John Ashberry 1927-2017.
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
ACCORDING TO JOE BRAINARD’S Little-Known Facts about People, John Ashbery was a quiz kid. He certainly had a phenomenal memory, recalling the name of Daffy Duck’s kid sister as easily as a paragraph from the Centuries of Thomas Traherne. He introduced me to many wonderful books: Hebdomeros – the surreal novel by Giorgio de Chirico, Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, the poems of John Wheelwright, the writings of Raymond Roussel and the novellas of Adolfo Bioy Casares. He never hesitated to go off-piste, and eschewed the canon in favour of the “byways of literature”.
His first ambition had been to be a painter, and he shared with the painters of his time a deeper understanding of modernism, and of surrealism in particular, than could be mustered by the poetic establishment in America back then. Wikipedia says he did his dissertation on Auden. Sounds odd to me. He always told me it had been on the British novelist Henry Green. More likely. Among British writers, Ashbery also admired the mellifluous prosody of F. T. Prince, who had been ousted from Faber when Auden’s committed verse came into vogue.
Ashbery was happy to join fellow ex-pats in Paris, becoming the art editor in the mid-1950s for the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune: the paper Jean Seberg sells in the street in Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle. He found it easier to critique a field in which he wasn’t involved, and his admiration for artists was always founded on an astute eye, as can be seen in his long admiration and critical support of the work of R. B. Kitaj. His cogent art-criticism, gathered together in Reported Sightings shows how he was perfectly capable of making sense. It was simply something that was not a priority for his verse. And in terms of a highly unusual but hugely enjoyable narrative read, few books are as entertaining as A Nest of Ninnies, the novel he wrote with James Schuyler in 1969, which I must add was much admired by Auden in the New York Times, who was convinced their book was “destined to become a minor classic.”
Ashbery was a species of magnet. Poets, artists, essayists gathered round. With Sonya Orwell, he edited the twelve issues of Art and Literature-1964-67 – to my mind the most important journal of the latter half of the last century. You’ll find Philippe Sollers writing about Poussin in its pages, a dialogue with Philip Guston, poems by Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, Laura Riding, an essay by Maurice Blanchot. For once poetry, visual art and cutting-edge philosophy seemed engaged in a congeries. For a British poet, hailing from a London where visual art was strictly separated from literature, where all arts were discrete as well as discreet, this magazine, with Burroughs and Genet also among its contributors, was an inspiration. Ashbery edited the “New Poetry” issue of Locus Solus – 1962 – that was also edited by Harry Matthews. The poets gathered together here include the nexus of what was to become known as the New York School.
The anthology of that name, edited by Padgett and Shapiro, introduced a wave of great writing, by Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Mayer, Frank O’Hara et al: abstraction can be user-friendly, narration need not be about anything much, sonnets can still work…The New York School projected a welcome sense of relaxation, names could be dropped, rather as they could in the days of Dante’s dolce stil novo. Ashbery was at the centre of this new enlivening hubbub.
Ashbery showed you how it was done, how, when ignored by the establishment, you went out and created your world, your sphere, your culture. Welcomed by a party thrown him at the factory by Andy Warhol, Ashbery’s return to New York in 1965 marked the advent of a renaissance in US poetry that was also a change in direction, a change of emphasis – from meaning to manner of saying. And that was when New York was the place to be, when it was the art world: Larry Rivers playing sax in the evenings, and painting in his studio during the day, Allen Ginsberg sitting in John Cage’s lap, as they shared a chair at an all night reading at St Mark’s in the Bowery of the work of Gertrude Stein. Twelve hour performances by Robert Wilson and the Byrd Hoffmann School of Byrds at The Brooklyn Academy of Music. Hard Edge was out. Minimalism and conceptual art were coming in.
As was his way, Ashbery went off and championed the dead-pan figuration of Alex Katz and the work of Jane Freilicher, Robert Dash and Fairfield Porter. That was a typical twist of Ashbery’s Moebius strip, to champion figurative art while writing surreal poems. But again, it was the material sense of the thing, how it was done, which distinguished a work, not so much the orthodoxy to which it adhered. There was something of the dandyesque about this aesthetic. A fastidious sense of the eccentric.
Or perhaps it was a sense that what might be labelled eccentric was simply original but little known. The gramophone would be playing piano music by Charles Ives and then some obscure British composer, Frank Bridge perhaps. Later we’d watch a Ritz brothers movie from the hire store. High culture mingled happily with slapstick. Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape effectively lifted the sestina from scholarly obscurity into crude up-to-date health, and conferred immortality on Popeye.
Ashbery created intense little collages, and he was a collage in himself. Another artist he admired was Trevor Winkfield – also a poet – and British – whose iconic yet enigmatic paintings have disparate emblems in them which never quite collide, though they ought to; something one can understand the quiz kid responding to; the paintings are full of things which might mean, but do they? A feeling one can get when deep in Ashbery’s lines.
— September 4, 2017.
For a link to a reading by John Ashbery on Grey Suit Editions, and two earlier essays of mine on his work –
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. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).
More readings by Ashbery here:
The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard – a special publication of the Library of America, 2012.
Reported Sightings – Art Chronicles 1957-1987, John Ashbery, Carcanet, 1989
A Nest of Ninnies, Ashbery and Schuyler, Carcanet, 1987
An Anthology of New York Poets, edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro, Vintage, 1970.
Notes on John Ashbery in the Fortnightly.