in conversation with John Tranter
John Tranter: I remember buying a book called Singular Voices by Stephen Berg: it was an anthology where each poet contributed a poem and then wrote an explanatory article to go after it. Berg mentioned in his introduction that you had declined to provide a poem and an explanatory article, and that you were going to write an essay about why you’d declined. Did you ever write the essay?
John Ashbery: No, I never did it, and at some point he stopped asking me about it so I guess he realized that I didn’t really want to do it. It just seems that people will do almost anything rather than read a poem and try and come to terms with it, you know. A statement from the poet about what he meant in the poem is considered to be very helpful, but my point is that it really isn’t going to help anybody since it’s just a paraphrase, operating at some distance. And it’s rather annoying to be asked to do something like that, especially by a poet, who should know better.
I’d like to talk about ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’. At the time it appeared, that poem seemed to turn down a particular path of its own. Did you feel that about the poem?
No, I didn’t at the time. But it has turned out to be much more accessible and popular and appreciated than any of my other poetry. I don’t really know why. I didn’t intend for it to be that way. Well, I don’t intend for my poetry to be inaccessible anyway, so ...
No, I know that. But there is a quite distinct tone about the language, a consistency that reminds me of the sort of writing you get in art books. Well, the poem is about a painting, and it explains the painting, and not in the way an art book does, of course; but now and then it appears to verge towards that, and then away from it, and towards it and away again.
I think that’s really a superficial quality of the poem. It seems to have given people the idea that I was actually dealing with a subject matter in some recognizable way, and this was a great relief; but I think really it’s just as random and unorganized as my other poetry is.
Oh, I don’t know: I think there’s a great difference in structure and feeling between ‘Self-Portrait’ and some of the long prose works — Three Poems, for example, or the very early chopped-up things that you’d done,where the reader just falls from line to line and you hope you can hang on as you do it. Every writer changes as they grow, of course, but ...
I have just made a selection of my poems for a ‘Selected Poems’: I actually read through my oeuvre, something I seldom do, except when I give a poetry reading ...
And what was it like to read through all your work again?
John Ashbery’s study, April 1985
Well, I got depressed about a lot of poems which I didn’t really like after I reread them. I’ve never really cared for ‘Self-Portrait’ very much, and I must say I didn’t like it any more when I reread it. But I obviously had to put it in because people would expect it to be there. I also hadn’t reread most of the poems in The Tennis Court Oath — my second book, which everybody throws up their hands over — in about twenty-five years. And some of them are a lot better than I thought. A few of them I’d read aloud sometimes for my poetry readings (maybe ten in the book), but the others I hadn’t reread since the book came out. I was surprised at how really interesting they are, because I’d concluded that they probably weren’t very good. And I did write them during a period when I didn’t know what I wanted to do, when I began living in France and I was unused to the foreign environment and language and everything. They were really experiments which I didn’t think would ever be published — I didn’t think I’d ever have another book published after the ...
Some Trees ...
... after the colossal unsuccess of the first one.
Was it very unsuccessful?
Didn’t it win a small prize? At Yale?
It was published by the Yale University Press, in their Yale Younger Poets Series, but they only printed something like eight hundred copies and it took eight years for it to go out of print, so I don’t think you could say it was a howling success. And it didn’t get any reviews, except for a few negative ones.One very nice review from Frank O’Hara, but I didn’t really count that. [Laughter]
Actually, some poems from that were the first ones of yours I came across, I guess, in the Donald Hall anthology: ‘Some Trees’ and ‘Our Youth’.
At that time I had sent in the manuscript for ‘The Tennis Court Oath’ and Donald Hall was on the committee at Wesleyan and had read the manuscript, which included a couple of poems I subsequently removed from the collection, so they have only appeared in that anthology.
Really? Which ones are they?
‘A Vase of Flowers’ and ‘The Young Prince and the Young Princess’.
I can see why you might have removed ‘The Young Prince’. It’s a poem I really like very very much but it’s not an Ashbery poem, somehow.It’s more like some French poet, Robert Desnos perhaps, someone like that.
Yes, it is. It’s sort of like — er — like the kind of more watery surrealists like Follain, or something like that.
I still think it’s a lovely poem though. I can see why you may not like it, but I feel free to love it. [Laughter]. At the end of ‘Thoughts of a Young Girl’ — I’m going back maybe fifteen years — I put question marks next to the last two lines: ‘Oh my daughter, My sweetheart, daughter of my late employer, princess, May you not be long on the way’, because I didn’t know where they’d come from, and I’d heard an echo of them, I think, perhaps somewhere in Rimbaud, and wondered if you were deliberately doing that or not?
No, I don’t think I took them from anything. That’s the first poem I wrote after I went to France, and I still like it quite a lot. I was probably trying to read Rimbaud in French at the time, but it was before I learned French, really ...
Do you feel ambiguous about much of your early work?
I like some of the early poems. I still like a lot of the ones in Some Trees, but after I’d finished writing that book I wanted to write differently, but didn’t know how to go about doing that, so I wrote a lot of really experimental poems. Many of them are preserved in The Tennis Court Oath, because I suddenly had an opportunity to get that book published, and I put in what I had written then. Had things happened differently I would have edited it, but I thought no, I may never publish anything else, I’d better get this thing to the publisher.
