Speaking in Tongues
An Interview with John Ashbery by Caroline Blyth
John Ashbery has been described as the most important American poet since Lowell. He is certainly the most celebrated. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), probably his best-known collection, won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book award and the National Book Critics' Award; Ashbery, the poets John Ash and Kenneth Koch, now form the distinguished triumvirate of the "New York School". But he has gained an equally formidable reputation as an art critic, and produced journalism, translations and prosody, as well as a novel (co-written with James Schuyler) A Nest of Ninnies, and several plays. In Oxford recently during the second Blackwells Literary Festival to read from his latest book-length poem, Flow Chart, we met in the formal surroundings of Blackwell's Board Room. His conversation, however, soon made it clear that he remains, somewhat disconcertingly, a writer with more sense of the occasional than of the occasion.
I'd like to begin with form, and the quotation from Busoni 's Essence of Music which you cited in your lecture "The Invisible Avant-Garde" at The Yale Art School in May 1968:
I am a worshipper of form - but I demand - no! The organism of art demands - that every idea fashion its own form for itself ... the organism - not I - revolts against having one single form for ideas ...
The flexibility of your own style, in a dazzling variety of genres, has always been concerned with the evolution of literary forms; do you still recognize what Busoni says as a point of contact?
It seems to sum up almost everything I have to say on the subject, almost I'm not a formal poet in the sense that I write sonnct sequences and odes and so on, and the forms that I do use are really marginally considered to be forms, such as pantuns and sestinas which are kind of eccentricities ... and are more constricting than they are anything else. They don't sort of set the poetic Spirit free but rather tie it down - and so it has to struggle free. So my idea of form, though I have one, is something very suggestive, very subjective, and mayor may not include one or other of those very constricting forms that I've mentioned. Or it may be entirely free form ....
As far as it is free form, your work's trajectory distinguishes you from the Black Mountain Group of Poets, however. I'm thinking of Edward Dorn, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan. Where do you see your poetry in relation to the 'open form' poetics Charles Olsen suggests in his 1950 manifesto on "Projective Verse": the idea that, 'a poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it... by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader'?
There are many important contemporary American poets whom I haven't read, and I probably never will, not because I might not like them, but because I tend to read what I think will give me ideas for my own poetry, which very frequently isn't even poetry. I've never really paid any attention to Projective Verse, I've never understood what it means and have no idea what Olson's theory of 'breath' and 'field' and all that means ... I'm totally anti-theoretical. I happen to like Robert Creeley's poetry a great deal, but I've never done any of the homework on the Black Mountain School that one is perhaps expected to do before one approaches someone like him. Somewhat the same with Duncan: I read him with great fascination sometimes, but I'm really baffled, and feel the way that many critics seem to feel about my work. I am conscious of not 'getting it' yet, but not to the point where I don't like not 'getting it'. I don't really keep up with the American poetry scene, and there are a few questions I decline to answer - such as, "What do you think of the poetry in the country you happen to be in now?" I was in Macedonia last year and was asked to give my opinion on contemporary Macedonian poetry. I think it was at that point that something snapped. In Poland once I was asked about my opinion of contemporary Polish poetry, and I said that I liked Milosz and 'Herbert'. which were the only names that came readily to mind .... Well, I had read Milosz, but I hadn't read Zbigniew Herbert, and someone in the audience half challenged me to say why I liked Herbert. I was very embarrassed to admit that I hadn't read him but I had read George Herbert and liked his poetry very much; which didn't get a chuckle. I've never seen a stonier array of faces in my life ....
Your writing seems to entertain a fascination with exits and entrances: how extensive or conscious a project is this? "\7
I don't create language: that would be really presumptuous of me. I write without any preconception of what I'm going to write ... I haven't really meditated in advance, which is a kind of, I suppose, film strip of whatever may be happening in my thoughts.
The terms used to describe poetry's techniques - images, tonalities, or atonalities - are always changing; which related terms do you see your own poetry exploring?
Well, those questions are always so difficult - there are always those who insist that you can't possible equate one branch of the arts with another. For me, poetry is very much the time that it takes to unroll, the way music does. That gives the sense of it to me - it's not a static, contemplatable thing like a painting or a piece of sculPture. You have to be remembering and at the same time 'second-guessing' what's about to come as you experience it.
You emerge from all your work as a nomadic subject. In connection with Jackson Pollock, you've spoken of the occurrence of art as: a gamble against terrific odds ... there was a just a possibility that he [Pollock] wasn't an artist at all, that he had spent his life 'toiling up the wrong road to Art', as Flaubert said of Zola. But this very real possibility is paradoxically just what makes the tremendous excitement of his work .... Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful. Have you ever had any doubts about the risky business of poetry?
Oh, constantly, yes. I have no idea as to whether my work has any validity or not, and fortunately it's not for me to say - or unfortunately, perhaps. With someone like Pollock, who knows what people will think of him in a hundred years' time? When I first saw his work I thought he was silly, and: 'Why are people taking this sort of thing seriously?' And then I gradually saw the light, at least I think it's the light - the Bible says somewhere, 'Beware the light in you is not darkness': one can never be sure that it isn't. And as for judging my own work, I must - what is it they say in America? - 'set down due conflict of interest'.
This seems to touch on what Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books [who has just published Ashbery's translation of the French Surrealist poet Pierre Reverdy] calls the 'gentility principle'. Your work is often fascinated by moments of social unacceptability, of beauty and recklessness, in others: do you seek to shock, to be unacceptable yourself?
