When he was 8 years old, John Ashbery stopped writing poetry. He’d just finished a poem about the battle of the snowflakes and the bunnies. It rhymed. He was pleased enough with it to pound it out on a typewriter. His parents sent a copy of the poem to his mother’s cousin. The family lived on a farm outside of Rochester in a rural town so small that it didn’t even have a kindergarten. The cousin was married to the son of the famous mystery novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart, the “American Agatha Christie.” Rinehart lived on Fifth Avenue and read the poem aloud at her Christmas celebration. It would not, Mr. Ashbery believed, get any better than this. He figured he’d quit while he was at the top of his game.
His retirement didn’t last long. In December, Ecco published Quick Question, his 26th book of original poems. In 2008, he was the first living poet to have his collected poems published by the Library of America. The first volume is a thousand pages long and only covers the years 1956-1987, the first three decades of Mr. Ashbery’s career; a second volume is in the works. He’s been called the greatest 20th-century American poet so many times that he’s been dismissed almost as frequently as overrated.
“Whole libraries have been written about John by now,” the critic Harold Bloom told me. “I find it just silly. It’s all devoted to this notion that he’s a French poet writing in English. Or that he’s a Language Poet. It’s all nonsense.”
“I don’t really feel like John should be pigeonholed into a particular school,” Alice Quinn, the former poetry editor at The New Yorker, said. “I think he demonstrates more what poetic thinking is. It’s both a jumble and coherent. He manages to capture a lot of the palpable feeling of being alive in his writing.”
His detractors say he’s too difficult. His fans say that the naysayers don’t know how to read poetry.
“I’m sure people do struggle with his poems,” the poet Paul Muldoon, Ms. Quinn’s successor at The New Yorker, wrote in an e-mail. “Why wouldn’t they? We struggle to give birth. We struggle to get born. We struggle to copulate. Some of us even have to struggle to die.”
Last month, I went to the Chelsea apartment where Mr. Ashbery has lived since the early ’70s. There were stacks of books and papers resting on every available surface, and the building’s old brick walls did little to keep out the sound from Ninth Avenue. I was greeted by David Kermani, Mr. Ashbery’s partner since around 1970, when Mr. Kermani was in his early 20s. He’s a small, spry man in his 60s, and he had helped set up the meeting, because Mr. Ashbery, who is 85, does not use e-mail much. Walking into a large living room, I could see the back of Mr. Ashbery’s head, a patch of messy white hair jutting out above the back of a recliner that faced the window. There were two walkers and a cane propped close by. A spinal infection that almost killed him in the ’80s left him with a limited ability to walk. He’d had a bad fall recently. He was wearing a button-down shirt and slacks and offered a sad smile when he said, “Forgive me for not getting up. I have mobility issues.” He spat out the last words like he held the diagnosis against his doctor. Outside it was drizzling, and he looked out the window at Manhattan as if he were sizing it up.
When I asked him what it was like growing up in the country, he said, “It was horrible,” and then groaned loudly. He’s always had a strained relationship with nature in his writing, a kind of anti-Romantic approach to the sublime that weighs more heavily on the side of terror—or at least an eerie melancholy—than of awe or beauty. In “At North Farm,” a modified sonnet from the 1984 collection A Wave, he writes:
Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are busting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky.
He lived with his grandparents when he was young so he could attend school in the city. His grandfather was a professor at the University of Rochester. He moved back in with his parents when he got a little older, but he was lonely on the farm. When he was 12, his younger brother died of leukemia. He spent most of his time by himself until a wealthy friend of Mr. Ashbery’s mother agreed to pay for him to finish high school at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.
“By that time I had already discovered modern poetry,” he said. “High schools used to have current events contests sponsored by Time, if the class subscribed to the magazine. They were quite easy. I won the prize of a book. Of the four that they offered, the only one I was vaguely interested in was an anthology of modern American and British poetry by Louis Untermeyer.”
He had a friend at Deerfield who stole his poems and sent them to Poetry magazine with his own name attached. (He apologized, but then did it again with the lower-grade magazine Voices.) The friend followed Mr. Ashbery to Harvard, but once the two drifted apart, Mr. Ashbery started hanging around with poets who didn’t plagiarize his writing. He worked for the Advocate, where he met Kenneth Koch and Robert Bly. For most of college, he knew Frank O’Hara only by reputation. O’Hara was publishing stories and poems in the Advocate and was a fixture at parties around Harvard Square, but was too intimidating to talk to. A few months before graduating, Mr. Ashbery went to an opening at Mandrake Books for the illustrator Edward Gorey, O’Hara’s roommate. He overheard O’Hara talking to a group of people about the composer Francis Poulenc and noted a similar northeastern accent. Mr. Ashbery had drunk just enough wine to go up to him and say, “Hey, you sound just like me.”
