Difficult

Part I


On 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," John chuckles.

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 to explore."

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.

"Manual."

"What brand?"

"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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