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Douglas Piccinnini

Ashbery In Paris: Out of School

John Ashbery's typewriter: photo John Tranter

John Ashbery’s typewriter
photo John Tranter


In a review of David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde, in Jacket 6, Paul Hoover notes the aesthetic influence of French literature on the so-called New York School of poets. [1] Hoover also cites Harry Mathews’ connection to the New York School as publisher of the short-lived yet influential literary journal Locus Solus. [2] As an international literary periodical based in France, Locus Solus became an outlet for the creative endeavors of not only Ashbery and Mathews, but also other writers who shared the same vigor for innovation and experimentation outside of mainstream American poetry. [3] Through publication and distribution, Locus Solus encouraged an aesthetic, similar to the way in which Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945‒1960 (or alternatively, Donald Hall, Robert Pack and Louis Simpson’s New Poets of England and America) would. But in order to thrive outside of mainstream American poetry, it seems as if Ashbery’s only recourse, at the time, was to physically exist outside of mainstream America. This encouraging distance occurred as Ashbery left New York, crossing the Atlantic to France just as the yet to be titled “New York School” began to gain attention.

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Ashbery’s and Mathews’ joint venture, Locus Solus, took its name from Raymond Roussel’s novel of the same title, as both Matthews and Ashbery were fervent admirers of Roussel. In Paris, Ashbery’s and Mathews’ early friendship was predicated on freeing themselves from the expectations placed on them as Ivy League educated writers from the U.S. and in an interview with Johannah Rogers for the Brooklyn Rail, Mathews asserts that Ashbery “liberated [me] from [my] anxieties about writing in a correct, acceptable way.” [4] And with regard to their publishing interests, Mathews in conversation with Lynne Tillman notes that he, Ashbery, Koch, and Schuyler “were all anxious to see more of what [we] wanted, not only in terms of publishing [ourselves], but of seeing writing [we] liked published.” [5] And Mathews’ “anxieties about writing in a correct, acceptable way” responded to “the conventions of the time, which, to make things horrendously oversimplified” Mathews has said, were “defined by what was published in The New Yorker.” [6]


Ashbery had introduced Mathews to the work of Roussel, who for Mathews became the “man who made [me] realize that [I] could write fiction the way poetry is written, that one could create a fictional reality the way one creates a poetic reality; one doesn’t have to depend on one’s ghastly upper-middle-class upbringing [for material with which to write fiction].” [7]


The rotating editorial staff at Locus Solus included James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Harry Matthews. Of the four editors, only Mathews and Ashbery lived in France during its publication (Mathews had moved to France following his graduation from Harvard). [8] Ashbery followed shortly thereafter, leaving for France on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1955 after having lived in New York for six years. [9]

John Ashbery: photo John Tranter

John Ashbery
photo John Tranter


Despite the anti-academic or non-traditional approach to making work by New York School poets discussed in The Last Avant-Garde, they (with the exception of Schuyler) were Harvard educated and, for the most part, pursued advanced degrees within academia. Ashbery’s early career in France unbraided the middle class, Harvard-educated intellectualism that would have more readily placed him alongside mid-twentieth century American poets, and more traditionally, the New York School. As a Fulbright Fellow in France and an extended resident thereafter, Ashbery was able to rethink the American lyric within the context of his foreignness and identity as ‘other’— in terms of his interest in ‘Other Traditions’ as well as his homosexuality characterized as ‘other,’ and with regard to his inherent foreignness as an American in France. [10]


While in Montpellier and later Paris, Ashbery’s access to popular American culture would have been mediated through newspapers, cinema, consumer culture, and correspondence with family and friends. His arrival in France coincided with the rising star of the Nouvelle Vague in French cinema, whose fragmented narratives, absurd characters, and self-conscious rejection of classical aesthetics and mainstream Hollywood earned a reputation of irreverence, while simultaneously fostering a playground for aesthetic reformation influenced by, and ultimately influencing, art, pop culture, politics, and theoretical discourse.


Written while in France —selections of which first appeared in Locus Solus— Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath (1962) harnessed an energy that married the humor found in the vaudevillian antics of the Marx Brothers with the collage techniques found in the calculated juxtapositions of Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Nouvelle Vague filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard—a contemporary of Ashbery in France—employed similar strategies in Breathless (1960) which, at the time, unveiled an aestheticism of psychological fragmentation, humor, sexuality, violence, and illogic, as protagonist Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) interacts with Patricia (Jean Seberg) in Paris. In the film, Patricia’s character strangely parallels this segment of Ashbery’s life as Patricia, like Ashbery, facilitates the connection between French and American culture.


