The Luscious Dependability of Chocolate Shrimps
photograph copyright Justine Kurland image courtesy Frieze
'One in cotton kimono, one a gazelle...'
adapted from the words of W. B. Yeats
Michael Glover in conversation with JOHN ASHBERY
This conversation took place in an unlovely hotel in Russell Square, Bloomsbury. John Ashbery told me later that he was probably thrilled by the prospect of staying there because, many years before, he had read Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and Amelia Sedley had lived in Russell Square. As a young and untravelled reader, he was always trying to imagine what London must be like. Many of his imaginings were based on scenes from that book. He once asked an English friend about Brompton. 'Oh John, I don't think you'd much care for Brompton,' came the acidulous response. When he finally got there, it seemed very chic. The final clarification relates to Edward Lear. 'Regarding "How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear,"' Mr Ashbery writes, 'I've noticed recently that a restaurant in New York was serving shrimp with chocolate, so Lear's "chocolate shrimps from the mill" was a self-fulfilling prophecy.'
May I speak to Mr John Ashbery please? I ask the receptionist in the lobby of the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square. It's mid-morning on a late summer's day, and there's a good deal of carefree chatter swirling about that hotel lobby. Not in Mr Ashbery's room though. The telephone rings and rings in the temporary domicile of the absentee poet.
So they page him. Then, all of a sudden, I see Mr Ashbery himself just a few yards away from me, limping out of the restaurant at quite a speed, moving towards the revolving street door. I call his name. He swivels towards me. 'How nice to see you,' he says, widening his eyes. He looks genial, kindly, and mildly confused. He smiles, showing me his gappy top teeth, and offers me coffee. He hasn't quite finished dealing with the toast and the marmalade, he explains, leading me back to the breakfast table.
'Where shall we do the interview?' he asks, picking up some toast from the floor.
I inspect - and reject - the balcony overlooking the white cocktail piano. Pleasingly dreamy notes are floating up from it. I would have quite liked that, he says, slightly ruefully, when I tell him my decision. Instead, we settle for the Business Centre - a tiny, L-shaped, see-into-and-out-of space behind the reception desk with a couple of fax machines, the fiercest air conditioner imaginable, and a lockable door.
Much too cold for a seventy-year-old New York poet though. When I lead him in there, he shivers. 'I brought the wrong clothes as usual,' he says, 'just two linen jackets…' So I lend him my own. 'I must remember to give you this technicolor dream coat back,' he says as he wrestles his long arms into the short sleeves.
John Ashbery has just been in Berlin, reading for seven-and-half minutes. That's what they flew him over for. 'It was a single night of non-stop poetry, and we each had fifteen minutes,' he explains, 'but seven and a half of those precious minutes were taken up with the German translator.'
There was one other English-language poet present, but he was in bed by the time she got her moment in the sun.
He's had more books translated into German than any other language. I ask him what the Germans get out of his work.
'They've never said,' he replies.
I ask him whether he enjoys the experience of reading out loud, and whether it nourishes him - or his poetry - in some way. He looks psychologically burdened by the question, hesitant, diffident, as if he's been gently encouraged to start inching his way along a particularly narrow diving board that's way out at sea. As now, he regularly punctuates his statements with sighs.
'Well, I rather enjoy the idea that someone's invited me to read, and that people have come to hear me - this is what I'd always wanted, I suppose! And I don't get especially uncomfortable when I do it… I don't especially enjoy it either because it's like a performance when you can always hit a wrong note. I like it because it's proof that what I'm doing is not of interest to no one...I'm still not entirely sure of this though...'
Why such a near overwhelming burden of self-doubt? I ask myself. One of the difficulties is the sheer strangeness of the work. No one has ever doubted this though. And John Ashbery has never sought to claim otherwise. I try to tackle this head on by pulling out a copy of Wakefulness, a book published in the late 1990s. Do you remember a poem called 'A French Stamp'? I ask him. No, he doesn't remember it, not especially. Nor can he remember any of his poems by heart.
