Introduction for John Ashbery by Charles North – 14 May 09

It’s not often one gets to introduce a hero, and I thank Stacy for inviting me.

Not to put too fine a point on it—but isn’t it time for John’s urine to be tested?  Most poets, as we all know, like ballplayers who don’t take steroids, don’t “produce”—really produce—after the age of 40; that is, if they’re lucky enough to produce that long.  So what gives?  How can Ashbery still perform at the level he does and still be not only a hero but a beacon for so many other writers?

It seems especially appropriate for John to be giving his only NY reading of the year at the Poetry Project, even though he’s given readings to audiences all over the world and received awards from just about all the important award-givers—including, just recently, the Harvard Arts Medal given to Harvard alums who have distinguished themselves in the Arts.  Speaking of which, I just heard from a mutual friend that at the Boston hotel where John stayed, there was a moment for the ages when, at precisely the time he was exiting via the hotel’s revolving door, the Dalai Lama was entering in the same revolution.  Talk about a photo op!

As to the Poetry Project, it wasn’t quite John’s ancestral poetry home (as it was for some of us who are a little younger) but it was certainly his first devoted audience.  When I began coming to readings in the late 1960s, I kept hearing about this mysterious, experimental poet who had recently returned from a mysterious decade in France, and who, to the young poets I was meeting, and soon me as well, was not only secretly épater-ing the bourgeoisie, but was demonstrating radically new ways to write poems and to conceive of poetry.  The amazing thing to me, still, is that neither we—nor John, as I’ve learned from interviews—ever imagined that his poetry would change American poetry—British too, if not to the same extent—or equally amazing, that he would go on to win every award in the book including—horrors!—those bestowed by the many-headed Establishment.

I find Ashbery’s poetry as surprising and inspiring as I did when I began writing. Partly it’s because, like his pal Frank O’Hara, he just goes on his nerve.  But in his case, the “just” contains multitudes. Going on his nerve wouldn’t mean much if his poems weren’t so often startlingly original, or moving, or endlessly intriguing, or funny, or exploratory about both the outer and inner worlds, in the complexity both deserve.  Which of course makes his poems difficult if approached with the usual expectations; to me, a part of his extraordinary achievement is to have changed our expectations.  I’ll also venture to say that his complex investigations of his own states of mind, which include conscious and unconscious aspects, make a good bit of the other poetry around seem ultimately superficial. But enough about the others!

Well, actually, I do want to grind an axe, but very briefly.  In preparing an introduction for John a few years ago at Pace University, I learned, from the TLS of all places, that he holds, or then held, the record for the most poetry awards!  (Michael Jackson had it for pop music and Steven Spielberg for movies.)  The same friend who told me about the Dalai Lama/Ashbery Case of the Revolving Door joked that I could fill an entire introduction just by listing John’s awards.  But there is one missing, which I hope he’ll forgive me for mentioning.  When poets I know wonder why he hasn’t yet received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the consensus is that he, unlike most of those who have won the prize, is not perceived as engagé. To me, and I believe many others, there’s no writer whose poems are more engaged with what it means to be human.  Poetry sadly, hopefulness notwithstanding, doesn’t make much happen. But it does show us to ourselves, which I would suggest is more vital these days than it has ever been, and has a far more vital relation to the material that poetry is often supposed to be engaged with, than ever before.

[Exit Axe, pursued by a Grove.]

As for steroid tests:  2007 and 2008 would be banner years for anyone, let alone someone who has been writing fascinating poetry for more than six decades (which includes college and even high school).  John published two books of poems in 2007, the lovely A Worldly Country, and Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, which won the 2008 Griffin International Poetry Prize.  His  translations of the under-sung French poet Pierre Martory, The Landscapist, came out last year, and in 2008 as well, the Library of America published the first half of John’s Collected Poems—the first (I think the only?) contemporary poet to be so honored.  And, this past fall, he had a terrific show of his own collages at Tibor de Nagy in Manhattan, and he has a new book of poems, Planisphere, coming out at the end of this year.  Dazzling stuff.  Please welcome first-ballot Hall-of-Famer John Ashbery.

Charles North