While on a Fulbright Fellowship, Ashbery taught American Literature and American Education at the University of Rennes. Also, it was while Ashbery was in France that he began writing art criticism for the International Herald Tribune and later, Art News. [11] The character of Patricia in Breathless is that of an American in Paris— an American who not only delivers America to Paris as a newsgirl selling The New York Herald Tribune on the streets of Paris, but also an American who simultaneously earns her Parisian credibility as a student at the Sorbonne. A heightened intimacy is achieved through her relationship with Michel, as her character simulates a stereotypical scenario of a naïve American in Paris who learns cultural and linguistic information (and reformation) through interactions with locals. In the case of Michel and Patricia, their connection is a paradoxical romance, which is both functional and dysfunctional. Their romance ripens quickly, and falls just as quickly from the tree to rot. Their conclusion: a communicative breakdown: Michel’s dying words to Patricia are mistranslated by an onlooker.


Godard’s use of the jump-cut to dislocate content within the exposition of the film provides a viewer of Breathless with a jarring self-awareness that he or she is indeed watching a film, and therefore experiencing art and not a verisimilar production of reality. The editorial styling of the jump-cut restricts a sense of continuity in so much as the hiccup quality of this editorial effect both resists a seamless narrative exposition and creates a multivalent narrative experience. By forcing a perceiver of art to think critically while experiencing art, the art’s seamlessness, as an aesthetic object or didactic tool, is undermined in calling attention to process, thus dispelling the supposed seamless continuity of realism by alerting the audience to not only the means of production, but the conditions under which the product is conceived. In other words, the on-screen images do not unfold in persistent fluidity. The effect produced is similar to that of a needle jumping on a record and skipping a handful of notes within a song.


In “The Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus” Jean-Louis Baudry asks if “the technical nature of optical instruments, directly attached to scientific practice, serve to conceal not only their use in ideological products but also the ideological effects, which they may themselves provoke?” [12] Baudry’s complication of ideological theory, as expressed in Louis Althusser’s essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” provides the basic hermeneutics for discussing the ideological content of a text. Althusser suggests “the ultimate condition of production is therefore the reproduction of the conditions of production.” [13] By subverting syntax and logic in The Tennis Court Oath Ashbery’s use of fragmentation to show the “conditions of production” are not dissimilar from the effect produced in Godard’s Breathless. In this sense, production of content and presentation of said content involve the uncovering of the means of production.


Ashbery’s use of the cut-up, and the fragmentation of syntax and language in The Tennis Court Oath, not only alert the reader that something unconventional occurs, but also act as an invitation to examine the semantic discourse of The Tennis Court Oath, questioning how the poems happen, the latter becoming a significant formal concern of Oulipian and Language poetries.


In The Tennis Court Oath,Ashbery’s “Idaho” simulates the exposition of a novel rapidly deteriorating— from paragraphs to sentences to words to mere punctuation.


“Can I give you a hand?”
She gave a little cry that was silenced by mouth on
                      uttermost tingling nerve
“Carol!” he said. Can this be the one time


In these few lines, formal communication breaks down, beginning with the ostensible deletion of pieces of the text, and then, through the use emphatic, repetitious punctuation. The stuttering “?” repeats like a broken record. The sense of urgency and primitiveness in language suggest an aporia in the exposition. Was it in thinking of English as foreign while in France that Ashbery was able to treat language with the same gestural application that Willem de Kooning was capable of with paint? The repetition of “?” both accentuates and devalues the expressive quality of the question mark as a signifier. This effect becomes a motif in “Idaho” as Asbery introduces both the single quote mark and pound sign, as expressive signifiers. The scrambling of syntax and punctuation—the very look of “Idaho” on the page— asserts that Ashbery is writing to challenge the authority of what a poem should or could be, dispelling “the anxieties about writing in a correct, acceptable way” which Mathews notes was, at the time, paramount to their literary efforts. Despite his unconventional use of language, Ashbery’s careful editorial eye and ear allow for a sweet lyricism to emerge from the quotidian narrative moments, which are pieced together.


“Idaho” moves between perplexing lyricism to lines that, at times, appear to be lineated prose. Consider the movement in the following two sections, (1) and (2) which, appear over a span of twenty-five lines.



But that doesn’t explain. Her mind opened it-
Every tendril of thought,,,,,,,,,
It sees through a magnifying glass
                          a special aureole
Niagara of affliction.      had learned this
heard it
into the
window    the long    platform at Oxford, and
        Carol lowered the


thoughts and low red voices
            the mood was shattered
     “twenty-seven”                          Just as that act changes
    She rose from the table abruptly. “You must smoke
your cigar alone tonight. I—I’m going out in the car.
She went upstairs and changed into a different pair of
                                                                                and a sweater.


