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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This interview is taken from PN Review 46, Volume 12 Number 2, November - December 1985.

in Conversation with John Ashbery John Ash
This interview took place in John Ashbery's apartment in Chelsea. It was repeatedly interrupted by the sound of sirens rising from 9th Avenue and a ringing telephone. Chelsea is located north of Greenwich Village on the west side of Manhattan. Ashbery's apartment looks out towards the Hudson River and the heights of New Jersey. To one side of the view is a seminary with a very English-looking Gothic belfry, on the other is the massive red brick bulk of London Terrace, a complex of apartments constructed in vaguely Byzantine-Romanesque style, surmounted by strange pavilions concealing water tanks. Shortly before the interview began this entire panorama had been set alight by one of the gaudiest sunsets I have ever seen.


John Ash - You've lived in Chelsea for how long now?


John Ashbery - I've lived in the district for fourteen years and in this particular apartment building for twelve years. It has become an alternative to Greenwich Village as that became more and more expensive, but Chelsea was 'discovered' several years ago and it's become very difficult to find an apartment. Most of them are in small row houses - what you'd call terrace houses . . .


Brownstones?


Yes, even though they're not made out of the typical brown stone. Anyway, I was forced to move in a great hurry so I moved into this rather boring 1964 high rise which is already falling apart. People think it odd that I don't live in one of the more charming buildings, but I tell them I don't have to look at my building when I'm inside it.


Do you think New York has deteriorated as a place for poets and artists to work in?


Apparently not, since so many of them seem to live here. In fact something like the St Mark's Poetry Project was unheard of thirty years ago. Since then there's been a kind of poetry explosion in the country, which I trace back to the Beat poets and their habit of proclaiming their poems in public places. We didn't have poetry readings when I left for Europe in 1955. I was very surprised when I returned after a stay of five years in France and I was asked to give a poetry reading in the Living Theatre. This reading was one of perhaps a dozen that were being held that night in various parts of the city.


Of the poets working in New York at the moment, or for that matter in the US as a whole, which ones do you admire?


Starting with the older contemporaries there's James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch. Then, of a younger generation, there's Douglas Crase, James Tate who I think is a greatly underrated poet, and I like some of the Language Poets though I've no idea what their movement is all about.


Who are they, for the benefit of English readers who won't have heard of them?


Well, they're going strong - Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino for example. Clark Coolidge is probably the father figure of all these people, although he's only 46. He's quite a wonderful poet who has gone farther than I would care to in a direction that attracts me very much, and I'm sort of grateful to him for having done so.


What is that direction?

 
It seems to be a kind of deconstruction, dare I say?


You dare.


I'm not sure what it means, but I think that's what he's doing. He uses language almost as if words were objects in a kind of assemblage, although now his work is in a somewhat different phase where it's actually starting to make sense . . .


Heaven forbid!


. . . Sort of backing into sense in some way.


You mean the Language Poets use words in an abstract way? That's something that attracted you at the time of The Tennis Court Oath and perhaps in parts of Litany.


In fact I understand that the Language Poets consider The Tennis Court Oath to be my only worthwhile book whereas everybody else hates it.


In fact quite a number of the poems in The Tennis Court Oath do make some kind of sense, do they not? You're tempted towards a completely abstract use of words but veer away from it.


I think I know which poems you mean when you say the ones that 'make sense'. They actually precede the others. After Some Trees had been published I went to France on a Fulbright, and I found it very difficult to write in a foreign country without hearing American spoken around me. I didn't write very much at all for the first year. I think the only poems I've kept were 'Thoughts of a Young Girl' and the sestina 'Faust'. I wrote them both in Montpellier. I was trying to write in some new way and I actually did evolve a bit and came up with a style I was comfortable with that also seemed slightly new in poems like 'They Dream Only of American', 'How Much Longer Must I Inhabit the Divine Sepulchre' and 'Our Youth' . . .


And 'Rain' perhaps?


Yes. 'Rain' I wrote after a year I spent back in New York in 1957/58 when I wasn't writing much. Then when I went back to France in the fall I began writing those very sketchy experimental works. I could have developed the earlier style further and I've no idea why I didn't. I probably should have done.
 

Do the very experimental poems - 'Europe' for example - have anything to do with your interest in twentieth-century music, and Webern in particular?


Yes, they do. I used to go to the Domaine Musicale concerts in Paris regularly and Webern was often played at that time. I remember hearing the two cantatas which particularly stimulated me. At the same time the Robert Craft complete works came out. I was living in a foreign country trying to rethink my attitude towards my language, and by isolating words and phrases and looking for the kind of timbre you find in Webern's very sparse works I felt I could do something interesting.


