The poet visited an audience of 300 people at The New School to read poems from his most recent book, Planisphere, and from Illuminations, his translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poems due this spring from Norton.
Ashbery repeatedly encouraged the audience to invite chance into their work. Slam words together, he said, welcome surprises in your titles, your sestinas and your writing prompts.
His own ability to surrender control and piece together disparate items helped him master both poetry and collage. (He exhibited 30 years of his collages in 2008.) And it has produced astonishing lines like “nobody knows I’m a nudist” and “how can I lick some calendars?” both from poems he read Monday.
David Lehman, the event’s moderator and the New School’s poetry coordinator, asked Ashbery how the processes of poetry and collage compare.
“In my case, they’re very similar,” Ashbery said. “It’s taking something and saying, ‘that would look nice next to something else, perhaps that thing over there.’ The element of chance plays a very important role. Something is ripped out of its context and forced into a new one, creating a new kind of meaning.”
This is why he is so fond of the cento, he said, a form composed of lines taken from other authors. It allows him to preserve his favorite lines of poetry “as a kind of scrapbook.”
And the sestina? It’s both torture device and thrill ride, Ashbery said, “a cruel, iron maiden form” that gives one the sensation of riding a bicycle downhill.
“The form brings an element of chance to play in a poem,” he said. “The lines will end with six words you couldn’t possibly have imagined before writing the poem. I welcome it as a way of opening and exploring new territory in a poem.”
Photo credits: bottom, (c) Star Black (2011); top and jump, Stephanie Paterik.
He read a crowd-pleaser of a collage poem, made entirely from movie titles, called “They Knew What They Wanted.” It leaps wildly by piecing phrases like these together: “They all kissed the bride./ They all laughed./ They came from beyond space./ They came by night./ They came to a city./ They came to blow up America./ […]/ They might be giants.”
Ashbery is 83, but age has not deterred him from peppering poems with pop culture references and connecting with younger audiences. His visit to Wesleyan University last year prompted one student to write in the school paper: “The poems in Planisphere reminded me of the emotive and insistent lyrics of the songs of an up-and-coming indie rock band.” High praise from Gen-Y, indeed.
A retired college professor, Ashbery says the best prompts he gave students were ones that distracted them from the poems they wanted to write. Often, the results surprised him and the writer.
When Lehman asked about the appeal of translating Rimbaud, Ashbery said the project allowed him to inhabit another writer’s mind and thereby stretched his own writing. Poems by the 19th century French adolescent prodigy first captured Ashbery’s attention when he was a teenager, before he could speak French.
While living in Paris as an adult he learned the language, and he translated a Rimbaud poem a decade ago for fun. When a publisher approached him about a book, the project evolved.
Ashbery stayed long after the forum to sign autographs and shake the hands of fans, including New School President David Van Zandt. As Creative Writing Director Robert Polito said, “Every time John reads for us, I feel our writing program is—in a sense that’s hard to calculate—touched by grace.”