The Meaning of All This: Talking to John Ashbery About His Past, Present and Future

His new book, 'Quick Question,' doesn’t have any easy answers

IN NEW YORK, THE YOUNG Harvard graduates met the poet James Schuyler and John Myers, co-proprietor of the newly opened Tibor de Nagy gallery. The gallery had already given painters like Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter and Larry Rivers their first solo shows. Ms. Freilicher was Koch’s neighbor in a walk-up at Third Avenue and 18th Street. They shared a kitchen. Koch went on vacation and let Mr. Ashbery stay at his place. He remembers the “pretty and somewhat preoccupied dark-haired girl” who painted in the apartment upstairs. They were drawn to each other by a mutual shyness.

Ms. Freilicher used to call Myers “The Grand and Glorious, Gay, Notorious John Myers.” He had already dubbed the painters at Tibor de Nagy the “New York School.” He was also very literary and interested in publishing poetry. The New York School label was mostly good PR—it made the gallery the de facto center of a certain scene, even if its members were only loosely connected stylistically. Myers figured he’d give the name to the painters’ poet friends as well and sell pamphlets of their work out of the gallery.

“There was no money behind it,” Ms. Freilicher told me. “Everything had to be done on the cuff. There was no actual school called the New York School of Painting, just like there was no New York School of Poets. These things just happened to emerge simultaneously.”

What connected the poets was mostly superficial. Besides Barbara Guest, they were predominantly men from the northeast; they were all homosexual except for Koch; they had all gone to Harvard except for Schuyler.

“I didn’t really feel one way or another about it,” Mr. Ashbery said. “A guy wants to say I’m a member of the New York School, fine. Now we can’t get rid of it. Now I sort of regret it. People mention ‘New York School,’ and that’s the label, and it sort of means certain things and that’s it. They’re sophisticated. Kind of frivolous. Lots of word games and French influence. Then we don’t have to think about it any further.”

In 1953, the gallery published a pamphlet by Mr. Ashbery, Turandot and Other Poems, which included four drawings by Ms. Freilicher. It had a print run of 300 and didn’t exactly announce the arrival of a major poet. By 1955, Mr. Ashbery was still writing publicity releases for textbooks at McGraw-Hill. He refers to ’55 as “my year of almost not-winning things.” He was rejected for a Fulbright to France, only to get it when someone else dropped out. Then his first major collection, Some Trees, was rejected for the Yale Younger Poets prize, because it didn’t make it as far as the competition’s judge, W.H. Auden; when Auden did finally read it, he had the university publish the manuscript. There’s a pastoral strain that runs through the book, but the poems are more concerned with their own composition than with nature or any kind of poetic tradition. (Indeed, the highly casual phrase “some trees” is a kind of dismissal of pastoral tradition altogether.) The final poem, “Le livre set sur la table” (“The book is on the table”), extends the question of the fate of a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it to a book that is never cracked open:

The young man places a bird house
Against the blue sea. He walks away
And it remains. Now other
Men appear, but they live in boxes.
The sea protects them like a wall.
The gods worship a line-drawing
Of a woman in the shadow of the sea
Which goes on writing …

Mr. Ashbery was already living in France when the book was published. He spoke little French at first, but decided to extend his Fulbright to a second year anyway. He wrote occasional reviews for ARTnews, and briefly returned to America intent on writing a dissertation on Raymond Roussel, but abandoned the idea and moved back to France. That was 1958. He didn’t return to America for five years.

“I didn’t want to write very much at all for quite a while,” he told me. “And then when I did, I wanted to write in a different way. So I did. I wrote very experimental collages, without ever thinking that they would see the light of day. The first book didn’t have much success, and I didn’t think I would ever publish another one.”

Eventually John Hollander at Wesleyan University Press asked him if he had material for a second book. Mr. Ashbery sent him what he’d been working on, which was published as The Tennis Court Oath in 1962. It is opaque, even by Mr. Ashbery’s standards. The poem “Leaving the Atocha Station,” partly inspired by a trip to Spain with O’Hara, is essentially formless, and filled with the prose equivalent of John Cage’s long pauses:

The worn stool blazing       pigeons from the roof
___________driving tractor to squash
Leaving the Atocha Station   steel
infected bumps the screws
__everywhere    wells
abolished top ill-lit
scarecrow falls   Time, progress and good sense …

It reads as if certain words and phrases have been deliberately deleted, but Mr. Ashbery told me it was mostly random. The result is like being in a busy foreign city where you don’t know the language, and picking up bits and pieces of conversations. The book’s status has risen in recent years—the poet Ben Lerner named his celebrated first novel after “Leaving the Atocha Station” (he wrote in e-mail to me that the first time he read Mr. Ashbery, “It was like oxygen flooded the room”)—but the initial reviews of The Tennis Court Oath were uniformly negative. Famously, J.W. Hughes called Mr. Ashbery “the Doris Day of modernist poetry.”

“I’m not sure what I expected to happen,” Mr. Ashbery said. “I realized it was very strange and not like anything people construed as poetry.”

Just before the book was published, Mr. Ashbery visited the famous French astrologer Andre Barbault. He asked him if the book would be a success. Mr. Barbault looked at his charts and said, “Ce n’est pas le bon moment encore.” It’s not the right time yet.