When he was 8 years old, John Ashbery stopped writing poetry. He’d just finished a poem about the battle of the snowflakes and the bunnies. It rhymed. He was pleased enough with it to pound it out on a typewriter. His parents sent a copy of the poem to his mother’s cousin. The family lived on a farm outside of Rochester in a rural town so small that it didn’t even have a kindergarten. The cousin was married to the son of the famous mystery novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart, the “American Agatha Christie.” Rinehart lived on Fifth Avenue and read the poem aloud at her Christmas celebration. It would not, Mr. Ashbery believed, get any better than this. He figured he’d quit while he was at the top of his game.
His retirement didn’t last long. In December, Ecco published Quick Question, his 26th book of original poems. In 2008, he was the first living poet to have his collected poems published by the Library of America. The first volume is a thousand pages long and only covers the years 1956-1987, the first three decades of Mr. Ashbery’s career; a second volume is in the works. He’s been called the greatest 20th-century American poet so many times that he’s been dismissed almost as frequently as overrated.
In 2012, a slew of rock-star writers published disappointing novels, and a bunch of actual rock stars wrote crappy memoirs. There were some bright corners, but let’s begin with the aging rock stars. Time is not on their side.
Two summers ago, I went to a reading that the poet Paul Muldoon was giving in a black box theater on the third floor of a nondescript building in Hell’s Kitchen. He read from a galley of his 2010 collection of poems, Maggot, and marked copy errors with a pen as he went along. John Ashbery joined him, reading handwritten translations of Rimbaud scrawled out on a yellow legal pad. There were mice scurrying around and about 20 people in the room, who were polite and subdued. A month later I interviewed Mr. Muldoon, who has been The New Yorker‘s poetry editor since 2007, over the course of two days, at Robert Frost’s farm in Ripton, Vt., where he summers. On the second night, we attended a bluegrass festival at the foot of a mountain, which attracted the kinds of backwoods crowds that drive to concerts in beat-up RVs and all-terrain vehicles. We must have heard four renditions of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Mr. Muldoon heckled the bands by shouting, “Go electric!”
I was only vaguely taken aback, then, when I received an email from him in June that read: “I think we need to continue our tradition of going to cheesy shows. Aerosmith and Cheap Trick on July 24? P.”
Save the ArtsPoetry
Earlier this month, I saw poets Paul Muldoon and John Ashbery read at a small, 60-seat venue in Hell’s Kitchen called Medicine Show Theatre. I’d never heard of the place. There was no sign on the door and scaffolding shrouded the entrance. I paid $5 and sat in a room with about 40 Read More
At The Paris Review’s Spring Revel on Monday night, April 13, at Cipriani 42nd Street, someone mentioned in passing that Philip Gourevitch, the editor of the literary magazine, is a real guy’s guy.
He does kind of resemble the actor Vince Vaughn! And he did look pretty beefy under his suit, though that might Read More
Struggling poet William Alatriste says he writes “free verse, emotional, from the heart,” but his most widely read works are the usually aseptic proclamations he writes for the City Council of New York.
The 44-year-old has penned about 4,000 such honorifics, presented in elaborate calligraphy and gilded frames, to honorees ranging from comedic pianist Victor Read More
Back in February, the war was imminent, and the anti-war movement was booming. The baby boomers had crammed the 60′s down our throats when we were growing up, and now, it seemed, we’d finally have our own generational badge of civil disobedience. So one Saturday, I trudged the frigid streets to the U.N. to participate Read More
The passage of time, which can bury a once flashy reputation with a cruel finality, can also allow certain reputations to prosper beyond anything that was thought possible in the artist’s lifetime. The latter has certainly been the happy fate of the late Fairfield Porter (1907-1975). In the course of his long career, Porter did Read More