That's certainly not my principal aim. I would like very much to be accepted, and I certainly am at the opposite pole from, say, the Dadaists, who deliberately tried to outrage people, and make fun of people who were looking for Art. At the same time I don't want to write in any other way than the way that comes to me, even if it does puzzle and anger some people.
You've described R.B.Kitaj, one of your favourite painters, as 'a certain kind of American whose sensibility had to extricate iLself from American in order to realise itself'.
The examples are obvious: Kitaj, Pound, James, Eliot... famous expatriates ... Whistler, too; and there are others who would benefit by staying home, and others - such as myself - who I think have benefited by living away for quite a long time and then returning. Once I got readjusted I felt that I had perhaps learned what it was that I had wanted to find out by going Lo Europe, and living there for a while ....
What sort of things?
The main thing is that before you go there you feel your life is incomplete, because you haven't really seen a castle, or stood at the edge of the Seine: you've just read about these things in books, and most of your knowledge is on paper. Once one has done this one can relax, and no maLLer how little you have taken in, it kind of releases the pressure. Kenneth Koch mentioned once that Frank O'Hara became much less grouchy after he got back from Europe to New York, and he attributed it to this valve that releases the anxiety of not knowing Europe personally, in the flesh. Even if you don't stay there, when you get back you know that it's really there, and you can do the work that you did before - without feeling inferior or having been closeted in America.
Your link with America remains inextricable, though.
Well, I don't think now I could live anywhere else, mainly because of my long-standing relationships, which wouldn't travel. Life is somehow 'over there' now. And it's not that it's such a beautiful or inspiring place, but it's where I happen to be from. It's hard to deracinate oneself completely.
And it's contemporary America which continues to provide what you described in Three Poems (1970) as 'the confusion of an eternally misapplied present'? It seems an animating circuit both of your writing and of your working relationship with the world.
I have a line somewhere in Flow Chart that I stole from some English poet, and I can no longer remember where it came from, but it's: Whatever men are doing shall germ the motley subject of my page. Today is what we construe to be Time ... I mean it's impossible to imagine Time as anything other than the moment that we happen to be in - which is of course absurd: we really should try to do otherwise. But nevertheless the sort of matrix that we're in right now is our metaphor for time, and in a lot of places in my poetry I think I'm calling attention to the absurdity of it, or the pathos of it, perhaps.
I'd like to move on now to your translations. You have translated French Surrealist poetry, notably Max Jacob and Pierre Reverdy. You have also translated the Polish poct Piotr Sommer. What is your attraction to translation, and are there any other poets whose work you would like to translate?
I don't have any theory of translation, I just do it. I haven't translated that much, mainly because I haven't had the leisure to do that and write poetry too. If I had an independent income I would do a lot more translating than I have ... I recently translated an unfinished novel by Raymond Roussel which should by published here by Atlas Press, and Roussel is one of the writers that I've always been really fascinated by. He was one of the hardest tasks I ever did, but I got a great deal of pleasure out of doing it and trying to at least imitate the crazy succinctness of his writing. And I would love to do more Reverdy ... but, since I also have to do things to make a living, I use my writing time mainly for writing rather than translating.
Yet you've said: 'I seem to write best when my time isn't my own'.
Well, I've recently found that's not so true, when I had the luxury of five years on a MacArthur Foundation Fellowshi p. For the first time in my life, I had time to just write, and that's when I wrote Flow Chart. Finally I had a really long, empty period of time in front of me which I realised I could use, and did. I hope to find another one of these before it's too late.
Flow Chart is your longest poem to date, and I was intrigued by its treatment of history - the way it explores forms of voice and the continuity of an individual subject through all the 'intersecting itineraries' that constitute that subject's complex genealogies. You wrote in Three Poems that:
The facts of history have been too well rehearsed (I'm speaking needless to say not of written history but the oral kind that goes on in you without you having to do anything about it).
I wonder now, after Flow Chart, how you'd respond to Pound's definition of the epic as a 'poem including history'?
I don't think my poem includes any history, and Pound is totally antipathetic to me. That statement might be one of the reasons why he is. And all of his' statements' ... I get very angry when people tell me what I'm supposed to do when I'm writing or what I'm supposed to feel when I'm reading poetry. I once said to Helen Vendler, 'Why is it that I do like Pound's early things - the Chinese translations and "Mauberley" I like very much- but Ijust can't read the Cantos? It's not because they're unreadable, because I'm unreadable too, so why can't I read him?' And she said, 'It's perfectly all right, only Fascists like Pound.' I don't know whether this is true or not, but there might be something in it: there was a bossiness that was there from the very beginning: the notion of 'Kultur' , and what you have to read to be able to consider yourself cultivated, the ABC of whatever it is ....
Can you say something more about unreadability?
I find Pound 'unreadable', not because his work is very difficult but because I find it pretentious. Someone like Pound turns off that desire right at the beginning. My own poetry is certainly highly elliptical, and everybody says it's obscure, so perhaps it is; but there is a poetry that makes me want to go on and discover what it means, like when I see the name HOlderlin on the cover - the name of what happens to be my favourite poet, I think. And certainly his poetry is by no means easy, but he gives you the desire to go on and find out what it is he's talking about. That's what I would like my poetry to do.
[The editor thanks Blackwells for their cooperation in hosting the interview. Flow Chart is published by Carcanet at £16.95.]