As an English professor and New York poet, John Ashbery was not only my greatest artistic influence but also a friend. So it shocked me when the late, great poet reached out to me from his New Yorker obituary in what felt like a bop on the head. In Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker elegy “The Gentleness of John Ashbery,” based on several of her past interviews with him, my idol called me out.
Discussing ludicrous interpretations of his poetry, Ashbery told MacFarquhar: “There was this one guy, Stephen Paul Miller, who wrote an essay on ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ in which he said it was based entirely on Watergate. I said to him, It has nothing to do with Watergate, and more importantly, it was written before Watergate happened. But this made absolutely no difference to him.”
My relationship with Ashbery started in 1974, when I was 22 and heard him reading his poetry on a record at the Donnell Library in Manhattan. Reading at a Poetry Project event, Ashbery seemed aloof. However, recognizing him soon afterward on a Soho street, I instinctively blurted out, “You’re the new Walt Whitman!” He smiled and said thanks.
I ran into him again later, on the crowded self-service elevator up to a party, when he joked, “Third floor, ladies’ underwear, everyone out.”
“I’m a poet too,” I told him. And he invited me to come to his Brooklyn College poetry workshop.
I attended his last four 1974 classes for free. “You have to respect language’s syntax, giving it enough rope to take you amazing places,” he told us. He lived near me in Chelsea, and we took the subway home together. I told him about my plans to go to India to visit disciples of the Indian master Meher Baba, and I didn’t see him again until after he’d won the 1976 Pulitzer, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle prize for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
In 1977 Interview asked me to do a piece on him. With the tape recorder on, I asked Ashbery, “Do you enjoy all the attention?”
“No,” he told me. “Everyone has plans for me, but I’ve some of my own.”
“But shouldn’t poetry be more popular?” I inquired.
“No, let’s keep it our secret,” he said. “Artists don’t like poetry. They hated Frank O’Hara’s. They only pretended to like it to get closer to him.”
Drinking wine with Ashbery for hours was wonderful. “All my art criticism’s crap except what I said about Brice Marden,” he told me, drunk.
The piece was cut for a Desi Arnaz Jr. profile.
Two years later, I arranged a reading by John Cage and Ashbery at Mickey Ruskin’s University Place bar. Ashbery told me he feared Cage’s performance upstaging him. But he presented his double-columned poem, “Litany,” with two simultaneous voices and got a standing ovation.
Almost 10 years after that, I bumped into Ashbery at a Gracie Mansion poetry-teacher event. “Stephen Paul Miller, where have you been?” Ashbery asked. “I thought you were in Baba-land. I’ve been in Bar-land.”
Thrilled to catch up, I described my dissertation in American studies and also noted he began Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror the same time the Watergate break-in occurred, and Poetry published it the month Nixon resigned. “So you’re comparing me to Nixon? Someday you’ll get yours,” he said sarcastically. “Oh, Nixon was a great president; I wish he were still president.”
I told Ashbery that his work spoke for the zeitgeist. He seemed intrigued, but argued he wasn’t political. Ashbery was too humble to imagine that his poetry unconsciously foresaw political events like Watergate, as I would go on to note in my book The Seventies Now. But he later recognized politics’ influence on his poetry: in John Shoptaw’s 1995 On the Outside Looking Out, Ashbery is quoted as saying Oliver North’s Iran-Contra money-for-arms charts inspired his poem “Flow Chart.”
Ashbery and I briefly met a few times after our Watergate argument. If only I’d sent him a copy of what I’d written, maybe he would have understood. I’d like to think criticizing me to MacFarquhar in 2006 was his way of goading me into contacting him.
I was embarrassed about my infamous mention, but felt honored to be a footnote in the obituary of the poet I admired most. “At least,” one of my students told me, “you made it into the New Yorker.”
Stephen Paul Miller is a professor of English at St. John’s University and the author of The Seventies Now (Duke Univ., 1999).