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The by-ways of John Ashbery.


SUPPORTED BY A rail on castors, and requiring the administration of eye-drops by his friend, David Kermani (after a successful op for his cataracts), John Ashbery is nevertheless in fine form.  I am in Manhattan, paying him a visit, having not seen him for some 15 years. He is 86, with all organs intact, and his mind, as he says, is, as ever, ‘Sharp as a tack.’

The apartment is just as I remember it, with pride of place given to a painting by Jane Freilicher of her painter’s table with its pots and brushes and squiggles of ‘real’ paint: it’s a work I have always appreciated for the deft way it combines figuration with a logical passage of pure abstraction.

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I am served a delicious esoteric tea – Marco Polo from Mariage Frères – and more-ish cookies from Tate’s Bake Shop in Southampton NY, as we sit nattering about old times. Despite the eye-drops there is still that mischievous gleam. He plays me a movement in a string quartet by Ben Johnston which transitions from intense modernism to “Danny Boy.” I mention that I now dance tango to classical music as Tango Schumann – and it turns out we have both taken advantage of Liszt’s “Lugubrious Gondola” – I have danced to it, while he has the phrase in a poem.

‘…currently on show just round the corner at the Loretta Howard Gallery.’

We speak of poets we both admire – Rosanne Wasserman and Ilyassa Sequin to mention but two, and then he enthuses about others I have not heard of — Geoffrey Gatza, who runs a press called BlazeVOX out of Buffalo, and Todd Colby, who has a book called Tremble and Shine, from Soft Skull Press. His interest in the freshly innovative is as lively as it ever was. There’s a marvellous exhibition of the art and artefacts that he has collected over the course of his life which usually grace the rooms of his house in Hudson, John Ashbery: Poet among Things — currently on show just round the corner at the Loretta Howard Gallery.

As I get up to leave at 5.30, to allow the poet to devote the rest of the early evening to his writing, I recall his penchant for what he calls the by-ways of literature (and culture in general). This prompts me to dust off a unpublished essay I wrote back in 1994 – and I offer this with a few amendments as my homage to the poet who, in his fluidly abstract yet somehow down-to-earth way, has been ‘the soul of his age.’

…Ashbery admits to a preference for the “by-ways of literature”. He has said little about Shakespeare, Donne or Milton; indeed the only poet figuring in the approved canon to whom he readily concedes his appreciation is Wordsworth. There is a quietism about Wordsworth, and an ability to shape exceptional sentences out of the unexceptional, which can also be identified in the work of this modern American who is just as often identified as a post-modern.

He admires the sublime syntax of the Centuries of Thomas Traherne. He also enjoys the pastoral poetry of John Clare, the grotesquery of Thomas Lovell Beddoes and the wonderful descriptive verse of James Thomson, the poet of “The Seasons”. Considering the twentieth century, he is unimpressed by Eliot, does not share Auden’s predilection for a social poetry of issues, dislikes Frost and loathes Lowell, though he expresses admiration for John Wheelwright and for F. T. Prince. He also appreciates the poetry of Boris Pasternak, and he “mastered” at Columbia on the work of Henry Green.

I can sympathise with his enjoyment of literature’s supposed margins. My own favourite outsiders are William Drummond, who influenced Keats, and Richard Lovelace, who more or less wrote Yeats’s “Second Coming” (if you don’t believe me, read “Advice to My Best Brother”). George Meredith is another poet worthy of attention, and I like the novelists Daphne Rooke and John Hawkes.

Some years ago John Greening pointed me in the direction of The Seasons – so this is an appreciation shared by both Greening and Ashbery.

One is more able to make a personal fetish out of a “by-way”. If it impacts on one’s own work, the influence is less likely to be spotted or to have also affected the writing of others. It is like climbing the Long Mynd instead of Snowden: a by-way is something one can make one’s own. For enthusiasts of oblique literature there is a thrill to finding oneself deep in a book one is pretty certain no one else has dipped into for some considerable time. (On this note, there is a useful page on Facebook called Writers No One Reads“highlighting forgotten, neglected, abandoned, forsaken, unrecognized, unacknowledged, overshadowed, out-of-fashion, under-translated writers.” This website asks, “Has no one read your books? You are in good company.” I sense Ashbery would approve.)