At Harvard, they’d share poems and spend afternoons messing around with a piano. O’Hara would play his compositions—which have all been lost—like his sonatina that lasted three seconds. Once O’Hara returned to New York after finishing graduate school at the University of Michigan, the two attended John Cage’s 1952 New Year’s Day concert put on by the Living Theater. Cage played “Music of Changes,” an atonal, rhythmless work for solo piano.
“I was completely taken by surprise,” Mr. Ashbery said. “It was just arbitrary bangs on the piano over quite a long period of time. And long pauses. I had been in a drought with my writing. I felt I hadn’t written anything good in almost a year. It really gave me ideas about how to write poetry again.”
In New York the young Harvard graduates met the poet James Schuyler and John Myers, co-proprietor of the newly opened Tibor de Nagy gallery. The gallery had already given painters like Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter and Larry Rivers their first solo shows. Ms. Freilicher was Koch’s neighbor in a walk-up at Third Avenue and 18th Street. They shared a kitchen. Koch went on vacation and let Mr. Ashbery stay at his place. He remembers the “pretty and somewhat preoccupied dark-haired girl” who painted in the apartment upstairs. They were drawn to each other by a mutual shyness.
Ms. Freilicher used to call Myers “The Grand and Glorious, Gay, Notorious John Myers.” He had already dubbed the painters at Tibor de Nagy the “New York School.” He was also very literary and interested in publishing poetry. The New York School label was mostly good PR—it made the gallery the de facto center of a certain scene, even if its members were only loosely connected stylistically. Myers figured he’d give the name to the painters’ poet friends as well and sell pamphlets of their work out of the gallery.
“There was no money behind it,” Ms. Freilicher told me. “Everything had to be done on the cuff. There was no actual school called the New York School of Painting, just like there was no New York School of Poets. These things just happened to emerge simultaneously.”
What connected the poets was mostly superficial. Besides Barbara Guest, they were predominantly men from the northeast; they were all homosexual except for Koch; they had all gone to Harvard except for Schuyler.
“I didn’t really feel one way or another about it,” Mr. Ashbery said. “A guy wants to say I’m a member of the New York School, fine. Now we can’t get rid of it. Now I sort of regret it. People mention ‘New York School,’ and that’s the label, and it sort of means certain things and that’s it. They’re sophisticated. Kind of frivolous. Lots of word games and French influence. Then we don’t have to think about it any further.”
In 1953, the gallery published a pamphlet by Mr. Ashbery, Turandot and Other Poems, which included four drawings by Ms. Freilicher. It had a print run of 300 and didn’t exactly announce the arrival of a major poet. By 1955, Mr. Ashbery was still writing publicity releases for textbooks at McGraw-Hill. He refers to ’55 as “my year of almost not-winning things.” He was rejected for a Fulbright to France, only to get it when someone else dropped out. Then his first major collection, Some Trees, was rejected for the Yale Younger Poets prize, because it didn’t make it as far as the competition’s judge, W.H. Auden; when Auden did finally read it, he had the university publish the manuscript. There’s a pastoral strain that runs through the book, but the poems are more concerned with their own composition than with nature or any kind of poetic tradition. (Indeed, the highly casual phrase “some trees” is a kind of dismissal of pastoral tradition altogether.) The final poem, “Le livre set sur la table” (“The book is on the table”), extends the question of the fate of a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it to a book that is never cracked open:
The young man places a bird house
Against the blue sea. He walks away
And it remains. Now other
Men appear, but they live in boxes.
The sea protects them like a wall.
The gods worship a line-drawing
Of a woman in the shadow of the sea
Which goes on writing …
Mr. Ashbery was already living in France when the book was published. He spoke little French at first, but decided to extend his Fulbright to a second year anyway. He wrote occasional reviews for ARTnews, and briefly returned to America intent on writing a dissertation on Raymond Roussel, but abandoned the idea and moved back to France. That was 1958. He didn’t return to America for five years.
“I didn’t want to write very much at all for quite a while,” he told me. “And then when I did, I wanted to write in a different way. So I did. I wrote very experimental collages, without ever thinking that they would see the light of day. The first book didn’t have much success, and I didn’t think I would ever publish another one.”
Eventually John Hollander at Wesleyan University Press asked him if he had material for a second book. Mr. Ashbery sent him what he’d been working on, which was published as The Tennis Court Oath in 1962. It is opaque, even by Mr. Ashbery’s standards. The poem “Leaving the Atocha Station,” partly inspired by a trip to Spain with O’Hara, is essentially formless, and filled with the prose equivalent of John Cage’s long pauses:
The worn stool blazing pigeons from the roof
driving tractor to squash
Leaving the Atocha Station steel
infected bumps the screws
abolished top ill-lit
scarecrow falls Time, progress and good sense …
It reads as if certain words and phrases have been deliberately deleted, but Mr. Ashbery told me it was mostly random. The result is like being in a busy foreign city where you don’t know the language, and picking up bits and pieces of conversations. The book’s status has risen in recent years—the poet Ben Lerner named his celebrated first novel after “Leaving the Atocha Station” (he wrote in e-mail to me that the first time he read Mr. Ashbery, “It was like oxygen flooded the room”)—but the initial reviews of The Tennis Court Oath were uniformly negative. Famously, J.W. Hughes called Mr. Ashbery “the Doris Day of modernist poetry.”