The effect produced is a kind of coitus interruptus, in which completion—of communication—is obstructed.


The use of interference beyond mere decoration suggests a calculated derangement of the senses, a technique often used in Surreal and Dada works. Yet at the same time, Ashbery’s approach to composition connotes a frustrated quality rooted in desire. Unlike many Surrealist’s or Dadaist’s methods, Ashbery pairs syntactical perversions and inversions in The Tennis Court Oath with surreal content to subvert literary influence, while simultaneously engaging in its tradition. The lyric energy in “America” builds like a John Cage composition as jarring logical dissonance couples the sonic counterpoint of lyrical music which gathers momentum like a limp body falling down a flight of stairs.


to the wind
out of you medicine
health, light, death preoccupation, beauty.
So don’t kill the
stone this is desert
to the arms
You girl
the sea in waves.


The short “i” sound moves through “wind,” “medicine,” “preoccupation,” “kill,” “this,” “is,” and “in,” while the longer “i” sound of “light,” and twisted “err” sound in “girl” filter in like the slight bending of a note to achieve tonal variance.


Apart from the linguistic musical differences between speaking French and English, the physical and social distance from American life Ashbery encountered as an expatriate liberated him from the more practical affects of being American. When asked in an interview whether Pierre Martory was responsible for introducing him to the “mysteries of French culture, ”Ashbery responded, “Yes, but he was also very American oriented. I think he had spent his entire childhood at the movies. He also knew lots of American popular songs—he’d been in the war fighting with the American army in North Africa and had learnt all these songs like ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ and ‘Kalamazoo’.” [14]


Ashbery’s relationship with Pierre Martory, to whom The Tennis Court Oath is dedicated, may have facilitated his assimilation into French culture and movement into parodic Americanisms. And though Ashbery and Martory’s relationship is unlike that of Michel and Patricia in Breathless, it might be important to note that both The Tennis Court Oath and Breathless achieve a significant effect in their investigations into national identity, cultural and aesthetic reformation, and romantic fragmentation, which seem to be important considerations in both works.


The second-handedness of receiving American culture by way of French culture perhaps created a space for Ashbery to indulge in autoparodic and heteroparodic means of expression. Jacques Bens, in Warren Motte’s, Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, asserts that “parody may take two forms, and only two forms: heteroparadoy, which imitates the works of others, and autoparody, wherein an author refers to his [or her] own works. [… ]The goal and result of heteroparody is to enlarge the dimensions of a work, or rather to inscribe it within a vaster creative ensemble.” [15] Bens’ claim asserts the potentiality of a given text to yield innovation, such as the notion that art comes from art, which, to varying degrees, undermines the notion of sui generis work. The Tennis Court Oath’s “Idaho” and “America” not only serve to “enlarge” the dimensions of handed down or traditional means of exposition, but attack tradition with an irreverent disregard for its implicit and explicit rules.


The actual Tennis Court Oath was, as an oath suggests, a promise of solidarity until a fundamental set of principles could be established. If one was to merely consider The Tennis Court Oath’s table of contents it might become apparent that the insistence of revolution and identity are larded throughout the book. The titles of the poems, “The Tennis Court Oath,” “They Dream Only of America,” “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher,” “The Suspended Life,” “A Life Drama,” “Our Youth,” “The Ascetic Sensualists,” “A Last World,” “The New Realism,” “The Unknown Travelers,” “Europe,” and “Idaho” seem to suggest a struggle with identity and a quest to negotiate with past, present, and future notions of identity and place.


The title poem of the book, “The Tennis Court Oath,” seems to suggests this procedural obstructing generally and the impropriety of the opening lines seem to set the bar for Ashbery’s experimentation and widening aesthetic sensibilities concerning form and content.


What had you been thinking about
the face studiously bloodied
heaven blotted region
I go on loving you like water but
there is a terrible breath in the way all of this


Despite the danger of jamming puzzle pieces together to form a limp reading of this passage, I would suggest that the opening contemplative voice of the “The Tennis Court Oath” suggests change in aesthetic appreciation. A bloody face offers a kind of abject horror, yet if it is “studiously bloodied,” it perhaps demonstrates an exercise of control over figuration, or that which is a horrible beauty. The notion that something occludes “all this” may or may not inform a reading of The Tennis Court Oath, yet to access these poems a reader must breathe the “terrible breath” looking at the “studiously bloodied” face of these poems. As hopeful as these instructions are in accessing The Tennis Court Oath it may be necessary to think of Ashbery in Paris during the late 50s and early 60s as both quintessentially French and not French at the same time, in stride with the experimental tradition of fellow expatriates Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett, but more importantly as a Oulipian poet.


