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This article is taken from PN Review 200, Volume 37 Number 6, June - July 2011.

John Ashbery Goes to the Movies Michael Glover
It's noon or thereabouts on a late July day, and we are sitting in the cool, spacious interior of Swoon Kitchen Bar on Warren Street, Hudson, upstate New York, slaking our thirst on water. Outside, the merciless heat is ironing mere humankind flat to the pavement. The paintings on the walls of this restaurant look swoonily late-Symbolist in inspiration, the figures supine, melting and vaguely mythic. Not a million miles away from Gustave Moreau perhaps. Well, that's how it looks from a distance of twenty feet or so anyway. It's quite dark in here, I notice, pleasingly so, and there is ample space between the tables. This is a place for the exchange of confidences - or tiny, balled-up notes.

Up to this point, the conversation has been much about poetry matters - well, poetry does matter; at least, it matters to those to whom it matters. John Ashbery had a new book out quite recently called Planisphere, which consisted of ninety-nine poems. It was organised alphabetically, he tells me. There was one poem he didn't like when he came to re-read the manuscript. Luckily, he'd written another poem which began with the same letter of the alphabet, so he could just slot it in.

His chicken salad arrives.

We talk about the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont. He'll be off there to give a reading next week. The Bread Load Campus is near Robert Frost's farm in Ripton. That's where Paul Muldoon, poet and faculty member, gets to stay. Last year John had a tour of Frost's cabin. Muldoon told him that the place had been trashed by some kids, and that they were punished for their misdemeanours by having to do a course in the poetry of Robert Frost.

Then, when we reach the iced latte stage, the conversation turns to film, another of John's life-long addictions. Not that he got too close to too many films before he went up to Harvard. Living in the country in New York State as a boy, it was more a yearning for films than the fact of actually seeing them.

Earlier in the year, he tells me, he had participated in a two-day event at Harvard, hosted by Haden Guest of the Harvard Film Archive, which explored his association with the cinema, an aspect of his work that has had relatively little attention until now. His mind flips back fifty years or so, to London.

John Ashbery first went to London in 1956. He took the train and the ferry from Paris, where he would live for an entire decade, two of those years supported by a Fulbright Scholarship. When he got to Victoria Station, the first thing he did was to buy the precursor of Time Out. He spotted that there was a Busby Berkeley season going on at the British Film Institute. He dropped his bags and raced straight over there. 'They are such glorious films...' I like the way he pushes hard down on those Bs when he says the great director's name. It's a bit like gently accelerating a car.


Not much has been written by critics about the relation of John Ashbery's poetry to the cinema, but his passion for movies of all kinds runs deep, and references to films turn up time and again in his poems. A recent poem consisted entirely of titles of films. A celebrated early one, 'Daffy Duck in Hollywood', evokes old cartoon memories, Milton's Satan - and much else. That was why Harvard chose to host a two-day event earlier this year, to discuss that link between film and poetry, to tease out from John himself a little of what he saw back then, and also to show films by some contemporary film makers who had been influenced by his poetry. So it was a two-day, two-way conversation, which consisted of the screening of films old and new, and much conversation.

He chose films that had been important to him - a film from the years of the German Occupation of France called Adieu Leonard by Pierre Prévert, with a screenplay written by his better known brother, the poet and cabaret singer Jacques Prévert. That wasn't quite so interesting as he'd remembered it. A rare print of the film had to be shipped over from the British Film Institute. Others included a Daffy Duck cartoon called 'Duck Amuck', Busby Berkeley's effervescent, back-stage musical, Footlight Parade - John was six years old when that one came out - a relatively obscure satanic classic from 1943 called The Seventh Victim, and Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World.

Magazine cover

In spite of the fact that the young Ashbery got an early sighting of George Eastman - his grandfather, a physicist, took him to meet the great inventor at his house when Ashbery was just four years old - his early life was full of unfulfilled yearnings for cinematic exposure. His father was fond of musicals - his favourite actress was Eleanor Powell - but there was the physical problem of getting to the movie theatre and back again. He used to read titles of movies in the newspapers that he knew he'd never be allowed to see - Bullets or Ballots, for example - even had he been able to get over there. He'd then set to imagining all the things that a film with such a title might be about... 'The ones I didn't see are very important to me, that memory of not seeing enough movies and feeling vaguely unsatisfied...'

