The Gentleness of John Ashbery

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Media Outlet: New Yorker

Larissa MacFarquhar wrote an article for the New Yorker reflecting on the recently deceased American poet, John Ashbery:

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.”

Author:

Larissa MacFarquhar, Emerson Fellow, is writing a book about the decision to stay, leave, or return to a hometown, how that can affect a person’s worldview, and how countless such decisions shift America’s politics.