In “The Absence of a Noble Presence” John Koethe notes the traditional nature of Ashbery, sighting Allen Grossman’s remark that Ashbery’s poetry is a “landscape with the seeds of tragedy inside, seeds which he does not allow to germinate, but from the promise of which he derives significance as a writer. Ashbery… is fundamentally a manager of traditional resources.” [16] But what does the use of constraint and traditional resources indicate? The Oulipo were interested in exploring and exploiting the various traditions of literary history through constraint.


With the publication of Volume One of John Ashbery’s Collected Poems 1956‒1987 by The Library of America (2008), his place in the literary canon seems secure. He has become a traditional figure in poetry. Despite the initial bewildered response to The Tennis Court Oath by literary audiences, Ashbery by the very nature of his work was destined to become a traditional figure in poetry. One needs only to glance at the table of contents of Some Trees to note Ashbery’s interest in inherited forms, and the importance of working within traditional modes of exposition. With titles such as “Two Scenes,” “Popular Songs,” “Poem,” “Pantoum,” “Sonnet,” “A Long Novel,” “The Painter”— a sestina, and “A Pastoral,” which romanticizes country life, it becomes apparent that Ashbery wants to handle tradition, if only at a distance, or on his own terms. [17]


In various stages of his career, Ashbery’s predilection for using various forms, and ‘source material,’ via the cut-up, have allowed him to enter literature through procedural means. The titles of early poems suggest his interest in the historical posturing of form, and how content can influence what (a) form or (a) tradition can be. “Two Scenes” connotes the work of a dramaturge, “Popular Songs,” the idea of ‘common’ songs and pop culture, “Sonnet,” ”Pantoum,” etc. indicate a fascination with the use of form and tradition. In “Idaho,” Ashbery manages the conventions of prose, which Lehman says resembles a “half-wrecked, half-erased story.” [18] A similar technique is used in “Europe,” which is composed of recovered text from William Le Queux’s Beryl of the Biplane (1917). [19] In “Lives and Art: John Ashbery and Henry Darger” Michael Leddy notes that William Le Queux’s Beryl of the Biplane is the book from which “Europe” is furnished, exhibiting one of Ashbery’s more famous uses of incorporating existing text into his own writing practices.


In the novel, Beryl is an aviatrix who shoots down zeppelins and saves military secrets, and now looks like a grown-up version of a resourceful Vivian Girl. The Vivian Girls were of course the protagonists of Henry Darger’s 15,000 page manuscript, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Like Darger, Ashbery has drawn upon children’s books: Three Hundred Things a Bright Boy Can Do (by “Many Hands,” 1911) provides material for ‘”The Skaters” (Rivers and Mountains, 1966). John Shoptaw notes that after “Europe” Ashbery made a poem from Franklin W. Dixon’s Hardy Boys novel The Secret of the Old Mill. [20] Ashbery’s Girls on the Run (1999) is a long poem loosely based on the work of Henry Darger, who “toiled for decades at an enormous illustrated novel about the adventures of a plucky band of little girls”. [21]


With over 25 books in a career spanning more than half a century Ashbery like Darger, is a writer who writes, in so much as the act of writing is as important as the product of writing. In explaining whether or not writing art reviews on a regular basis helped his poetry, Ashbery remarks, “I think it finally did: having to be chained to a typewriter and turn out an article twice a week caused me at one point, to wonder, ‘Why can’t I write poetry this way to meet my own deadlines instead of somebody else’s?’” [22]


Ashbery’s use of inherited forms and inherited material demonstrates his ability to work within various traditions, which point toward his penchant for writing as process. The ‘tradition’ of the Oulipo, as defined by Raymond Queneau, is “the search for new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit.” [23] One such structure that continues to receive admired attention, the sonnet, persists in its use in “any way” a writer sees fit. However, Queneau and François Le Lionnais also note that the Oulipian “goal is to discover new structures and to furnish for each structure a small number of examples.”


