What else is there besides matters of taste?
January 28, 2009 7:59 AM   Subscribe

It's almost as good as being at John Ashbery's home (bio) and there's more, including a preliminary inventory of his library* (search for "inventories" or scroll down). Ashbery's poetry is still very much invested in the reader's pleasure—more so than many supposedly "approachable" poets. You can hear him read his poems (more), watch him (here's -transcript- a brief taste and a half-hour video) or read a few of his poems.

The Ashbery Resource Center has plenty of material including a list of Ashbery's cited influences.

You can find more poems, reviews and pages on his work and be sure to click through to the Jacket feature. Skip to the conversation with Kenneth Koch about art and if you aren't satiated yet try this article, a TLS review of his latest or an older effort by the Boston review.

Finally, you can see his collages and read an essay on John Ashbery's surrealism.

For completeness' sake, here's an animated poem.

posted by ersatz (20 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
How could I have forgotten to include "Farm Instruments and Rutabagas in a Landscape" in my sestina post?

When I was in college my favorite was the canonical (and great) "Soonest Mended," with its uncharacteristic big ringing major-chord finish. ("For this is action, this not being sure...") But now maybe I think most about "At North Farm," which is so short I can include it in a comment:

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

posted by escabeche at 8:42 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wonder if that inventory of his library means anything. If his library was built anything like mine was, he has awful books he won't read but won't throw away, and he has a small few books that he's read more than all the rest together. What does he read for real, repeated pleasure and what did he read just briefly out of professional curiosity or duty or to cadge bits from? He has tons of Raymond Roussel, of course, but also, for example, two collections of William McGonagall. He has a few volumes of Best American Poetry, but did he buy them or, more likely, was he given them because his stuff was included? I'd like to know what's on his night table or under his mattress or next to his toilet.
posted by pracowity at 9:09 AM on January 28, 2009

I've quoted this line -- My wife thinks I'm in Oslo. Oslo, France, that is -- many times and in a wide variety of contexts and it's always apt.

Love the Ashbery.
posted by Toecutter at 9:12 AM on January 28, 2009

Eh? What?
posted by ashbury at 9:15 AM on January 28, 2009

(Digging deeper) This is great stuff.
posted by Toecutter at 9:15 AM on January 28, 2009

Love Ashbery. Thanks for this!
posted by treepour at 9:18 AM on January 28, 2009

Great post.

After a brief stroll through his CD collection, Ashbery doesn't seem like much of a rock 'n' roll fan. Or a blues fan. Or jazz. Or hip-hop. Or big band. Or funk. Or grindcore. But he's got classical music covered.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 9:23 AM on January 28, 2009

That feeling is conjured up by the interplay between aesthetic conviction and amiably bland bewilderment; amid all the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life is the enduring hope that, as one speaker puts it, "at last I shall see my complete face." The best thing to do, then, is not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It's only then, for most readers, that the meaning begins to leak through.

- from that Slate article, which is a surprisingly good primer on how to approach Ashbery. I always tell people that I love his poems even though most of the time I don't really know what he's going on about.
posted by troubles at 9:27 AM on January 28, 2009

Somewhat related: A look at Bruce Springsteen's bookshelf.
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:37 AM on January 28, 2009

John Ashbery was my first influence to write poetry. I haven't kept up with it but I still love to read him and just wrote a paper on Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror recently. Excellent post.

Also, Phil Elvrum's bookshelf.
posted by auralcoral at 10:05 AM on January 28, 2009

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As if the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the stream and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.

posted by Skot at 10:14 AM on January 28, 2009

Wow, this is really cool.
posted by jayder at 10:19 AM on January 28, 2009

As I said here, "I came late to John Ashbery (as to Cecil Taylor); for years I read him impatiently when I came across his work, convinced he was putting something over on everyone. The older I get, the more I appreciate his light touch, his circuitous paths, his refusal to pander to our craving for the obvious." I posted some wonderful Ashbery poems here ("These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing/ Into something forgetful, although angry with history...") and here ("We were warned about spiders, and the occasional famine..."). Hearing him read a few years ago was a real treat. Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 12:53 PM on January 28, 2009

It is not as much Classical music he has covered as New Music.

It is a pity we don't have a simple, understandable term for music made by these composers of the '60s and '70s, not quite on the experimental vanguard, and in the tradition of the old dead white men of 19th century European music, but not simply aping them. Serious music works, maybe? They called what they did New Music, maybe it is still new today, but can we give it that name and presume it will be new tomorrow?

Regardless, It makes beautiful sense that someone who wrote poetry like this would listen to music that is similarly perplexingly and obtusely lyrical. This seems perfect to teach the pairing together to gradeschool children, a bit challenging but mostly whimsical, and only passingly offensive.

It is fun to see what an artist I enjoy likes in another medium, I can imagine a sort of silly pretentious name dropping gambling game - "five to one says Beckett preferred Xenakis over Stockhausen".

On preview, regarding languagehat and Cecil Taylor: I see great minds think alike.
posted by idiopath at 1:18 PM on January 28, 2009

I was preparing an exhaustive farewell post on modern Greek poetry when I stumbled upon Ashbery's room and thought it must have comprised part of the past Writer's Room FPPs. Turns out I was wrong and there was plenty of material available online.

I wonder if that inventory of his library means anything.

That's a good question. It's no substitute for Ashbery talking about his preferences, but in my experience people who regularly receive books have to keep those that interest them or be flooded by mediocrity. The ARC link at least keeps track of whom he acknowledges as an influence.
posted by ersatz at 1:29 PM on January 28, 2009

Fantastic post.
posted by bardic at 4:16 PM on January 28, 2009

...but he's got classical music covered.

Most of that music is 20th century music - music "by composers", for "orchestras" or "strings" but this is mostly modern music, not really "classical" and nearly all the composers were still alive fairly recently.

Very interesting tastes, btw!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:22 PM on January 28, 2009

Oh, crap, I should learn to PREVIEW. sorry!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:23 PM on January 28, 2009

I heart Ashbery. I got something signed though not Flow Chart which would have been awesomer because Flow Chart is dedicated to David which I could then pretend is me.
posted by juv3nal at 5:38 PM on January 28, 2009

I hear you, idiopath & lupus. I just can't bring myself to use "New Music." Modern Classical? Avant-Classical? It's just utterly strange that it's so exclusively classically-driven. With all the Bartok/Shostakovich/Satie/Schoenberg/etc., the list reads like a Frank Zappa-approved list of classical-ish music.

Big thumbs up on this post, again. Those flowcharts are nuts.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 12:10 PM on January 29, 2009

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