Isn't that, to some extent, a misapprehension of Webern, since his fragmentary phrases are not in fact fragmentary. They're very carefully structured and connected to a rigorously logical scheme.


Well yes they are, but you can't approximate that scheme in a poem, music being more of a science than poetry. I wish one could. At any rate my misinterpretation of Webern - or whatever you want to call it - was something that fed into those poems. I remember also being impressed by Berio's Hommage to Joyce. I rather liked the kind of smear effect he did on the poems of Joyce and in my own humble way I was trying to do something like that in those problematic poems.


Smear the meaning or smear the words so that they lost their original context or meaning?


Yes, but not entirely.


Oh I wasn't suggesting that you'd succeeded entirely! Webern was important for you at that stage. Elliott Carter has been important for you subsequently, but also a lot of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century music appeals strongly to you - Franz Schmidt, Busoni, Szymanowski, Stenhammar and Sorabji for example?


On the other hand the music I seem to listen to most is trashy ballet music by Delibes, Minkus and Auber, not even the really good stuff by Tchaikovsky - just basic oompah stuff. . .


Does that have a kind of faded charm for you? You occasionally use in your poems touches of faded, Victorian, poetic diction.


I do indeed. I guess I'm into faded charm.


There's a clear connection between certain of your poems and the music of Elliott Carter. He's set 'Syringa' for example. Were you pleased with it?


Well I was, but I find that Carter's non-vocal works are already vocal. The instruments speak in his music in a much more sophisticated way than in Jana D;ek, for example, where the same sort of thing is supposed to happen.


He writes character-parts for his instruments.


Yes. Ives did this too. And I think that was what attracted me to Carter's music and I was probably 'inspired', if you'd excuse the word, by a performance of Duo for violin and piano when the two instruments were on far sides of a very wide stage. And I think this haranguing between the instruments must have suggested the form of Litany, as did several other things, including Warhol's Chelsea Girls.


There's another parallel between your poetry and Carter's music. I mean the way in which it's both American and European - on the one hand Ives and Cowell, and on the other Debussy and Schönberg. I know you've said that the significance of the French connection has been exaggerated in regard to your work, but though you talk about the importance of hearing American spoken around you, you've also written poems in French, and your new book contains a paraphrase of Baudelaire.


It's not a paraphrase, it's a literal translation. It even rhymes. I called it 'After Baudelaire' just in case I might have made a mistake, and in fact I cheated in one place where I said 'the lamp shining anew', well there's no 'anew' in the French. But other than that I didn't distort it at all.


Aren't you returning a compliment in a way? Baudelaire and Mallarmé translated Poe and Laforgue even made an attempt at Whitman before he embarked on vers libre.


I didn't know about the Laforgue translations. Didn't someone - Mallarmé I think - translate Longfellow?


Longfellow?


Yes, Hiawatha, which kind of blows me away. Longfellow is just a figure of fun, hardly a poet at all. It's strange the way French poets have adopted certain American poets. I mean even Poe is a problematic figure. I like him sometimes, in certain moods, but on the whole Huxley's remark about 'the vulgarity of Poe' seems pretty much on target.


Like a lot of French poets you've expressed envy of music's ability to . . .


Say something and not say it.


Doesn't this 'aspiring to the condition of music' show your origins in Symbolism?


I don't know. Who are we talking about? Semain? Stuart Merrill? . . . I think it's more Pateresque. It was Pater who coined that phrase, and Pater is one of my favourite writers.


Which works in particular?


I love Plato and Platonism which I stole a number of lines from in my poem 'Houseboat Days'.


Which lines?

 
Well it's hard to say. I chose ones that I think sound terribly like me. There's a passage about 'shining light into the house within, its pictured walls'. There are several other thefts from Pater in that particular poem.


          To flash light
  Into the house within, its many chambers,
  Its memories and associations, upon its inscribed
  And pictured walls, argues enough that life is various
  Life is beautiful.

You're interested in Pater, and Victorian architecture and turn of the century music. You also have a very beautiful Victorian house in Hudson in New York State. Would you like to say something about that house and what it means to you?