‘…its fourth line a parenthesis which is interrupted by a parenthesis introduced by the eighth line: these continual asides lead us into the heart of the poem

OF COURSE ASHBERY’S by-ways take us much further afield than the writers aforementioned. He admires The Saragossa Manuscript by Count Jan Potocki, first published in St. Petersburg in 1804. This is a collection of “weird” tales constructed like a Russian doll, each tale splitting open to reveal the start of another. The construction resembles that employed by the oriental “novel of boxes”, of which there are examples in the “Thousand Nights and One Night”. The method has a bearing on the work of Raymond Roussel: it was used by Roussel as the constructive device for “Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique” (1932) — a long poem conceived as a single sentence, with its fourth line a parenthesis which is interrupted by a parenthesis introduced by the eighth line: these continual asides lead us into the heart of the poem; after which the parentheses close, with the first one achieving its appropriate conclusion in the penultimate line.

Ashbery is a pioneer of Roussel appreciation. He has translated his novella “In Havana”, and in his introduction to it, published in Atlas 7, he concludes:

Thus we are obliged to read these Chinese-box tales with the understanding that we are not being told all; that behind their polished surface an encrypted secret probably exists. I am reminded of the metaphor Henry James used in The Golden Bowl for the hidden relationship between the Prince and Charlotte as it appeared to Maggie Verver: that of an elaborate pagoda with no visible entrance. In Roussel’s case this persistent feeling of not knowing precisely what he is up to paradoxically adds to the potent spell of the writing…

While Ashbery’s work is less obsessively rule-laden than that of Roussel, the passage quoted adequately describes a feeling we may get from his own writing. Indeed, the poet has been bothered for several years by a demented person who is convinced that his verse contains messages meant only for him!

Not all that Ashbery writes presents us with an enigma; for he is a distinguished art-critic as well as a poet, and in his appreciative essays his meaning proves eminently tangible. In 1989, Carcanet published his Art Chronicles, spanning the years 1957 to 1987, under the title Reported Sightings (edited by David Bergman).

Whether chastising Breton for imposing a macho court etiquette on the surrealists, or acknowledging the literary side through mention of Rene Crevel or De Chirico’s novel Hebdomeros, Ashbery treads here with a non-partisan diffidence, using Gallicisms like stepping-stones. These tend towards the exotic — I particularly enjoy hantise and mise-au-net. True, in the earlier essays, the language may border on the flowery (Cornell’s boxes “embody the substance of dreams”): nevertheless, from the start, an eye for detail informs these observations.

At the outset, in Paris, as critic for the New York Herald Tribune, Ashbery was at pains to show his independence from a po-faced, literary reading of painting. Very much at home with fellow modernist emigres such as James Bishop, he was drawn to a certain privacy in art — using the novels of Roussel as a touchstone when looking at Cornell’s hermetic boxes. Nevertheless he could fashion a workmanlike essay on the painting of Yves Tanguy, stressing the quality of the colour as much as the surreal aspects.

For the poet, at least, Ashbery is the model of the art-critic. His manner is urbane, and he refers to Satie and to Wallace Stevens more often than to Cezanne. The melange of the arts evoked by his writing suggests a cafe-society sadly missing these days, now that art-mags are no longer modeled on the Paris Review but gleam at us from the racks, like trade-journals for the purveyance of some non-applied craft.

Baudelaire is his model, I feel, with his espousal of the workaday picto-journalism of Constantin Guys. But he trims Baudelaire of excess. It is the dream lying in the bosom of the ordinary” that he appreciates in this Frenchman – Guys was “the painter of modern life” for Baudelaire. He worked for The Illustrated London News. It is the artist’s scrupulous illustration of the everyday which gains praise from Ashbery, high priest of detachment from meaning, admirer of the indifference of Warhol and Arman. Such attention to ordinary matter stands apart from the mainstream as often as not.

