Last fall, I enrolled in a literature seminar in the New School writing program unlike any literature class I’ve ever taken: the AshLab. The project of the class involved contributing to creative and scholarly research documenting John Ashbery's poetry as well as his 19th-century Victorian residence in Hudson, New York. The work is intended for a general audience to read on a website.
On Monday, April 8, The New School hosted a presentation by the collective hive mind of faculty and students that over the course of four semesters has produced this new virtual archive, which went live last week. I was honored to be included in this presentation and to share my remarks here in this forum.
I joined the class because I was interested in the relationship between a poet’s environment and a poet’s work. The minute I entered John Ashbery’s house, I got a sense of this connection.
The outside of his house is grand. There is a rise of stone steps, a bend of stonework supporting a large stained glass window, the kind that makes a cathedral of a fine house. However, the house inside is smaller than these details make it seem. There’s even a fake outside window that suggests more rooms than there are. This is not an accident. The house was built in the 1890’s by a nouveau riche family to create exactly this illusion of a bigger scale.
Which might make it the perfect environment for an illusionist like Ashbery.
Ashbery’s work has a similar way of gliding out of view. The meaning is deferred elsewhere: references to sources as varied as a Greek myth, a fragment of popular culture, or something in a 1960s newspaper.
I’ve been intrigued by the ways I’ve seen the environments of Ashbery’s poems overlap the environments he’s created in the rooms of his home. I’ve found correlations, connections, echoes, allusions, webs of reference between specific objects I’ve researched in Ashbery’s collections of art and other obsessions on the one hand, and poems of Ashbery’s that I’ve studied thoroughly and annotated on the other.
Often these connections have seemed quite explicit and solid to me. But as with everything Ashbery, they can quickly feel slippery and elusive, and difficult to defend beyond my own sense of play and imagination. But solid or slippery, the paths have always taken me farther and farther inward — into Ashbery’s house and deeper into his complex and complicated and wonderful poems.
So the experiment of correlations I made for myself is something I want to share with you.
I invite you to explore Ashbery’s house and some of his poems, pulled by your own associations and curiosity. I hope this opens new paths, new way-finding into Ashbery’s oeuvre, paths marked by play and exploration.
There can obviously be many such paths. Some of mine can be found here. -- Nora Brooks