I wanted to ask you about something that hasn’t anything to do with poetry — in your Paris Review interview you talk about your analyst, which New Yorkers seem to do in the same way that they talk about their car or their pooch or whatever. What do you feel about that kind of relationship to your own mind, where you go to learn about it through a third party, as it were? What do you get from it?
At the time I started going to him I was in a very distressed period, and was very anti-social, although I didn’t realize it. I had a tremendous drinking problem, and I would go to somebody’s house for dinner and get drunk and leave before dinner was served. It was as though I somehow couldn’t bear to be with people, but I couldn’t stand to be alone either, and I couldn’t write very well, and ... anyway I really needed help. I’ve continued seeing this man, but it’s certainly not any kind of ordinary therapy — it’s really just chatting, the way we are now. And he’s a very odd person to be an analyst, as I said in the interview. He’s more interested in playing the piano, and he studied with Claudio Arrau, who’s a friend of his. For a long time he couldn’t decide whether he was going to become a concert pianist or an analyst. So we talk about music a lot, as a matter of fact, and recordings, and things like that. I’ve been going to him for so long that it seems almost as if ...
He’s part of the family or something?
Do you read Freud or Jung, or do you have any feelings about them?
No. I read some Freud a long time ago, but I’m really quite ignorant of psychoanalytical literature in general.
The surrealists used and abused it a lot, didn’t they? They talked a lot about the unconscious and the subconscious, and letting things happen in a random way. People have often said that some of your writing looks like automatic writing.
Yeah — I don’t think the surrealists really did that, even though they claimed it was what they were doing, because there’s something so classical and planned about French surrealist poetry. In my own experimental phase in The Tennis Court Oath I was probably closer to that kind of thing ... but those poems are quite ungrammatical and their language is very disjunct, whereas with French surrealist poetry you can always expect the subject to be followed by the predicate ...
They kept to the rules of grammar when they broke all the other rules.
But that’s very French, isn’t it?
Yes. [Laughter] But as far as my own poetry goes, while there’s a lot of my unconscious mind in it, there’s a lot of the conscious mind too, which is only normal, since we do sometimes think consciously — not very often, but sometimes.
John Ashbery, Sydney, 1992
I’ve heard that you write a great deal. Is it something you do all the time?
No I don’t, it’s not true. I try to set aside maybe one day a week when I’ll try to write something, and I don’t write for very long when I do write, or at any rate I write rapidly, usually.
And do you revise much? Do you go over and over things?
Well, when I’ve finished writing I go over and make a few changes, but usually nothing very extensive: I either decide this is not worth bothering with, I’ll write something else; or I just make some minor revisions.Then I put it away and let it sort of ferment for a while, and take it out later, maybe make a few more changes then, but usually not very much.
You’re famous now, of course, which must be both a problem and a benefit. How do you cope with that? Is it good for you, do you think?
It does have its disadvantages, but I think on the whole it probably has more advantages than being unknown, which I don’t think I would like very much. [Laughter].
Has being famous altered the way you write? I think that’s what I’m asking, really.
No. it crept up on me very gradually: until I was about forty very few people knew my poetry. Most people think that from my first book on I was a success, that I instantly became a well-known poet. In fact, nothing happened with the first three books and I concluded that nobody was ever going to read this stuff. If I wanted to go on writing I’d write for myself or just stop, which I seriously considered at various points.
You had thought of not going on?
Yeah. And then I thought it’d be a shame to give this up since I really enjoy doing it, so I’ll just continue. And then suddenly I started getting more famous, if that’s the word.
I was thinking, though, when you talked about the kinds of things you were writing when you first went to France — that they were for you experimental — and you felt then you could do whatever you wanted. And at that time I guess with each poem you wrote, you had no idea there would be an audience for that poem, it was just an experiment for you alone at that point ...
Whereas now you must think with each poem you write that it will appear in print, it will be examined by tens of thousands of readers.
Well, I did that at that time to shake my mind up, to get out of my habitual ways of thinking and writing. I had intended at some point to go back and put things together again, and indeed I began doing that while I was still living in France, even before The Tennis Court Oath came out. Since that time I have written things I hoped would be presentable to anyone who cared to read them, and I don’t think that I’ve been conditioned by the success I’ve had in the past decade or so to write differently than I would have otherwise. It might have happened if I’d been an overnight success as a young poet but this didn’t happen.
Yes, it’s a balance, isn’t it? Writing against people’s expectations is a thing I’ve done occasionally.
I have too. But one just has to be on guard against the urge to do that sort of thing.
People talk about ‘the New York School’ and about how you were part of it in the early days. What was that group like at that point?
Well, it didn’t really come into existence until after the fact. I was here with a group of poets who were friends, and we had some things in common: I think basically what unites our poetry is the experimental approach, but the poetry was different in the case of Koch, O’Hara, Schuyler and me. We weren’t called the New York School of poets until after I had gone to live in France and was a bit out of touch with America anyway. When I left in 1955 to go to Paris as a Fulbright Student and ended up staying there more or less for ten years all of us were completely unknown here. We didn’t think of ourselves as a school. I still don’t.