I never intended to buy a house but then I saw this rather lovely nineteenth century house, which was very cheap. It reminded me of my grandparents' house where I lived when I was a child in the city of Rochester. My grandparents were both born in the 1860s. They were actually Victorian people and I spent a lot of time with them. My grandfather had complete sets of Dickens, Thackeray and the other Huxley. I used to pore over those books when I was a child. My grandfather was a prominent physicist and also a very cultivated and completely self-made person. When he died, to my great surprise there was a very long obituary in the New York Times. I thought his fame was confined to family legend, but apparently he was the first person in America to experiment with X-rays. He also knew Greek and Latin and was a kind of rustic American version of an English homme moyen sensuel . . . I was always very attracted to the cosiness and the gloom of Victorian life, and always felt very much at home in that environment. Now I'm happily ensconced in my gloomy Victorian villa, which is somewhat grander than the one in Diary of a Nobody - another of my favourite books.


Would you say that in buying this house and preserving and restoring it you were trying to recapture your time with your grandparents?


Yes, that's exactly what I was doing. It may be rather a sick enterprise really, but when I first stepped into this house which had been on the market for a long time because nobody wanted it, I thought, 'This is perfect for me'. There's a kind of morning room where the sun comes in, where I like to sit and read the morning papers - as you might expect. Then I go upstairs to the other living room which is more unapproachable, where you're protected from people looking in the window. I guess it satisfies my nostalgia. It was a terrible blow to me when my grandparents had to sell their house.


The message was wise, and seemingly
Dictated a long time ago.
Its truth is timeless, but its time has still
Not arrived, telling of danger, and the mostly limited
Steps that can be taken against danger
Now and in the future, in cool yards,
In quiet small houses in the country,
Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets.

I suspect that your fascination with the faded charm, the gloom and comfort of the end of the Victorian period will come as something of a surprise to some of your readers. You have a reputation for being a very sophisticated, very New York, modern baroque poet, yet there's quite a strong rural element in your work - for example, the first two poems in A Wave - the 'haystacks aflame' and so on . . .


Yes, although those 'haystacks aflame' came directly from a French nineteenth century painting I saw in Cleveland once. But, yes, I grew up in a very rustic environment - to put the best possible construction on it. My father was a plain ordinary farmer and we were rather poor. It was during the depression. The fact that I was born in New York State tends to confuse English readers. In fact Rochester is about 350 miles from New York City, almost as far as the Hebrides are from London. I never got to New York at all until I was seventeen, and even then it took a great deal of persuading my parents to allow me to go. So it might as well have been the Midwest.


Why were your parents so reluctant to let you go to New York?


In the part of New York State where I grew up they're very suspicious of New York City and nobody wants to go there. They think it's a terrible place full of crime and sodomy.


You're now enjoying great celebrity for a poet. A long article about you is just about to appear in the New York Times. This means that many people are making demands on you. Do you resent this, or how do you respond to it?


I both resent it and I'm very happy about it at the same time. I feel in this peculiar position now where somehow my name has gotten to be a household word - at least in certain households. I think there are now people who know my name but don't know what I do. I'm famous for being famous - I'm a superstar, almost like Edna Everage! I find this very strange. I'm certainly still terribly controversial as a poet. The jury is still out on the question of whether I'm a poet at all, yet I get my picture taken for Women's Wear Daily.


As you say, the jury's still out, particularly in Britain. Why do you think this is?


There seems to be no middle region of satisfaction for me in this entire situation. I tend to be suspicious of people who praise my work and contemptuous of those who don't.


And quite right too! You're not interested in schools and opposing groups in much the same way that you're not interested in elaborate deconstruction or post-structuralist interpretations of your work?


No I don't really know anything about that. I'm glad my work seems to provide fodder for academics who like to disentangle things.


But it seems to me more important that your work can provide people with a lot of immediate pleasure in the way you use language, and the great freedom combined in your best poems with a kind of flawless control. The poems have a kind of improvisatory architecture.


Yes, I think that's rather a beautiful formulation, architecture being so non-improvisatory.


And it's also something you're very interested in. Particularly the architecture of New York?


I love the way New York looks, the way everything is mashed together and somehow gives one a sense of elation. I think that New York resembles Rome, rather than Paris which is more harmonious. In Rome beautiful buildings that don't necessarily compliment each other are jammed against each other. Of course Rome is much more beautiful than New York in most people's understanding of the term, but I like the odd contiguity that everything has here. New Yorkers are always bemoaning the tearing down of lovely old buildings and the construction of ugly new ones, but that seems to me very much the way the whole place is organised - it's a sort of disposable city and always has been.


Perhaps you would agree that your own diction and syntax imitate that, in the sense that you will use very shop-worn phrases, very slangy phrases, neologisms, and lyrical, 'poetic' language and any kind of diction juxtaposed.


Yes, I would.

This interview is taken from PN Review 46, Volume 12 Number 2, November - December 1985.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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