Difficult

Part II


Kenneth Koch, who graduated college a year ahead of John Ashbery, was accepted to graduate school at Columbia University and encouraged his friend John to move to New York. John decided to go. He would become a teacher of English Literature because "You still can't make a living in poetry."

It was fortuitous that John should go to New York at that particular moment, in the summer of 1949. It was a charged time artistically, the period of Abstract Expressionism, de Kooning, Pollack, Rothko; musically there was Monk and Coltraine, Parker and Davis, there was Clift, Brando and the Actors Studio and of course the Beats. John wrote about that time, "What is better than anything is the renewed realization that all kinds of things can and must exist side by side at any given moment, and that that is what life and creating are all about."

One day editor Thomas Hess asked John to write for Art News because "poets could bring an eye to art that sometimes historians couldn't."

I ask if Art Criticism in any way distracted him from his work as a poet.

"No, not at all. Writing reviews requires paying close attention so you can go home and write about it. Paying attention is something that doesn't come naturally to anybody. I think it was good training. Not only could I pay attention to whatever it was I wanted to write about, but having written for deadlines for so long, sometimes with a gun to my head, I thought, well, if I can produce all this for somebody else's deadline, I can write for myself, too. I became less inhibited about writing poetry, and suddenly you find you have a body of work." That thirty years of art criticism is contained in an insightful book titled, 'Reported Sightings'. John's criticism is more a conversation than a critique, as if John were simply sitting with you, telling a story.

In a 'Reported Sightings' piece about his long time friend and painter, Jane Freilicher, John writes, "The artists of the world can be divided into two groups: those who organize and premeditate, and those who accept the tentative, the whatever-happens-along. And although neither method is inherently superior, and one must always proceed by cases, I probably prefer more works of art that fall in the latter category." John writes in the whatever-happens-along method. He does not make outlines, never has, says he can't. He takes things in and they may come out in his writing, or they may not, images seep in and out like breathing, but he doesn't consciously try to describe things or scenes. Only once did he approach this in 'Self Portrait In A Convex Mirror', "where I was at least trying to describe a particular painting."

"I think of myself as more audio than visual," John says, "I listen to music a great deal and somehow my ideas for my poetry come out of music as much as anything else."

"What kind of music?"

"Mostly 20th Century classical music, but also older classic music, too. I'm not interested in rock at all, or even in jazz, although many people are surprised that I'm not, since I guess my poetry has a kind of improvisatory, jazz -like quality to it. I can see that, but on the other hand I'm not interested in jazz."

"The New York State Poet, what's that feel like?" I inquire.

John shoots back, with the precision comic timing of Groucho Marx, "I don't know, what does it feel like?" We laugh and he continues, "It's nice because the people that chose me are poets themselves. It's also nice because New York State is my home." The timing returns, "I mean it's not a requirement, like it is for being a Senator, apparently."

At the ceremony, Lieutenant Governor Mary Donahue, who acknowledges being a fan of John's work since college, presented the citation in the Red Room of the Capitol in Albany, honoring John Ashbery as New York State Poet.

John spoke to those present saying in part: "We think of the Hudson River in terms of painting, of America's very first indigenous school of painting, but its effect on literature has been enormous if not as visible." John went on to point to the abundance of writers influenced by the Hudson River Valley, their great literary heritage and their continued cultivation.

He concluded with this, "Today when the Valley is under more or less continual siege from vast corporations who want to re-industrialize it, but who could as easily set up shop in regions that are far less scenic, historic and culturally precious, it seems important to call attention to this threat. Fortunately, Governor Pataki, a lifelong friend and neighbor of the Hudson, recently voiced his support for dredging it of PCBs deposited there over many years by General Electric. I've gotten this far, carried away a bit by the fact that the Hudson Valley is now a home for me, but there are certainly other reaches of New York for a laureate to celebrate, if that is what is called for. In short I need all of New York, it's the essential nourishment for my writing. How then could I be anything but grateful to find that, in some sense or other, it needs me too?"

We'll talk next time, From The Road.

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