What are your favourite poems out of your own work? You’ve just gone through them for your Selected, so you must have thought quite clearly about the ones you like and the ones you can’t stand anymore.
Well, I like very much ‘The System’ from Three Poems — I included that one, in its entirety — and I like ‘A Wave’ — the long poem ...
that’s from your new book?
Yeah. I like a lot of the poems in there, and in Houseboat Days. I found that I didn’t really like many in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Shadow Train or As We Know, which were the two books before A Wave — I really didn’t like very many of them at all, and I was wondering what happened to me there.
What about ‘Litany’ — that difficult long thing where you have to read the left-hand side of the page with one eye glancing at the right?
Yeah, well, I had second thoughts about it. It was sort of an experiment that didn’t really work. I like the idea of having these two things which people have to pay attention to at the same time, but on the other hand who’s going to do it? I don’t, and I can’t really expect anybody else to.
It’s a poem that resists the reader, I’ll say that for it. In fact you really have to learn one half of the poem so that you can hold that in your mind while you read the other half, I think.
I wouldn’t want anybody to ...
To go that far?
There’s a poem I like a lot in Self Portrait called ‘Forties Flick’.In fact there was a draft version of that poem included in your interview in the Paris Review last year, I think. Is that a poem you like? Was that why you gave them a copy of one of the drafts it went through?
I like it okay. No, the main reason I gave them that one is that I don’t really revise my poems very much and I was trying to find something that would have some substantial revisions for their purposes.
That was the one with the most substantial revision you could find? Because it had very little revision, really.
Well, I didn’t look through everything but you know, in a sort of superficial search I found that one.
Was the typed-out version of that poem the actual first draft?
Yes, I write on the typewriter.
The corrections on it were the only adjustments you made?
That’s remarkable. Most writers, I think, go through five, ten maybe, drafts of a poem.
Well, I used to, but I think it’s something that with practice you ...
You get better and better.
Me, at any rate. I don’t like working on something once I’ve done it, so I’ve trained myself to either write something that I like or something that I will simply forget about and then go onto something else. One poem I hadn’t read in a long time, by the way, that I liked a lot, was the translation of a poem by Arthur Cravan in The Double Dream of Spring.
And what was it that still appeals to you about it?
Ah, well ... it was written in purposeful doggerel alexandrines.
A difficult line in English.
Well, it turned out to he very easy to preserve those limping rhymes in English just by making all the inversions that you’re not supposed to. I discovered that it had a very nice quality as a result of that, a sort of combination of high-flown rhetoric and a very limping, bad, patched-together quality. And I liked that damaged would-be nobility of the language.
I’ve noticed in your writing that you’ve often seemed to use very strict forms with strict rhymes, because of the artificiality and the accidents that tend to come out of that. I think in your latest book, A Wave, the third poem which is called ‘The Songs We Know Best’ has a very strong — is it a-a-b-b — rhyme scheme.
That’s a kind of an exception, though. It’s a somewhat doggerel kind of rhyme which might well have been a forgotten memory of the Cravan translation. It was actually written to go to the tune of a popular song that got in my head and which I couldn’t exorcize in any other way — ‘Reunited’ — do you know that song?
No, I don’t.
It’s kind of a slow, soul, disco-like song that was popular about five years ago.
Is there anything you regret in your life, that you really think you made a bad mistake about? Going to France, for example, or not going to France at a certain time?
No — there have been things I regretted at the time, but they somehow seemed to work out for the best — going to France perhaps being one of them, though I enjoyed myself while I was there. I wanted to go on living there, in fact, and it was through a combination of circumstances that I came back to live here. I’m now glad that I did, although I was really heartbroken when I had to come back to America ... I regret never having learnt German. I regret not being able to write music, which I would like very much to do. I think those are two of the main ones. I regret having published a lot of poems ... [Laughter]
Are there any things of yours that you really regret having let into print at any stage? Perhaps that’s not a good question.
Well, let’s see. There are some poems in The Tennis Court Oath that I really can’t stand. One of them I think is a poem called ‘The Aesthetic Sensualists’. I see no reason to have written or published that. [Laughter]
John Ashbery, New York, November 1998
A minute ago you used the word ‘heartbroken’, and it made me wonder if you have consciously written any love poems, as most poets do from time to time?
Oh yes, lots.
Your work is so oblique at times that it might be difficult for the reader to see clearly that’s what you were doing.
Well, if my poetry is oblique, it’s because I want to slant it at as wide an audience as possible, odd as it may come out in practice. Therefore, if I’m writing a love poem it won’t talk about specifics, but just about the general feeling which anybody might conceivably be able to share. And ‘A Wave’, in my last book, is really a love poem. And ‘Some Trees’, which I think is the earliest poem in that first book, was definitely written about somebody I was in love with.
You can read
another interview with John Ashbery,
J A C K E T # 2
This material is copyright © John Ashbery, John Tranter and Jacket magazine 1985, 1997