Again I sense Ashbery’s enjoyment of the margins, and in his critical art-writing he appears to be seeking out equivalent by-ways among practitioners of visual form; expressing a respect for genre painting, esoteric abstractionists and still-life – as ever sensitive to obliquity. This is a connoisseur’s taste, an epicurean’s view of the 20th century mediated through the work of Chardin, as an extra-temporal reference — whose matière was also appreciated by Morandi.

Unashamedly, he devotes essays to eccentrics like Max Klinger; whose fantastic etchings include a series where a woman’s glove operates as the leitmotif; for Ashbery approves when the meaning is off-stage, and in its absence he picks over specimens of the bizarre, bringing in Carpaccio and Balthus. This is not whimsy; though at times I sense loyalty to friends aiding and abetting his perspicacity. On the other hand, friendship was what “The New York School” was all about. Poets mentioned each other by name in their poems, and mentioned the painters and musicians they got on with too, and this created both a network and a chatty mythology which ensured that they all came up together. It was a canny strategy – but hadn’t “The Lakes Poets” done much the same thing a century earlier?

Ashbery’s friendship with Joe Brainard (an abstracted hyper-real cartoon version of Constantin Guys?) and with the US pop artist Larry Rivers places him in the centre of this network of cultural practitioners, while his devotion to the quirky visual jokes of Trevor Winkfield is justified by his love of Rousselian clues – clues which may not always lead us very far. I certainly share his enthusiasm for Winkfield – a British painter living in New York who is both a visual wit and a master of bizarre imagery and colour, always remorselessly applied with a dead-pan flatness which is entirely his own.  Winkfield’s work has been so unsung that he almost qualifies as an outsider (though not at all brut). He should be far better known this side of the pond.

Ashbery is good at widening our terms of reference, and, being a poet, possibly in practice for his main act, there are plenty of felicities of expression. Colour in Brice Marden has the “tightness of Baby Bear’s porridge.” The poet’s critical writing wakes one up: it is entertaining, compared to the committed sludge of most art-writing today. His style is a compound of incongruities, and he is quick to point to incongruities of influence, Red Grooms admiring Fairfield Porter for instance. Yet there is little here that is critical, except by omission perhaps, or by lavish praise which, ever so faintly, damns.

He asks whether the message of Washington-based painter Joseph Shannon’s canvases is actually all that political. Then he hints at an ambiguous quality in these works influenced by Degas and quotes the Firesign Theater: “There is no one to blame.” I should mention that the aforementioned “theater” is in fact a comedy radio programme – probably America’s equivalent to the Goons – which Ashbery greatly enjoys as do I, particularly when I’m stoned.

Significantly, Ashbery mentions Shannon rather than Eric Fischl, seeing in the former another “Painter of Modern Life.” Through Shannon, Ashbery can describe his own ideal of the laconic — albeit with the push and pull of intrigue. But he criticises Shannon for a canvas “blatantly spelled out and far less effective than in those paintings where the terror is dissolved throughout, in the sky, the trees, the furniture, the socks.” Here he must be limbering up for poetry.

Ashbery has come to champion the painterly realists, among them Porter, Robert Dash and the scandalously under-regarded Jane Freilicher.

Ashbery quotes Shannon — “Freedom is bought by hazard” — and sees him as the triumphant literary painter, succeeding, where Pre-Raphaelites fail, because he allows chance in on the deal. Then follows a profound essay on Kitaj and biographical notes on Fairfield Porter — that figurative renegade who collected de Kooning. So Ashbery has come to champion the painterly realists, among them Porter, Robert Dash and the scandalously under-regarded Jane Freilicher (who combines the enigmatic qualities of Morandi with an utterly original vision of the landscape of Long Island and New England) although he can still be supportive, and good to read, about the work of a minimalist like Carl Andre.

As with Ortega Y Gasset, Ashbery identifies modernism as an art about which one can neither laugh nor cry. His terms of reference may seem abstruse, his observations off-hand; but the flip approach disguises a passion for distance. One should not castigate him for sitting on the fence. The dogmatists are the poseurs. It’s because he is more recondite, and because he has no axe to grind, that his essays will outlive Berger’s or Fuller’s.


