John Ashbery, the great American poet who died on Sunday, made some people angry. The obscurity of his poems annoyed them—they wondered why
he had to go so far out of his way to contort his sentences, if “sentences” was even the right word for whatever they were. Couldn’t he
just say what the hell he meant and be done with it? The poet John Yau,
a former student of Ashbery’s, once received one of his poems back from
a journal with a footprint on the manuscript and a note from the editor
explaining that the poem had reminded him of Ashbery, so he had dropped
it on the floor and stomped on it.

But Ashbery himself was a gentle person. His husband, David Kermani,
used to say that he had a childlike quality, and Ashbery also said that
about himself. He went through many periods of sadness and depression, but he rarely lost his temper. He was shy and wary of imposing. He said that when he was a child his mother used to warn him, when he went to a
friend’s house, not to wear out his welcome, and ever since he had tried
to make sure never to do that. Some years ago I interviewed him several
times over the course of a summer, and his shyness sometimes made it
difficult. He didn’t like talking about himself, or didn’t want to like
it.

Although he made a living for years by writing art reviews, he was an
appreciator rather than a critic by nature: he had no desire to dissect
other people’s art or issue judgments about good and bad. He was not one
to impose an interpretation, even on his own work. He liked that each reader read a poem differently—that his poems were refracted through
many heads and notions. He could be hurt by vicious reviews, but when a
critic came up with an interpretation of his poetry that to him made no
sense, which happened fairly often, he didn’t mind. He thought it was
funny. He said, “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.”

When he set out to write a new poem, he would get things started by
seeking out chance encounters. He might pick up a book and read passages
at random, or take a walk around the city, or root about in junk shops,
allowing things and thoughts to bump gently against him, like floating
plastic bottles against a boat. He wrote one of his three plays after
seeing a film—“a Rin Tin Tin silent movie that I saw at Film Society. I
used the plot but omitted the dog, so there really wasn’t much left.” He
tried not to think about how he wrote, because it made him
self-conscious. He preferred to imagine his poetry being made by his
unconscious bumping up against the world, with his conscious self not
much involved, except as an editor.

And glad not to have invented

Such comeliness, we are surrounded:

A silence already filled with noises

He didn’t write to command attention, or to seize the reader by the
shoulders and shake him, or to stamp the world with his way of seeing.
There was a piece of music by Erik Satie that he loved, called “Musique
d’ameublement”—furniture music, which was written to be played between
the acts of another work while people in the audience were milling
around and talking to one another, so that they were only indirectly
aware of the music. “It sometimes seems to me that my poetry is like
that,” he said. “You don’t really have to pay that much attention to
it—it’ll be doing its job if you are just intermittently aware of it,
and thinking about other things at the same time. I was probably
thinking of environmental art, where you’re surrounded by different
elements of a work, and it doesn’t really matter whether you’re focusing
on one of them or none of them at any particular moment, but you’re
getting a kind of indirect refraction from the environment that you’re
in.”

I don’t know how he died, but I don’t imagine him raging against it. I
imagine him slipping out quietly, perhaps apologetically, not wanting to
make too much of a fuss.

I shall have answered for myself soon,

Be led away for further questioning and later returned

To the amazingly quiet room in which all my life has been spent.

. . . And it is finally we who break it off,

Speed the departing guest, lest any question remain

Unasked, and thereby unanswered. Please, it almost

Seems to say, take me with you, I’m old enough. Exactly.

And so each of us has to remain alone, conscious of each other

Until the day when war absolves us of our differences. We’ll

Stay in touch. So they have it, all the time. But all was strange.

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