The idea of discovery, or creation of a “new structure,” may become a semantic battle, though the search for new structures often leads the Oulipian writer toward tradition, or work which often exploits or modifies existing forms and structures in the production of new work. Through Oulipian adaptation of existing material(s) new structures can be discovered— for example, a sonnet lipogram, or homolinguistic translation of a Shakespearian sonnet. Lehman notes that the writers of the New York School had “tremendous energy and the desire to lead a life in which work and play were as nearly as continuous as possible,” and that “one could lead one’s life as if it were a poem, always in motion, in a continual process of revision, and obeying aesthetic principles of composition and structure while eliminating as nearly as possible the model of human consciousness that could be extrapolated from the front pages of the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Wall Street Journal.” [24] Lehman also suggests that “Ashbery does not so much reject the idea of mimesis, or representation, as he extends it to a new area: the recording of his own mind in motion.” [25]


Ashbery’s extensions of tradition and language—as the raw materials for writing as practice—have enlarged the dimensions of literary history, pushing the boundaries of what or how a poem can be. His work as practice, incorporating ‘high’ and ‘low’ influence, and his formal acrobatics coupled with a penchant for investigative forays into language and consciousness have produced a body of literature informed by a heightened regard for formal writing within the vast, often-nebulous landscape of consciousness.


[1]  The Tibor de Nagy Gallery “sponsored the first publications of the New York poets and celebrated their collaborative forays with painters” such as Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, and Nell Blaine among others. John Bernard Myers, the flamboyant director of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, came up with the New York School moniker for this young group of writers in 1961 hoping to cash in on the successful brand of the world-conquering Abstract Expressionists. David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde (Doubleday New York 1998), 14, 20.

[2]  Hoover describes the New York School aesthetics as “fond of wild juxtapositions and changes of tone but also of lyrical beauty of expression. In style and attitude, they have the ‘dash’ of Byron rather than the sincerity of Wordsworth. Their work ranges from the postmodern discontinuity of Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath to the romantic formalism of Kenneth Koch’s comic epic in ottava rima, The Duplications. They are also attracted to the compositional methods of the French group Oulipo, of which Harry Mathews, a founding editor of the New York School journal, Locus Solus, is an active member.”

[3]  The term ‘American poetry’ refers to poetry written in the United States, not to be confused with poetries written in Canada, Central, or South America. Even though Ashbery had, in a sense, proved himself stateside with Some Trees and publication in journals such as Poetry, his work, outside of the admiration of friends, was seen as a voice that undermined the ‘serious’ endeavors of mid-century American writing.




[7]  Ibid.

[8]  Mathews and Niki de Saint Phalle eloped in 1949, moving to France to begin their creative careers after Mathews graduated from Harvard.

[9]  David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde (Doubleday New York 1998), 138-139.

[10]  As a homosexual, Ashbery was subjected to the prejudices of unenlightened homophobes, which included his American contemporaries. In Michael Davidson’s Compulsory Homosociality: Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, and the Gender of Poetics: when asked about [Jack] Spicer’s relation to the New York School, Landis Everson said that ‘he didn’t like them. He disliked John Ashbery intensely. He called him ‘a faggot poet,’ and Spicer made a point of pronouncing Ashbery’s Some Trees as “Some Twees.” Maggie Nelson, Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions, University of Iowa Press), 51. Other Traditions (Harvard University Press 2000) collects Ashbery’s lectures on ‘minor’ writers.

[11]  David Lehman, The Last Avant Garde (Doubleday), 59.

[12]  Jean-Louis Baudry, ‘Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 1974-1975), 287.

[13]  Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological Apparatuses (Notes toward an Investigation). New York: Monthly Review Press 1970, 127.

[14]  Mark Ford, John Ashbery in Coversation with Mark Ford (Between The Lines 2003), 41.

[15]  Warren Motte, Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature (University of Nebraska Press 1986), 70.

[16]  Allen Grossman, Against Our Vanishing (Boston: Rowan Tree Press, 1981), 49; John Koethe, The Absence of a Noble Presence; The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry, ed. Susan M. Schultz (The University of Alabama Press, 1995), 87.

[17]  Mark Ford, John Ashbery in Conversation with Mark Ford (Between The Lines 2003),

[18]  David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde (Doubleday New York 1998), 75

[19]  In the late 1950s John Ashbery stayed at the Paris house of Harry Mathews. Ashbery was working on the poems for The Tennis Court Oath, in particular the long poem ‘Europe’. To earn money Ashbery translated French detective novels as Jonas Berry, a pseudonym derived from the French pronunciation of his own name.



[22]  Mark Ford, John Ashbery in Coversation with Mark Ford (Between The Lines 2003), 43.

[23]  Warren Motte, Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature (University of Nebraska Press 1986), 3.

[24]  David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde (Doubleday New York 1998), 55.

[25]  Ibid, 108.

Douglas Piccinnini

Douglas Piccinnini

Douglas Piccinnini’s poetry and reviews have recently appeared or will appear in Lana Turner, Boog City, Scapegoat Review, and Verse. He lives in and works in Brooklyn, NY where he is the program coordinator for the crowd reading series.

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