There was in the person and there is in the work such a mixture of
genius and modesty, ambition and gentle irony, innovation and deliberate
unoriginality, that it sounds a little off, maybe a little stuffy, to
speak of John Ashbery’s greatness. A major poet, a master, the most
important writer since X—none of that seems right for a poet so enamored
of the minor: his love for “other traditions” (as he titled his Charles
Norton lectures), his interest in “mild effects” (to quote a phrase from
“The Skaters”), his method of “wandering away” (the formulation appears
in several books; “wandering” is Ashbery’s version of Whitman’s
“loafing.”) It’s as if, when you say he wrote some of the greatest poems
in English, his poems respond, “Who, me?” Well, yes, you.

Today I walked around listening to one recording after another on my
phone. Ashbery doesn’t change his voice when he begins—when he began—to
read his poetry. There is no dramatic heightening, no shift, however
subtle, into a declamatory mode. It’s just John reading. And what he’s
reading sounds simultaneously like something you’ve heard a million
times before, like the songs we know best, and like an intercepted
transmission from another world or era, a whisper out of time. I have
some ideas about how he accomplishes this weird effect—how he makes the
(mild) shock of recognition and the (mild) shock of the new coexist—but
I’m too sad to try to summarize them here. And they’re insufficient
anyway. (“When one goes at ideas directly, with hammer and tongs as it
were, ideas tend to elude one in a poem,” he once said. “I think they
only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to
them, like a cat that will rub against your leg.”) The poems are like
those mirrors in Cocteau’s “Orphée”: at one moment they reflect this
world, then suddenly they’re portals to another (although in Ashbery’s
poems we rarely find ourselves in the underworld).

The first time I met John (a decade ago), he thought I was someone else.
This became slowly clear to me because he kept asking me questions about
the poet Landis Everson, about whom I knew basically nothing. (It turned
out that John thought I was the writer Ben Mazer, who edited Everson’s
collected poems.) There was something appropriate about being
misidentified by the poet who’d become my hero, in part because of the
beautiful fungibility of his “you”: the way sometimes the poems address
you, are alone in the room with a particular reader (yes, you), and
sometimes address all possible yous, expand until we feel the mundane
miracle of address as such—that there are other people, that there
might be a common language. “The poem is a hymn to possibility; a
celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen,”
Ashbery wrote, sixty years ago, in a review about Gertrude Stein’s
“Stanzas in Meditation”; it remains among my favorite descriptions of
John’s own work. After I quoted these lines while introducing him at a
reading in Brooklyn a few years ago, he wrote to me: “The fact that you
would someday be born and later would read my Gertrude Stein review,
which I typed laboriously in my furnished room in Rennes, and that you
would apply my words to me, well it all makes me feel somewhat dizzy.”
I’m dizzied by my luck at having overlapped with John Ashbery, one of
the good things about being born when I was (here he would probably make
a joke: “Television is pretty good, too,” or “Antibiotics can come in
handy”).

The obituaries seem intent on noting that he “aroused controversy,” that
he has his detractors. I can’t even muster feelings of partisanship
about his poetry; I just feel pity for those who haven’t, for whatever
reason, been able to accept the gift of his work. But it will always be
there. He’s gone now, but the poems are open; you can let yourself in.
“And the poem / Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.”