“I’m not sure what I expected to happen,” Mr. Ashbery said. “I realized it was very strange and not like anything people construed as poetry.”
Just before the book was published, Mr. Ashbery visited the famous French astrologer Andre Barbault. He asked him if the book would be a success. Mr. Barbault looked at his charts and said, “Ce n’est pas le bon moment encore.” It’s not the right time yet.
In 1963, when he retuned to America, everything had changed. For one thing, there were poetry readings everywhere in New York. The Beats had arrived, and were being lumped in with the New York School. Mr. Ashbery found that his stature had risen. On September 16, 1963, he gave his first reading at the Living Theater. Koch introduced him by saying, “He’s one of the best poets now alive. My own opinion is that he is writing the best poetry that anybody now is writing in the English language.”
He returned to France and started working on his first important long work, “The Skaters.” He composed it on a typewriter, which became his preferred method of writing. The poem’s lines were so long that he couldn’t remember the end of one by the time he got to it, but he could type faster than he could write longhand. In France, he was living with the poet Pierre Martory and writing art criticism for the International Herald Tribune. He was refining the style of The Tennis Court Oath, making poems that were about reading the poems in question. They were loaded with mysterious antecedents and elusive imagery, but the work also became very readable. (“The Skaters” has a hilarious moment of transition that acts like a kind of manifesto: “This city. Is the death of the cube repeated. Or in the musical album./It is time now for a general understanding of the meaning of all this.”)
By 1965, he was back in New York for good—against his will. He didn’t want to leave Mr. Martory, but his father had died and there wasn’t anyone to take care of his mother. He had written about Andy Warhol’s first show in Paris, and when he returned to America, Warhol threw him a big party at the Factory on 47th Street. Not long after he came back, in 1966, O’Hara died in an accident on Fire Island. Unlike Mr. Ashbery, he hadn’t lived long enough to witness his influence on American writing.
“Grove Press had let Meditations in an Emergency go out of print, and as soon as he died, they had rushed it back into print,” Mr. Ashbery told me. “What I’m saying is Frank had become well-known to a sort of smaller poetry public, but not until he died—tragically—did he become the kind of eminence that he is now. And when somebody dies tragically, somehow the legend becomes bigger. In fact, Brad Gooch’s biography seemed to imply his death was part of an inexorable fall from grace. That’s not true at all.”
Another reason Mr. Ashbery returned to the States was that Thomas Hess, recently named the editor in chief at ARTnews, told him he could have the executive editor gig at the publication. He went on to work as the art critic for New York magazine in the late ’70s, and then, in 1980, for Newsweek. This meant he was essentially creating a new American avant-garde in his spare time. He’d write lines like, “Why must it always end this way? A dais with woman reading, with the ruckus of her hair/And all that is unsaid about her pulling us back to her, with her/Into the silence that night alone can’t explain” and follow them up with a bitchy review calling William-Adolphe Bouguereau “the Pooh Bah of nineteenth-century academicians.”
“I got off some nice wisecracks once in a while,” Mr. Ashbery told me. “But it got really scary. I’d have to write an article that the next week would be seen by thousands of people about something that I really didn’t know anything about. So I was doing a lot of on-the-job training. I felt compelled to write about certain exhibitions that seemed important, even if I didn’t know anything. The worst one of all was a show at the Met of Chinese bronzes. I didn’t know anything about that, and I still don’t.”
He was also teaching in the creative writing department at Brooklyn College, and for the most part not enjoying it. At one point he thought he would have a nervous breakdown. In those days, before his 1975 collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the National Book Critics Circle Award, he was still mostly obscure. One student asked him if he was the same John Ashbery who wrote about art. But at least one writer, John Yau, went to Brooklyn College in order to study with him. When Mr. Ashbery read his work, he said, ‘Oh, we have a live one.’
“I remember the first class,” Mr. Yau told me. “He said we should translate something. It’s always interesting to translate from a language we didn’t know, he said. So I thought we were going to do it by sound. You figure out what it sounds like and you approximate what the English word is. Instead, he handed out a couple pages of Egyptian hieroglyphics.”
Mr. Yau became Mr. Ashbery’s protégé. He taught Mr. Yau how to write poetry and brought him into the art world. Mr. Ashbery told him that you could praise an artist and be critical of him or her at the same time. He told Mr. Yau what O’Hara had told him, that you don’t use one artist to beat up another. He’d take him to openings and introduce him to David Hockney or Sonia Orwell. Mr. Yau said that discovering Mr. Ashbery’s poems in college was “like the first time you see a Godard movie when you’re 19. You just go, ‘Huh.’ And it never leaves you.”
Excerpted from The New York Observer, January 2001