where the text goes, what is going to be at the end; it's something that happened with the painting of artists like Willem de Kooning or Jackson Pollock, who never knew what the painting they were painting would end up with. The poetic experience does not occur instantaneously as when a painting is contemplated.

Besides being a painter, poet and art critic, you were also a university professor. Do you think you lost some time in covering so many fields of action?

-Not so much from being at a university, because I also gave some little talks on poetry and literature. Although, to tell the truth, I never believed that I could teach anything. Journalism helped me to let go more at the time of writing. It also taught me to pay attention, and that is one of the things I find most complex in my life: attention not only to the other, but to many things. But from that, I lost the panic, or rather, the terror, of the blank sheet.

But many of your poems are quite long, do you think there are times when you lost the thread?

-Look, at first I wrote by hand, I'm talking about the 50s and 60s; later, I started writing long verses like Whitman and lost control of what I was writing at the time, because I jumped from one topic or another without thinking. That's why I thought that using the typewriter was a good idea to stop that matter, but nowadays there are no typewriter tapes anymore, and I've rewritten by hand.

It is a complex process to lose yourself in the same poem when you write it. Or, do you believe in John Cage's game of saying a lot without simply saying it?

-That process of creation, or rather, of creative experimentation, I like it. Create without having the slightest idea of what the final result will be. When I am writing poetry I am trying to say something, but after realizing that I have nothing to say. What I like about music is its ability to be convincing, to successfully carry an argument to the end, although the terms of this argument remain as unknown quantities. What remains is the structure, the architecture of the plot, scene or history. I would very much like to achieve this in painting.

Do you think you achieve it?

-I don’t know. I try to use words in an abstract way, as an abstract painter uses paint.

Self-Portrait in Convex Mirror is an extremely important book for poetry in the English language of the second half of the twentieth century. Reading we go from the familiar to the strange, and discover a certain awareness of language looking at a mirror. And of course, there are many references in the almost six hundred verses of which the poem consists of the painting that you support to make the poem. How was the process of creating this book?

-The New York Times published a review of Parmigianino Franceso Mazzola (1503-1540), accompanied by his self-portrait, which he executed by observing his image reflected in a convex mirror. The painting was painted in 1924 and is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The image was very impressive for me, and from that moment I wanted to write a text about it. At the time I did not know if it would be an essay, a poem... Years later I saw it in an exhibition in Vienna. It's a small format, you do know it, yes? Back in New York, I wrote a poem about the painting. I made many versions, drafts, corrections... As we have talked, you know that when I start writing everything flows, but this book was different, since it is written in the classic manner of American poetry. I have to tell you two things: it's not my favorite book, and I wrote it outside of my poetry style. I frequently change my mind about my poetry; I do not think, for example, that it has much to do with painting, although in previous statements of this type I said that it had. I would rather not think that I have some concrete object in my head, since in that case I might be forced to program myself.

But, you have poetry as the best tool, right? Although you have also written in prose, as an example, your book Three Poems.

-Of course, because poetry makes me explain what I'm feeling, what happens to me in everyday life. In my case, poetry is my most important form of expression. Usually when I start writing everything flows easily. I am interested in exploring the possibilities of poetic prose, loading the inks in the prosaic, stripping it of the normally excessive weight of the poetic component, integrating different types of registers, from the banal, to the inflated or rhetorical.

When I wrote Three Poems I was interested in exploring the possibilities of poetic prose; to strip me of the excessive weight of the poetic component, to integrate diverse types of registers, of the banal, to the inflated or rhetorical language. I think it's a record, but also a game of mixing colloquial turns with samples of advertising, daily and journalistic language.

But that was more than fifty years ago. What motivation do you have to continue writing?

-Poetry comes to me like music, I can listen to it before I know what it is saying. Like music, poetry follows its own forms and takes you to a certain place, if it does not already exist. Although from time to time, I write something about painting, and this also motivates me, it excites me, because it is an art that I love at the same level as poetry. Another of my motivations has to do with a sentence by Joyce Carol Oates: to discover what I know.

An important motivation in your life to write A Wave was your illness. I remember that you thought that the doctors would be the death of you ...

Yes, it was a very difficult situation in my life. I started this book recently recovered from an operation - which left me with many symptoms - and it never occurred to me that I was writing about pain and illness. The first verse of the poem says: "Go through the pain and not know it", and I think that was what happened to me when I wrote it. Well, I never imagined that I was in a process not only of creation, but of change in my life, since it went from almost death to life, and from life to recovery, and from there to creation. That's why maybe this book has something of elegiac. It's like a memory of life in a moment. Maybe what I wanted at the time of writing was to say goodbye to life.

Many critics say that your verses are prosaic. How do you make the decision between writing a verse in prose or verse?

- Prose has its own poetry and I often use it to refresh my notions of poetry. People tend to forget that some of the best poetry books of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are written in prose: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Perse, even Stein. Whitman's verses are not exactly prose, but the previous notions referring to the verse falter. I have recently translated Rimbaud's Illuminations, which are primarily prose, and occasionally free verse. The change from one to another seems normal, and refreshing.

* A fragment of this conversation was published in the book El instante de la memoria (Editorial Praxis, México, 2014)