I first met John Ashbery in 1975. I was working on a book on Frank O’Hara and the poet’s sister Maureen arranged an interview with John at his Chelsea apartment. I was quite intimidated and took along a friend, Lawrence Kramer, who has since become a leading music scholar. John was home alone and not in a mood for interview questions, but as soon as we all relaxed and began to chit-chat, he became very animated. I told him I would soon be moving to Los Angeles—a city at that time much despised by Easterners, especially residents of Philadelphia, where I was then living. “You poor thing!” was the common response. “No one out there has ever read a book!” or “It’s so vulgar out there!”
Ashbery could laugh at anything, especially at himself, even as laughter shaded easily into pain.
Not John. “I just love L.A.,” he exclaimed, and started describing “that / Landfill-haunted, not-so-residential resort from which / Some travellers return!”, as he puts it in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.” In years to come, when he would visit, I realized how extraordinarily accurate his ostensibly surreal references to Los Angeles really were. Whenever I read the lines:
I don’t want to go back inside any more. You meet
Enough vague people on this emerald traffic-island—no,
Not people, comings and goings, more: mutterings, splatterings. . .
I marvel at the perfect description of life along Sunset Boulevard and want to follow Daffy Duck “clattering through the rainbow trellis / Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland / Fling Terrace.”
One of John’s great gifts was his ability to fuse such references with opera scenarios, pop songs, advertising jingles, fortune cookies, passages from obscure medieval and Renaissance poems, and scenes from just about every Hollywood movie ever made, all the while ruminating on the most profound questions of becoming and being, life and death. In “Houseboat Days,” then in press, we read:
But I don’t set much stock in things
Beyond the weather and the certainties of living and dying:
The rest is optional. To praise this, blame that,
Leads one subtly away from the beginning, where
We must stay, in motion.
Staying, in motion: this is John’s great legacy. His much imitated poetry was inimitable because no one else could simulate the extraordinary learnedness, range of reference, and flexibility of this particular poetic consciousness, aware as it is at every moment of the contradictions of life in late twentieth century America. Then too, John avoided all solemnity, all air of self-importance: he could laugh at anything, especially at himself, even as laughter shaded easily into pain.
Staying, in motion: this is John’s great legacy.
In one of my favorite Ashbery poems, the early “They Dream Only of America,” whose title always brings to my mind Alfred Stieglitz’s beautiful photograph juxtaposing first-class and steerage passengers arriving in the U.S. (“The Steerage”), John characterizes the poem’s nameless “they” as “lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass”—a profoundly witty amalgam of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, now replaced by the pillars of the urban landscape, the original Thirteen Colonies, the fate of Lot’s Wife—don’t look back!—and the immigrant dream of the millions of new arrivals in America. The dreamers: what could be a more apposite image for our own twenty-first century moment? And yet this navigator of “emerald traffic isles” doesn't pontificate: he just changes the subject. “‘This honey is delicious,” we read in the next two lines, “Though it burns the throat.”
Wait a minute: isn’t honey (what honey?) supposed to do the opposite, to soothe the throat? Such questions—uniquely Ashberian—present endless “mysteries of construction” to challenge our preconceptions of what poetry is and can be.