I open the book and show it to him. He nods. It's one of his all right.
A French Stamp
Of handedness and the Brothers Handedness,
too often that tale had been told by Yore,
fifth-century scribe. He liked inking in details.
If one is a cigarette lighter
that's lonely, which is lonely. Or a tricycle
coasting in gales, there is a secret satisfaction
fins emulate. Here, keep my scalp,
I'm seeing a pattern here, divestiture of some knave.
It was likely to be our last onus, this plaid scarecrow
out of a Braille encyclopedia. Hurry with the milk,
be here. Fortune placed tots in escrow.. Good to monitor 'em,
go with the feed. In Manhattan merely
two minutes to two, moonlit torso returns. Sheesh.
Some abbey's got him. Let Fido lick
Last year's olive branch. I'm outta here.
I told you, no way, it's dorsal.
'If a new reader were to open the book at this poem, and say: "Mr Ashbery, this is stranger than I had ever imagined any poem to be. Where do I begin? Can you lead me into it, please?" What would you say to that?'
'Well,' says John, staring and staring at his handiwork, 'I'm frequently asked that question, and… I'd just tell him to sort of read it if it seems to interest him, and not worry about what it means. Perhaps it will all mean something when he's finished - or some time later….'
And what sort of meaning would that be if and when the reader finally chanced upon it?
He sighs with a heartfelt, let-this-cup-pass-from-me-Lord sigh. 'It's very hard for me to say since I'm not the reader, you see. I often wish I could have a perspective on my own work. We all long to see ourselves as others see us - which, unfortunately, is not possible. Or perhaps fortunately…'
And so we look at the poem together.
'Aah…I think one might think of the Brothers Evenhandedness as being something out of a Grimm fairy tale. And it's a French stamp, so perhaps that connects with a childhood recollection of a stamp collection, as would Grimms' fairy tales…And 'Yore' is a word we also associate with early readings of fairy tales…Aah…If one is a cigarette lighter, that's lonely…. - especially these days when people don't use them very much…. Or a tricycle coasting in gales… perhaps refers to some ridiculously simple machine, that…fins emulate…Perhaps fins from nearby sharks where the tricycle is coasting…'
Finger on the line, he glances up at me. 'You don't want me to go through the whole thing, tell you what it might mean?'
Of course not, I tell him. I just wanted him to give the reader a key with which to begin to unlock what struck me on first and second reading as a fairly stubborn door.
'And if you had the capacity to stand back from yourself and all this work of nearly half a century,' I ask him, 'how would you describe yourself?'
'Isn't it Empson who once said: "If I could tell you, I would let you know…" Or was it Auden who said that?' Neither of us is quite sure.
Just then someone thumps on the door. 'Give us half an hour,' I mouth through the glass, pointing at my watch, 'and then this will be a Business Centre again.'
'What sort of a poet are you then, Mr Ashbery?'
'Very modern,' he replies, baldly.
'That the poetry's difficult to understand, and people feel about it like they did when they saw the first Picasso of the woman with two heads or four ears or something…'
Did that mean that it was just a matter of time? That it would come to seem less difficult by and by, as Picasso has?
The self-deprecation returns. 'I don't know though. You see, this is all out of my hands. I write the way I can, and the way it comes to me, and hope that someone will feel like trying to make something of it. Apparently a lot of people…like it since I do get invited here and there, and get them published….'
His look seems to say: aren't you here now because I may be worth speaking to? I reassure him that people do like the work, me included. And, yes, that's precisely why we are here, just the two of us, locked in, yattering, in this freezing, trumped-up, cupboard-like space absurdly misnamed a Business Centre.
'But what is it?' he goes on. 'I'd like to know myself.'
Unfortunately, no one knocks at the door to tell us definitively, so we just stare at each other for a second or two. Then John continues.
