|A compact, purposeful signature. John Ashbery|
signed this copy of Girls on the Run for me
in Philadelphia in April 1999.
John Ashbery, the only contemporary poet I have read with any regularity, died Sunday at age 90. As with many other poets, I discovered his work through music -- in his case, Ned Rorem's "Some Trees" and of, course, Elliott Carter's "Syringa" from 1978.
That one work spurred me on to read several of Ashbery's books, including Houseboat Days (in which "Syringa" appears), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Shadow Train, and Girls on the Run, a copy of which the poet signed for me April 1999 before a reading at the abandoned Barclay Hotel in Philadelphia. I mentioned "Syringa" to him, and he replied that while Carter was his favorite composer, he had never liked the piece until he heardKatherine Ciesinski
sing it on the Bridge recording. I shouldn't have been surprised. Poets often react badly to musical settings of their work. They must have the sound of their words lodged in their heads, and anything that alters that sound is experienced as a jarring violation. (A composer has set my own "Sonnet: May 1913" to music. I have not heard the song, but I don't doubt I'll have my objections.)
Carter returned to Ashbery's poetry in 2007 with"Mad Regales,"
a set of three miniatures for six voices a capella. Something about the verses must have inspired him, as "Mad Regales" was his first choral piece in sixty years. I have no word on how the poet felt about it..
It's hard for me to pin down just what I like about Ashbery's work. Line for line, the cool, conversational tone seems lucid, but after just a few of these, cool, conversational lines, one begins to feel lost. The subject keeps changing, and the lack of context makes the referents of the pronouns hard to keep straight. This sense of disorientation seems to have been the point, as we read in the august pages of the omniscientNew Yorker
: "a world that is complex requires a poetry that is complex." Fair enough, I suppose, though one could make the counterargument that a directness that makes sense of the complexity would be more helpful.
At the reading in 1999, a beautiful young woman I spoke with briefly, who had never read Ashbery's poetry, told me she was surprised at how funny he was. She was right. He made excellent jokes, a point that has been lost in the barrage of encomia in the press. I'll end with my favorite here, from "Worsening Situation," the second poem in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror:
One day a man called while I was out
And left this message: "You got the whole thing wrong
From start to finish. Luckily, there's still time
To correct the situation, but you must act fast.
See me at your earliest convenience. And please
Tell no one of this. Much besides your life depends on it."
I thought nothing of it at the time.