Ashbery covers a wide range of subjects in the chronicles. These include some fine essays on architecture. My favourite deals with Sarah Winchester’s Llanda Villa, in which the staircases mount to nowhere in order to foil the vengeful ghosts of Indians killed by her father’s lethal invention (the rifle). And towards the end of the collection there is a charming essay on wallpaper, where he speaks of an anonymous English one, circa 1880, “which would foil the most persistent insomniac’s efforts to locate the repeats.”

Ashbery and I share an enthusiasm for the writing of Adolfo Bioy Casares – whose short novel The Invention of Morel is one of the most intriguing works in the canon of the uncanny. I love it, and it was the inspiration for a film that I adore – L’Année Dernière à Marienbad – made by Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet back in 1961. Bioy Casares plays by-way to the motorway of Jorge Luis Borges.

This brings me to another important by-way in Ashbery’s work — his foray into novel writing with his fellow poet, the late James Schuyler, which resulted in A Nest of Ninnies (first published in 1969, now available from Carcanet), which W. H. Auden predicted was “Destined to become a minor classic.”

This is no conventional exploit, and it should be noted that Ashbery is an admirer not only of Barbara Pym but also of Jane Bowles, whose extraordinary novel, Two Serious Ladies, describes the meanderings of two characters whose lives drift apart. Here we are not concerned with the novel as the exemplification of unity but with disjuncture, unravelling, atrophy — construction conceived as exocentric, tending towards the margin and therefore flying off at a tangent to any focusing impulse. However, in lieu of unity, her novel offers us an accuracy about the way our lives are lived in a condition of “loose endedness”; and then unity is revealed for what it is, a mere convention of literature and politics.

Ashbery has told me how he and Jimmy Schuyler would set out by car for that area of Long Island known as “the Hamptons”. There they would separate, to honour diverse commitments in the culinary temples of the affluent. At the end of the weekend, they would drive back to New York together, swapping the bon mots, the “received opinions” and camp anecdotes supplied by their hosts. The novel was then written according to a system which resembled the game known as “consequences”.

Its roots lie, I feel, in Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, that farcical enumeration of bourgeois foibles which concludes with a dictionary of dinner-table replies (if the Iliad is mentioned, roll one’s eyes and murmur, “Oh, but the Odyssey!”). As in Flaubert, very little actually “happens” in the novel written by these two poets of “The New York School”. A group of friends meet for dinner every so often, in various locales; but the book is written with a marvellous sense of how absurd our remarks may become by reiteration in print — indeed, the very absence of action contributes to the intrigue of the text and the gem-like setting of its epithets.

Recently (1994!) I read Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, which I enjoyed enormously as perhaps the most savage satire since Swift’s Modest Proposal. I was also struck by the debt Ellis owed to A Nest of Ninnies. What he has done is to take the prandial format of “A nest”, extend its delicious banalities into the post-modern realm of ‘nouvelle cuisine”, and then punctuate the even tenor of this bland atmosphere with passages which describe violence with an intensity equalled only by Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian — and bettered only by Norman Lewis in one paragraph to be found in “The Volcanoes Above Us” (is this reportage triumphing over the imagination?).

Thus Ashbery and Schuyler enable us to trace an influence from Flaubert to Ellis, ensuring that Ellis will not ultimately be dismissed as a mere purveyor of lurid sensation. Ashbery has admitted to me that he and Ellis share the acquaintance of another “brat-pack” author — Jay McInerney — so my sleuthing may not be as far-fetched as will doubtless be supposed by the establishment.

It is thus that by-ways not only accompany but also lead us into highways, nay, into best-sellers, forsooth! Ashbery’s off-the-shoulder manner should not blind us to the sharp character of his effect, as it has come to bear on the informed sensibility of his time.

(Cardiff, 1994)


Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice.

John Ashbery’s latest book is Quick Question (Ecco, 2013).

Note: This article was updated on 12 November 2013 to correct editing errors.

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