in conversation with John Tranter
John Ashbery (in New York) was interviewed by John Tranter (in Sydney), in May 1988. This interview was edited by John Tranter, and broadcast on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National program ‘Radio Helicon’, on Sunday 19 June 1988, from 8.15 to 10.00 p.m., with other material. This piece is about three thousand words or ten printed pages long.
[ John Ashbery reads the poem ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’ ]
John Tranter:[ brief introduction ]
[ John Ashbery reads the poems ‘Two Scenes’, ‘Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers’, and ‘Some Trees’ (which was written, he says, in 1948). ]
John Tranter: ... I asked John Ashbery how he came to publish Some Trees, his first book, in 1956.
John Ashbery: Let’s see... it was published when I was 28... and some of the poems were dated from my nineteenth year. I didn’t expect that I would ever have a book published. When I decided to submit this manuscript to the Yale Series of Younger Poets I put together what I thought were the best ones of what I had written, and I sent them to the Yale University Press.
I was going to mention The Tennis Court Oath, which was the second book you published. I think it interested a lot of readers because it was so hard to read. Would you like to talk about...
... about how you came to write that...
It antagonised a lot of readers.
Let’s listen now to two poems that illustrate the shift in technique that John Ashbery was talking about. ‘Thoughts of a Young Girl’ was an early poem in the second book The Tennis Court Oath, and it looks back to the style of his early work, as well as echoing the French conversation lesson. Then, the poem ‘Last Month’, more daring, and because of its fractured surface, a more difficult poem. John Ashbery.
This was the first poem I wrote after I went to France on a Fullbright scholarship in 1955, and in fact it was a long time really before I wrote anything else. I hadn’t yet begun to adjust to living in a new country and after this poem came along, I proceeded to do so, and eventually did, I think.
[ John Ashbery reads the poems ‘Thoughts of a Young Girl’ and ‘Last Month’. ]
I was wondering if the fact that you were away from America and away from the magazines and reviewers and friends and so on, whether that may have had something to do with the fact that you felt you could go right out on a limb.
Yes, I think it did. My idea probably was ‘Well, if nobody’s listening, then why not go ahead and talk to myself, and see what I get out of it.’
What did the reviewers say about the book?
Well that was even... the reception was even... more minimal and more hostile that that of the first book. I remember a couple of reviews. One was by the poet Samuel French Morse, who actually edited Stevens’ posthumous books, who said that I had given the reader stones instead of bread.
A very unkind remark.
(laughs) Yes, I thought so.
John Ashbery and John Tranter,
When you were in Paris, you began to write for Art News. I was going to ask you about the connection between painting and poetry in New York during the fifties. People have said that the New York School poets wrote the way they do because they wanted to write like the painters of the time painted. That’s not quite true, of course, but I think there is a link there, somewhere.
Yeah. There certainly is in the case of O’Hara. I, on the other hand, was not as involved in the art scene as he was. I was at somewhat of a remove, and I wasn’t that... although I did go to some exhibitions, and probably was influenced by the zeitgeist of Abstract Expressionism, that you could go ahead and do whatever you wanted to do, I didn’t ever think of myself as a critic, and particularly an art critic. But after I’d lived in France for two years I came back and spent a winter in New York, and was very short of cash. I was taking some graduate courses in French literature at New York University. And so I began to review for Art News at that time. It seems as though the more I tried to get out of this line of work, the more I got wedged into it. A friend of mine, Harry Mathews, the novelist, told me once that I seemed to have backed into an excellent career as an art critic.
You’ve taught at Brooklyn College for some time.
How do you like doing that? Do you teach writing, or do you teach reading?
Well, uh, I don’t really like it very much. I now only teach creative writing courses. I taught some literature courses but I didn’t like that very much. In fact I don’t really like teaching at all. I hate... I’ve always tried to avoid telling people what to do. So it’s rather ironical that I’ve ended up being both a critic and a teacher, and am forced to assume this role. But I don’t feel that I in most cases really know what people should do, whether they’re artists or students, and it’s a bit of a strain having to pretend that I do know.
You mentioned, when we were talking some years ago, that you’d discovered the Australian poet Ern Malley in the 1940s. Was it in the 1940s that you’d discovered his writing?
Well it was actually written up in Time Magazine, the hoax that was successfully played on... I think... the editor of Angry Penguins, the name of the magazine, that first published the work of your... your non-existent modern poet. I think it was the first summer I was at Harvard as a student, and I discovered a wonderful bookstore there where I could get modern poetry — which I’d never been able to lay my hands on very much until then — and they had the original edition of The Darkening Ecliptic with the Sidney Nolan cover.
[The Ern Malley hoax
is discussed, and the Sidney Nolan cover
I always had a taste for sort of wild experimental poetry — of which there really wasn’t very much in English in America at the time — and this poet suited me very well. I agree whole-heartedly with Reed’s [Sir Herbert Reed’s] revised estimate of it. I just wish there were some more of his books around. (laughs)
Perhaps you could write some... sequels?
I think perhaps I have. (laughter)
Have you used the work in a teaching context?
Oh yes. I am obliged to give a final examination in my poetry writing course, which I’m always rather hard put to do, since we haven’t really studied anything. The students have been writing poems of varying degrees of merit, and though I give them reading lists they tend to ignore them, after first demanding them. And the way the course is set up there is no way of examining them on their reading. And anyway they shouldn’t have to pass an examination because they’re poets who are writing poetry, and I don’t like the idea of grading poems.
I was going to ask you if you’d like to talk about how you actually write a poem each day. What do you do?
I postpone it as long as possible, which is probably why I write in the late afternoon. I also think that my mind in the morning — though it might be fresher and have more ideas in it — is not as critical as it is later on in the day.
[ John Ashbery reads the poem ‘Forties Flick’ ]
‘Soonest Mended’. Ah, a couple of things about this poem, which in a way I feel is a kind of signature poem. If you know what I mean. I’ve often characterised it as my ‘One Size Fits All Confessional Poem’. Since it’s not really about me, but about — I guess it’s what Gertrude Stein called ‘everybody’s autobiography.’
[ John Ashbery reads the poem ‘Soonest Mended’ ]
‘And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name’. I really don’t know why I made the title that way. And in fact I question my having done so in the first line, which is ‘You can’t say it that way any more.’ So without more ado I’ll proceed to the poem.
[ John Ashbery reads the poem ‘And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name’ ]
I wrote that shortly after I began teaching, which I did relatively late in life, and found that I was constantly being asked by students what a poem was, and what it wasn’t, and why is this a poem and why is this not. And ah... I never really thought about that before. I’d written poems but it’d never occurred to me to question whether they were poems or whether other poems were or were not poems, so, suddenly, thinking about this, I wrote this poem, as well another one which is not in this collection called ‘What Is Poetry’.
[ John Ashbery reads the poems ‘My Erotic Double’, ‘Or in My Throat’, and ‘Purists Will Object’ ]
You can read another interview with John Ashbery, recorded in 1985, in this issue of Jacket.
J A C K E T # 2 Contents page
This material is copyright © John Ashbery, John Tranter and Jacket magazine 1988, 1997