WNET (Koch & Ashbery) – John Ashbery

[WNET film transcription – continuing from yesterday – Following Kenneth Koch, at approximately sixteen-and-a-quarter minutes in, a young John Ashbery is seen ]

JA: I met Kenneth (Koch) when I was first a student in Harvard in 1947 and I met Frank (O’Hara) a couple of years later. We all wound up in New York more or less by accident , and got to know other poets here like Barbara Guest, James Schuyler.. But I think our poetry is pretty independent of each other.

One critic has described John Ashbery as today’s (1966) most radically original American poet. Another description of his poetry is that he uses words much as a contemporary painter uses form and color, words chosen as conveyers of precise meaning, not as representations of sound. Born in Rochester, New York, and educated at Harvard, Columbia and New York University, John Ashbery has been the art critic for the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune and is currently an executive editor of ArtNews. His first book of poems published in 1953 contained drawings by the artist Jane Freilicher, whose studio this is.

“Jane was the first painter that I’d met in New York (through Kenneth Koch) and, I think perhaps the first who I felt..who’s work I felt had something to do with my own, since at that time.. (well, it didn’t yet, but after a while I began to think about it and it did it). She was painting very free, sort of expressionist portraits. And I liked very much the idea that you could seem to add or take away a great deal from them without it changing the whole thing very much which was a sort of reassuring state of mind for an artist to be in, I think.”

“In a way I’m trying to get meaning through perhaps unconventional methods, that is perhaps trying to influence the reader to see a different meaning through shape and the sound of the words. For instance, a word which might suggest another word but has absolutely nothing to do with it, therefore has a kind of heightened power of expression, which the reader, even when he’s not aware of it, somehow affects his impression of the poem.”

John Ashbery’s most recent collection of poems is the book Rivers and Mountains published in 1966 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. This is the first of twelve poems in the book.

[At approximately nineteen minutes in, John Ashbery begins reading] 

“This poem is called “These Lacustrine  Cities” – (lacustrine” means “pertaining to lakes,” like the lake-dwellers in the prehistoric age) – (“These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing/Into something forgetful, although angry with history…”…”Whose wind is desire starching a petal,/Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears”.)

This  (Turandot & Other Poems )  is my first pamphlet of poems that had illustrations by Jane Freilicher and the majority of these poems were reprinted in the book Some Trees, which is my first real book.

I’ll read a poem which I like quite a lot (altho’ I wrote it in about (19)53, possibly (19)52 “Popular Songs” ( “He continued to consult her for her beauty/ (The host gone to a longing grave)…”….”…And now silent as a group/ The actors prepare their first decline”).

In a way my poetry has sort of followed a circular route. This poem, which I think is one of the best of my early poems is not too unlike the ones I’m writing now, but I feel that things have undergone a change nevertheless which I’ll try to explain. When I was living in Paris for ten years I had first felt very much deprived of hearing American speech every day, which comes into my poetry quite a lot and it’s very vital to it . I certainly believe what Mallarmé says about “purifying the language of the tribe”, I always felt that was….. And, as a result, I felt my poetry, the first poetry I wrote in France was kind of anaemic and didn’t satisfy me at all. Then I began writing a sort of pulverizing speech and making what were in a way collages of words which had no relation to each other or which had no visible relation to each other. In fact, they were supposed to relate to each other,”

“And, I felt in a way I was isolating individual words for scrutiny of my own and hopefully for the reader, and it was my intention to get to the point where I would feel I were giving the same kind of attention to whole sentences, stanzas, and, then finally entire poems. And lately, having, I think, continued in this kind of experimentation to the point where I was getting something out of it, in my new poems, I am attempting to put things back together again, having, I hope, found out a little bit of the organization of my language. And what has happened, I’ve noticed, in these recent poems, is that they’ve been getting more and more abstract in the sense that, I don’t know, scenery, objects and people seem to be kind of disappearing and what it.. I’m involved in is trying to make concrete passing states of mind and mental things.”

One of the recent poems in the collection Rivers and Mountains is entited “A Blessing In Disguise” (“Yes,  they are alive and can have those colors…”And then I start getting this feeling of exhaltation”)

“Ths poem is called “Definition of Blue’, it’s quite a recent one published in the London Times Literary Supplement   – (”The rise of capitalism parallels the advance of romanticism/And the individual is dominant until the closeof the nineteenth century…”…….”…while, you, in this nether world, which could not be better/ Waken each morning tothe exact value of what you did and said which remains”)

JA: “I am against poetry being read out loud, as a matter of fact   (I know that sounds funny) . When I hear poems read out loud I really don’t get much and I have to see the poem and hear it in my mind in order for it to really mean something.”

In addition to the book Rivers and Mountains,  John Ashbery has published The Tennis Court Oath, Wesleyan University Press. 1962 and Some Trees, Yale Series of Younger Poets. 1956…  ”



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