Home Trending Brilliant, irreverent, indefinable: my poetry class with John Ashbery

Brilliant, irreverent, indefinable: my poetry class with John Ashbery

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I first met the famous poet, who died on Sunday, at Bard College in the late 90s. He taught me poetry can be anything, and that there is great freedom in that

Enigmatic, confounding, genius, funny, unnerving, stunning, gay, mysterious. Poet John Ashbery died this weekend and the descriptions of him and his work are as varied as poetry itself. Reading through these diverse adjectives, Im left thinking how beautiful it is to not be defined and yet to be so profoundly revered. For Ashbery, poetry is not about definitions or pronouns or intentions or genres. Its not about telling a story that has a proper conclusion. Its about what it is to experience experience anything. His work says you dont need to decipher the words, just experience them. Is there anything more valuable than that?

I first met Professor Ashbery, as I knew him in the late 90s, when I was at Bard College in New York state, filled with my own hopes of being a poet. I applied to his poetry workshop and I can still remember the shock, the wonder at whether a mistake had been made, when I saw my name on the list of students tacked up to the wall. He was writing and publishing regularly, as he continued to until he peacefully died this past weekend. A few years after our class together, he published one of my favorite poems, Crossroads in the Past:

That night the wind stirred in the forsythia bushes,

but it was a wrong one, blowing in the wrong direction.

Thats silly. How can there be a wrong direction?

It bloweth where it listeth, as you know, just as we do

when we make love or do something else there are no rules for.

I tell you, something went wrong there a while back.

Just dont ask me what it was. Pretend Ive dropped the subject.


In that workshop, it was almost as if Ashbery had asked us to drop the subject of his fame, his countless accolades, the Pulitzer Prize, the MacArthur Genius Grant, the art reviews, his time in Warhols Factory. With wonderfully irreverent curiosity, he listened and critiqued our work, and, with some of us, spent hours speaking in his home on campus, a place filled with books and with a de Kooning on the wall (the artist had made a piece in honor of what is most often cited as Ashberys best work, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror). He taught me that poetry can be anything and with that comes great freedom.

No, now youve got me interested, I want to know

exactly what seems wrong to you, how something could

seem wrong to you. In what way do things get to be wrong?


In all our time together, he never gave me the answer to that question, never let me know whether I was wrong. I had unknowingly followed in his footsteps, choosing, by pure chance, to translate the poetry of surrealists Rene Char and Blaise Cendrars, just as he had translated French surrealists. Never once did he say my translations were wrong. I am sure the work was close to his heart and perhaps all translation is inherently wrong but I left Bard feeling that it was right-ish. I have since lost all those poems and translations, everything I wrote at Bard and in my classes with Ashbery. And I dont remember the words. But what remains are his open eyes, his wry smile, a seeming promiscuity in thought and the sense of how blessed we were to be guided by one of the best poets of our time.

Im sitting here dialing my cellphone

with one hand, digging at some obscure pebbles with my shovel

with the other.

And then something like braids will stand out,

on horsehair cushions. That armchair is really too lugubrious.

Weve got to change all the furniture, fumigate the house,

talk our relationship back to its beginnings. Say, you know

thats probably whats wrong the beginnings concept, I mean.

I aver there are no beginnings, though there were perhaps some

sometime.


No beginnings. No end. Just this.

Ashbery wrote in another poem for Conjunctions, a publication out of Bard College, To have been loved once by someone surely there is a permanent good in that. Maybe above all else, hes a romantic, in love with life.

Two years ago, I went to Johns apartment in Chelsea, New York, where he has lived for decades. I was going to interview him for the Brooklyn Academy of Music about translations he had done of poetry by Rimbaud. David Kermani, his husband, warmly greeted me at the door as if we had been friends, although he had never met me before.

John
John Ashbery at home in Hudson, New York. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

And there was John, reclined in a chair, surrounded by stacks of books, the light flooding in on this gorgeous NY winter day. Now a radio journalist, I was keenly aware of the banging of construction somewhere nearby in the building and Ashbery commented on how the building and the neighborhood was changing. He wasnt upset about the change but was steadfast in the fact that he was there to stay.

And magically when the recording started, the banging stopped. I took it as a sign.

We spoke of how he discovered poetry and what had drawn him to translate Rimbauds Illuminations.

He said, You have to see the poetry as well as hear it; even the shapes of the letters have something to do with it. And after reading aloud some of his own translations, he modestly commented: I wish I could be as sure of my own poetry as I am of these translations.

This was someone whom most of the literary minded world believed to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century and he too remained unsure. How wondrously brilliant, to be both unsure and brave, to create work that allows for the incessant contradictions of life and all that it beholds and to remind the reader, in the way in which you write, to not try to figure it all out, its life, moment by moment, experience by experience. Its just life, its just poetry, everything and nothing.

Wed stopped, to look at the poster the movie theater

had placed freestanding on the sidewalk. The lobby cards

drew us in. It was afternoon, we found ourselves

sitting at the end of a row in the balcony; the theater was unexpectedly

crowded. That was the day we first realized we didnt fully

know our names, yours or mine, and we left quietly

amid the gray snow falling. Twilight had already set in.


Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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