'Roussel once said that in his work everything was invented. There was nothing that was real. I think that could be said of my work too. It has a factitious, man-made quality. Not a poetry of ideas. Not a poetry of place. Something created of and for itself…I don't know why the urge to do that exists - but to create something that's outside of me, what Wallace Stevens would call a completely new set of objects, is always the urge that I've had when I'm writing, rather than to tell about myself and my various tragic and less tragic experiences in life…'
He laughs at himself mock-balefully.
'Isn't music to be envied for the fact that it does not have to describe itself? If you use language, then you are expected to use language to describe what goes on in language. You don't use notes to explain notes. Music is enviably set apart from this problem.'
'I've always felt that I was a frustrated composer who was really trying to do with words what musicians are, luckily for them, able to do with notes. They don't have to explain themselves, but their music does mean something, and it means something very important in many cases. That kind of importance of meaning that's beyond expression in words is what I've always been attracted to. It's rather strange too because I was once arguing with a French translator - we were going over a poem of mine that he had done, and he kept saying 'but you can't say that in French!' It occurred to me that the things you couldn't say in French were precisely the things that I wanted to say. I'm not the only person who's been told this. Heine in the nineteenth century said that the French were always saying: 'Ca ne peut pas se dire en francais!' - that can't be said in French…'
'Didn't you once say that French lacked chiaroscuro?'
'Yes. It's too crystalline and bright. Except for a few poets who've gone beyond - like Rimbaud. Even the Surrealists… You cant say there are any chiaroscuro effects in a poem by Paul Eluard…'
'You write to music. Do you always have music playing when you write?'
'Do you choose particular music?'
'Yes, I do. It varies as time goes on. Sometimes I'm interested in a particular period. About the time of April Galleons, I was listening to late nineteenth-century post-
romantic music by obscure composers like Franz Schmidt and Sergei Taneyev. And then later on there was an Italian composer called Giacinto Scelsi. Much of his work is sound, which could have been produced electronically, but was usually done with instruments…' We meditate together on that possibility for a moment or two. 'Lately, I've been listening to Stefan Wolpe, the German-American who influenced Cage and also taught at Black Mountain…'
'You quote him in Wakefulness, don't you?'
'Yes, and unfortunately I get his name wrong. It came out Stepan…I guess I must have been thinking of Steppenwolf or something like that…'
'Even more intriguing for the critics…'
'It bothered me so much because my spelling is usually so good…'
'I was a spelling champion when I was a kid, and now it's a part of everything that's leaving me…'
I try to distract him from the overlong contemplation of such melancholy possibilities by bringing the subject back to music.
'And the ones you've just mentioned, those were the kinds of composers you were listening to during the composition of Wakefulness?'
'Those and others…. I've also been slipping back into obscure late nineteenth-century composers such as d'Albert, Eugene d'Albert…' - he pronounces the name with a lovely meticulousness - 'who, in spite of his name, was actually Glaswegian. He wrote a goregeous, trashy piano concerto…'
'So how does a poem - any poem - generally begin?'
'Add to the list Dominic Muldowney… All I have is a piano concerto and a saxophone concerto. What was the question?'
'How does a poem - any poem - generally begin?'
'Very often I've accumulated a small handful of phrases and words that suddenly seem new to me, that mean something I hadn't thought of before, and I carry these around, and frequently when I write I'll take one of these lines and see where it leads, and sometime it's a question of connecting them, though the words have of course no connection. The process, this movement by a sort of circuitous path, is a little like a board game perhaps, parcheesi or something…'
'How does Parcheesi work?'
'Parcheesi is a nineteenth-century board game where you have to get all your counters into the middle square. I was thinking there's a French game, the game of the goose, Le Jeu de l'Oie, which has a more winding path and where you can be sent back home by your opponent or you can suddenly make a leap. When I talk about connecting or building a poem, that's frequently the way it seems to happen for me. I often though discard the original line I began with. It no longer does when I've finished - but what comes about because of it does seem so.'
