January 22, 2001, John Ashbery was the recipient of the New York State
Walt Whitman Citation of Merit as New York State Poet 2001-2003. This
was an exceptional day and great honor for the most honored poet of
his generation. This world-renowned poet is the author of twenty books
of poetry and winner of a list of awards longer than your arm, including
the 1976 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for 'Self Portrait In A Convex Mirror'.
He also possesses a well-honed sense of humor and is a great fan of
the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers and just about any of those great
screwball comedies from the 1930's and 1940's; he loves to laugh.
John was born and raised on
a farm outside Sodus, New York on the shores of Lake Ontario. His
father sold the eggs and fruit he produced to markets in nearby Rochester.
His father also raised turkeys selling smoked turkey and smoked turkey
pate. Although John loved the smoked turkey he seldom enjoyed it,
paying the bills on the farm necessitated selling the majority of
it at the market.
John hated growing up on the
farm, there were no kids to play with, "I desperately wanted to be
in the city," he remarks. He looked forward to visits to his grandparents
in Rochester where neighborhood kids were abundant. Conversely, looking
back at the farm he says, "I find that the landscapes there are really
in my poems. Growing up beside a large body of water that you can't
see across has had a big influence on my poetry. Wasn't the ocean,
but the next best thing."
John is an observer. Watching
him, I notice he looks at things with the same eye that a painter
studies light. As a young child John sketched all the time, he wanted
to be a painter. His parents allowed him to go into Rochester every
Friday to take a painting class at the art museum.
At home his family had the
Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia; its poetry section was primarily made
up of what was referred to as parlor poetry, compiled around 1900.
John was a voracious reader. When he was eight he wrote his first
poem. In high school he won a poetry contest, the prize an anthology
of modern poetry. "I became fascinated with poetry, tried to imitate
the poets I liked. As time went on I gravitated toward that," he smiles.
"When did you fall in love
with poetry?" I ask.
"In my late teens. I wrote
what I thought was as good as some of the poetry I admired. It wasn't,"
John laughs, "but I thought it was."
In college he found it easier
to write in his dorm room than to paint, so he wrote. "It sort of
facilitated my greater interest in writing," he says.
At eighteen he submitted a
couple poems to one of the few poetry magazines at the time. Unbeknownst
to him his roommate, who also wanted to be a poet but wasn't very
good, had previously submitted some of John's poems, the ones John
sent to the same magazine, but under his name, not John's. John received
a one-word rejection slip, "Sorry!" it read. "It was rather traumatic,"
At Harvard, John met other
young, aspiring poets. He was puzzled, intrigued by 20th Century poetry,
"I didn't understand it, the way most people don't understand me.
It made me curious to find out what it was all about, how it ticked."
This is the hallmark of John's existence. "I was always attracted
to writing that seems difficult, that gives you the prospect of something
He first discovered Milay and
Frost then moved on to Dylan Thomas and Henry James novels, "Most
people thought them unreadable at the time." When he was twenty he
discovered Proust. "I couldn't get them all at first, but there was
something there that made me want to persevere. I was immediately
attracted to these endless sentences in six volumes." John raises
his hands in front of him as if he were holding something of considerable
weight, his eyes bright with fascination and the emphasis on the words,
'six volumes'. "People always say, your work is difficult, how do
you feel about that? You haven't asked that so I'm grateful." Not
being deterred, but rather embracing, being excited, stimulated by
that which is difficult is the key to John's greatness.
When he was a senior in college
at twenty-one, two of his poems were published in 'Furioso', a Minnesota
Poetry Magazine. At the time he thought, "Now, I'm officially a poet."
I used to have a quote taped
to my refrigerator. As I recall it said, "Critics think artists sit
around and discourse on art theory, actually we get together and talk
about where to buy the cheapest turpentine." So, I ask John how he
writes, longhand, typewriter, word processor.
"I write on the typewriter.
I used to write longhand and then at one point in the sixties I was
in a period of writing very long lines, like Whitman type lines and
I would forget the end of the line before I got there. So I thought,
maybe if I typed, since I can type pretty fast and sure enough, it
worked and ever since then, although not for the same reason anymore,
I write on the typewriter and it really feels," he pauses choosing
the word, "comfortable. I love to type actually, and I can really
dig my fingers into the keyboard."
"Manual or electric?" I ask.
"Royal, I have four or five
of them. I couldn't use an electric because the motor being on is
sort of like, you know, a taxi meter or something."
My conversation with John Ashbery
will continue next time, From The Road.
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