I met John Asbery in November of 1973 when I went with a group of friends to hear him read in DC. Maybe it was the Library of Congress. I can’t remember. Michael Lally had turned me on to John’s 1970 book, The Double Dream of Spring, which knocked me out. This was poetry that was at once grand, symphonic, silly, profound, and comic all at once. His formal virtuosity and his mastery of language set a new standard for many of us young poets back then.
We stayed in touch over the years. John read in Washington with some regularity and would often put me on the guest list for pre- or post-reading get-togethers. He loved a good party, preferably one that included plenty of drink, dope, wit, and attractive young men. [photo at left by Allan Penn from the New York Times Magazine]
He was extraordinarily prolific. In his 60s, he published one of my favorite Ashbery books—the dazzling, monumental Flow Chart, a 216-page epic of the imagination that I regard as one of the most significant works of literature in English (“It’s my Sonata of Experience, and I wrote it for you”). I count another 14 books after that (not including his essays, translations, and art criticism), an astonishing late-life output that continued up to 2016’s Commotion of the Birds. It seemed like every 18 months or so, a new Ashbery book would show up. I waited for, bought, and read each one, hoping they would keep coming forever. John’s death yesterday, 3 September 2017, at age 90 brings that streak to an end. Though I hope a few more posthumous books will appear to help all his friends and readers adjust to a world that no longer includes him.
My deepest condolences to David Kermani, John’s spouse, friend, collaborator, and companion for the past 40 years or so.
This evening I read though Flow Chart. Here are a few excerpts that called out to me:
Words, however, are not the culprit. They are at worst a placebo,
leading nowhere (though nowhere, it must be added, can sometimes be a cozy
place, preferable in many cases to somewhere)...
...Still, life is reasonably absorbing
and there’s lots of nice people around. Most are well fed
and relaxing, and one can improve one’s mind a little
by going out to a film or having a chat with that special friend; and before
you know it it’s time to brush your teeth and go to bed.”
to feel nervous about? We all know that we have to live for a certain time and then
unfortunately we must die, and after that no one is sure what happens. Accounts vary.
...I have the feeling my voice is just for me,
that no one else has ever heard it, yet I keep mumbling the litany
of all that has ever happened to me, childish pranks included, and when the voluminous
sun sets, its bag full, one can question these and other endeavors silently:
how far wrong did I go?
I’m the experimental model of which mankind is still dreaming, though to myself
I’m full of unworked-out bugs and stagefright...
Any day now you must start to dwell in it,
the poetry, and for this, grave preparations must be made, the walks of sand
raked, the rubble wall picked clean of dead vine stems, but what
if poetry were something else entirely, not this purple weather
with the eye of a god attached, that sees
inward and outward? What if it were only a small, other way of living,
like being in the wind?
I must ask you now to leave. It seems we are fresh out of turnips.