He looks slightly puzzled by his own intricate musings.
'May I read you something that a critic recently wrote about your work?' He nods and braces himself. "Ashbery's way is self-consciously 'other than this', and - once set in motion out of the need to be so - always striving to be other than its own otherness as part and parcel of what it means to go on…" What do you make of that sort of pretentious guff? Does it alarm you?'
'You'd have to read it again.'
I do so. He listens intently.
'I'd have to know what came just before. What's "this," for example? It sounds as though it might be on target. Certainly going on is what's most important and most difficult to achieve, and there's certainly an awareness in me of what's coming up next, what's just around the corner in the poem. I don't know myself….'
'You once called your poems a cabinet of curios,' I remind him. That amuses him. That cheers him up a lot. 'Speaking of which, you are a great collector of curios, aren't you? Don't you collect vomit bags from aeroplanes?'
'I did, but I gave that up.'
'You gave them away?'
'No. No one seemed to want them. I probably still have them somewhere, but I didn't know what to do with them. I don't vomit that often. I still collect little shoes though, any kind - metal, wood, plastic. I must show you my shoe collection.'
'Your last book has a poem which includes this line: "For generations I went to bed because I was asleep." That strikes me as pure Nonsense in the tradition of Edward Lear… Would you agree?'
'What was the line?'
'"For generations I went to bed because I was asleep."'
'I don't remember writing that. It's a sort of parody of the opening line of Proust, I suppose… As for Lear, well it just doesn't seem like Nonsense to me. The owl and the pussycat seem like real people to me, and I'm happy for them to be sailing away in their beautiful pea-green boat. One of my favourite poems is "How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear". I often wish I'd written that, and sometimes I think perhaps I did…'
'Can we talk about the poem in Wakefulness in which every line is from a poem by someone else?'
'It's called a cento, you know. I don't know much about the form except it's in a book of prosody, and I think it's pronounced 'sento' rather than 'chento'. I was just reading a book by Borges in which he mentions "the endless Byzantine centos…" Apparently in Byzantium - if what he said was true - it was popular to write centos that were hundreds - perhaps thousands! - of lines long. It's a patchwork. I wrote one in the early '60s called 'To a Waterfowl'. Someone who was always investigating my poems with a magnifying glass and slide rule discovered that I used one line in both of them - after a period of thirty years: 'obscurest night involved the sky'… which is either Collins or Cowper. It's about an explorer who drowned.'
'You used the same line twice?'
'Yes, someone thought it was one of my little tricks, but it was just a mistake.'
'When you think of the idea of America, does it fill you with melancholy?''I'm quite fond of America, with all its warts. There's so much of everything there that one can always find something that one likes. There are probably more horrible things and more in-between things and more good things in America than elsewhere.'
'How does your reputation stand now over there?'
It's hard for me to know. I felt I thought I'd maybe peaked in America the last time I spoke to you. Now I find I may be creeping up again. The New York Times - which ignored my books for the last twelve years - they almost gave up reviewing poetry - they're doing it a bit more now - published a long and flattering article, but it was by an Englishman. In England, people are always saying I'm not appreciated here - much more so in America…'
Then we talk about the 70th birthday non-celebrations. Last year, a couple of days before the great day, a newspaper in England printed a long, adulatory piece about him, mentioning the birthday, and how this would precipitate vast festivals and celebrations throughout the USA. Beacons would be lit on hill tops. And John Ashbery himself would be observing all this through a pair of presentation Zeiss binoculars. It wasn't to be. Absolutely nothing occurred.
'I never even got a birthday card from my editor. And there was no other press mention, anywhere, of that momentous milestone, millstone…'
And what was coming next from the pen of Mr Ashbery? Some memoirs perhaps?
'Oh no,' he replies, 'First of all I haven't done anything interesting, and most of the things I have done wouldn't bear close inspection…'
'What sorts of things were those?'
'I'd rather not say.'
As in poetry, so in life.