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

MR. ASHBERY WRITES MOST of his poems in one sitting, but even the longer work is associative. He tries to write at least once a week, but it doesn’t always work out. He’ll begin by writing down words he’s been thinking about, or words that seem to have taken on a different meaning than usual.

“I basically start writing without any preconceived notion of what I’m going to do and then do it,” he told me.

This is how he ends up with lines that can be read again and again and still not give off any clear meaning. Here’s the ending of “If the Birds Knew” from his 1966 book Rivers and Mountains:

A leaf would have settled the disturbance
Of the atmosphere, but at that high
Valley’s point disbanded
Clouds that rocks smote newly
The person or persons involved
Parading slowly through the sunlit fields
Not only as though the danger did not exist
But as though the birds were in on the secret.

Every line is a clue leading up to a secret, but we’re never let in on what the secret is. His work is better read as a series of cascading images that fly by and disappear like scenery through the window of a fast-moving car. If the poems are “about” anything, it’s trying to understand the poems. This is particularly true of Three Poems, in which the subject of every anaphora appears to be the poem itself: “This is shaped in the new merging, like ancestral smiles, common memories, remembering just how the light stood on the ate that time. But it is also something new. Outside, can’t you hear it, the traffic, the trees, everything getting nearer.”

“We’re trained as kids to say, ‘What does this mean?’” said Daniel Halpern, Mr. Ashbery’s editor at Ecco. “John’s poetry is so beyond that. You’re in a place without gravity. You’re not earthbound. You’re free to move side to side and back and forth, and you’re not held responsible for what you’ve just done.”

He’s become more prolific with age. He’s already completed 20 poems for his next book. More importantly, the world seems to have caught up with even his densest work, like “Litany” from 1979’s As We Know, written in two columns that, according to an author’s note, are meant to be read simultaneously. He’s tired of being called “difficult.”

“T.S. Eliot would say that all great poets educate their audience,” Paul Muldoon said to me. “They modify the audience’s taste. They prepare the ground for their own work. That certainly is the case with Ashbery. We’ve learned how to read him in a way that would have been unlikely 20 or 30 years ago. If one had suggested 20 years ago that Ashbery would now be seen as the most influential American poet, one would have been committed.”

Now, Mr. Ashbery is one of the few poets who can sell out an auditorium, which he did at an event in December at the New School. After he read, the New School’s David Lehman asked him, “What do you think of the critical theory that your poems are full of crypt-words that can be decoded, or to use a word that I think neither of us likes very much, unpacked?”

“Oh, yes, I hate that word,” Mr. Ashbery deadpanned. “And I hate crypt-words, too. I don’t believe it’s true. No matter what you write, it sounds like it could be something else.”

HIS NEWEST BOOK, Quick Question, is dedicated to Jane Freilicher. The opening poem, “Words to That Effect,” first appeared in the Yale Review for Harold Bloom’s 80th birthday.

The drive down was smooth
but after we arrived things started to go haywire,
first one thing and then another. The days
scudded past like tumbleweed, slow then fast,
then slow again. The sky was sweet and plain.
You remember how still it was then,
a season putting its arms into a coat and staying unwrapped
for a long, a little time.

Mr. Bloom discovered Mr. Ashbery by accident when he was 26, in his second year of teaching at Yale, when he stumbled upon Some Trees in the university bookstore and read it straight through standing up in the aisle.

“I still have some of the poems by heart,” Mr. Bloom told me. “He’s always in my mind.”

“He always mentions the fact that he’s two years younger than I am,” Mr. Ashbery said.

The book is nostalgic, but most of Mr. Ashbery’s work is. In another poem, “Auburn-Tinted Fences,” he plays with the phrase “Le livre est sur la table,” recalling the closing poem of his first book: “When I think of the/motley we wore sometimes, I get all jizzed up, just for the sake of things,/or to thank somebody. And if that’s all you expect in life, good, so/be it, only don’t stop at the concierge’s loge on your way out. La/concierge est dans l’escalier.” (“The concierge is on the stairs.”)

He wrote that on the same typewriter he always uses, but he’s worried that the old machine doesn’t have much time left. He’ll write on it for as long as it lasts, though, the noise from the Manhattan streets below bleeding through the walls.

“Just look out the window at how gray and vertical everything is,” he said to me. “I guess I’ve spent so many years here and know the place so well, it’s almost dissolved into my past.”

mmiller@observer.com

Correction: Due to a transcription error, an exchange between John Ashbery and David Lehman at the New School was represented incorrectly. Mr. Lehman referred in his talk to “crypt-words”–not “quipped”–a phrase coined by the critic John Shaptow to describe words that are suggested, but not actually present, in Mr. Ashbery’s poems. The article has been updated to reflect this.