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 1963, WHEN HE RETURNED to America, everything had changed. For one thing, there were poetry readings everywhere in New York. The Beats had arrived, and were being lumped in with the New York School. Mr. Ashbery found that his stature had risen. On September 16, 1963, he gave his first reading at the Living Theater. Koch introduced him by saying, “He’s one of the best poets now alive. My own opinion is that he is writing the best poetry that anybody now is writing in the English language.”

He returned to France and started working on his first important long work, “The Skaters.” He composed it on a typewriter, which became his preferred method of writing. The poem’s lines were so long that he couldn’t remember the end of one by the time he got to it, but he could type faster than he could write longhand. In France, he was living with the poet Pierre Martory and writing art criticism for the International Herald Tribune. He was refining the style of The Tennis Court Oath, making poems that were about reading the poems in question. They were loaded with mysterious antecedents and elusive imagery, but the work also became very readable. (“The Skaters” has a hilarious moment of transition that acts like a kind of manifesto: “This city. Is the death of the cube repeated. Or in the musical album./It is time now for a general understanding of the meaning of all this.”)

By 1965, he was back in New York for good—against his will. He didn’t want to leave Mr. Martory, but his father had died and there wasn’t anyone to take care of his mother. He had written about Andy Warhol’s first show in Paris, and when he returned to America, Warhol threw him a big party at the Factory on 47th Street. Not long after he came back, in 1966, O’Hara died in an accident on Fire Island. Unlike Mr. Ashbery, he hadn’t lived long enough to witness his influence on American writing.

“Grove Press had let Meditations in an Emergency go out of print, and as soon as he died, they had rushed it back into print,” Mr. Ashbery told me. “What I’m saying is Frank had become well-known to a sort of smaller poetry public, but not until he died—tragically—did he become the kind of eminence that he is now. And when somebody dies tragically, somehow the legend becomes bigger. In fact, Brad Gooch’s biography seemed to imply his death was part of an inexorable fall from grace. That’s not true at all.”

Another reason Mr. Ashbery returned to the States was that Thomas Hess, recently named the editor in chief at ARTnews, told him he could have the executive editor gig at the publication. He went on to work as the art critic for New York magazine in the late ’70s, and then, in 1980, for Newsweek. This meant he was essentially creating a new American avant-garde in his spare time. He’d write lines like, “Why must it always end this way? A dais with woman reading, with the ruckus of her hair/And all that is unsaid about her pulling us back to her, with her/Into the silence that night alone can’t explain” and follow them up with a bitchy review calling William-Adolphe Bouguereau “the Pooh Bah of nineteenth-century academicians.”

“I got off some nice wisecracks once in a while,” Mr. Ashbery told me. “But it got really scary. I’d have to write an article that the next week would be seen by thousands of people about something that I really didn’t know anything about. So I was doing a lot of on-the-job training. I felt compelled to write about certain exhibitions that seemed important, even if I didn’t know anything. The worst one of all was a show at the Met of Chinese bronzes. I didn’t know anything about that, and I still don’t.”

He was also teaching in the creative writing department at Brooklyn College, and for the most part not enjoying it. At one point he thought he would have a nervous breakdown. In those days, before his 1975 collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the National Book Critics Circle Award, he was still mostly obscure. One student asked him if he was the same John Ashbery who wrote about art. But at least one writer, John Yau, went to Brooklyn College in order to study with him. When Mr. Ashbery read his work, he said, ‘Oh, we have a live one.’

“I remember the first class,” Mr. Yau told me. “He said we should translate something. It’s always interesting to translate from a language we didn’t know, he said. So I thought we were going to do it by sound. You figure out what it sounds like and you approximate what the English word is. Instead, he handed out a couple pages of Egyptian hieroglyphics.”

Mr. Yau became Mr. Ashbery’s protégé. He taught Mr. Yau how to write poetry and brought him into the art world. Mr. Ashbery told him that you could praise an artist and be critical of him or her at the same time. He told Mr. Yau what O’Hara had told him, that you don’t use one artist to beat up another. He’d take him to openings and introduce him to David Hockney or Sonia Orwell. Mr. Yau said that discovering Mr. Ashbery’s poems in college was “like the first time you see a Godard movie when you’re 19. You just go, ‘Huh.’ And it never leaves you.”