His movie lust was well slaked at Harvard. There were regular trips to the Exeter Street Theater in Back Bay, where he would spend many a long afternoon watching such strange English movies as Arthur Crabtree's Madonna of the Seven Moons or a wonderful French film, the details of which have been elided by time, based on Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. Harvard nourished his passion for the silent cinema too. 'I love the absurdity of silent cinema, those incredible, insane titles are all a part of it.'

A little later on came that ten years spent in Paris, on a Fulbright Scholarship. 'I left just as the Beat Generation was starting up. I'm still trying to piece together what happened when my back was turned.' He lived near the Cinemathèque on the Left Bank, not far from the Panthéon. Sometimes he would go to the cinema three times a day. It was in January 1956, just before that first visit to London, that he saw Adieu Leonard with his best friend of those years, the film critic Elliott Stein, one of the many films that were made during the Occupation. 'A lot of escapist films were made at that time, strange, undernourished comedies. Costume movies were OK too. They were not considered political then.'

The second evening at Harvard included works by avant-garde American film makers who had been influenced by John Ashbery's practice as a poet: Phil Solomon, Abigail Child, Nathaniel Dorsky. 'Unbeknownst to me,' John comments later at the restaurant as he lays his fork across his greens. He summarises his general impression of these films: lots of shiftings from scene to scene; lots of people talking very fast; not being able to hear what they were saying. He thinks he may have been influenced by them.

John Ashbery's poetry often seems to be incorporating snatches of dialogue from half-remembered - or perhaps even half-imagined - films. The language of Busby Berkeley's films, the snappy, sparky way the actors deliver their lines, are products of the Depression years. That kind of language has always meant a lot to him. 'There was a general way of talking that came out of the Depression. People were tough. They talked back. They didn't want to be pushed around. They felt witty and courageous.'

Nowadays film watchers such as John Ashbery can do things differently. He doesn't go out very much these days. Movies can come to you now. You can see them at home. Some of his recent favourites have included David Lynch's Inland Empire and There's Something About Mary, starring Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. 'I saw that one about four times. All the essential dirty parts were cut for TV.' For all his addiction to home cinema, he made at least one trip out to the movie house recently, to see Sacha Baron Cohen camping it up in Brüno. 'That has to be the filthiest non-porn movie ever made,' he wrote to me later, 'and worth seeing if only for that, though it's quite funny. There was only one other person in the audience.'


We walk back up the street towards the car, passing by as we go a ceramic blue dog, raised up high on a plinth, emblematic perhaps of the new, tourist-friendly Hudson. 'I hate those dogs,' snarls John with near canine savagery. We stop to look in the window of a store called Henry's. The place is full of old collectibles. 'Funky,' says John as we step inside. I look around. Old casino paraphernalia. An oversize eyeball. A notice about a girl and her tapeworm. I spot a crucifix fashioned from a multiplicity of tongue suppressors. John points to that one. 'That's Tramp Art,' he says, helpfully. In the window there's a vitrine of antique bakelite dolls. Their arms are raised in greeting. They are reaching out to us. It puts me in mind of a wonderful statement that Rilke once made about dolls: 'In these figures,' he wrote, 'the doll has at last outgrown the understanding, the sympathy, the pleasure, and the sorrow of the child, it has become independent, grown up, prematurely old, it has entered upon all the unrealities of its own life.'

If John Ashbery had ever realised his vague aspiration to be a film maker too, he could have made something of this vitrine of old dolls, I am thinking to myself. It could have been the start of something new.

'I wish I could make films,' he'd told his Harvard audience. 'I think that I'd probably be quite good at it if I tried.' He would quite like to have been a critic too, but 'no one ever offered me a job as a movie critic,' he confessed. 'Yes, I'd like to make a collage-type film. They do cross over, poetry and movies. My poetry seems to be something I make up as I go along. Certain movies strike me that way - going in and out of one's dreams...'

This conversation between Michael Glover and John Ashbery took place in Hudson during the summer of 2009, and was subsequently published in The Bow-Wow Shop (

film collage

This article is taken from PN Review 200, Volume 37 Number 6, June - July 2011.

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