Proclaiming Ashbery

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 Borge to heroic firefighters.

“It’s a wonderful job,” said Mr. Alatriste, who earned an M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University and named one of his twins after John Keats. “You recognize them publicly. In a sense, I am a public servant.”

But when it came time on April 5 to honor the poet John Ashbery, who happens to be one of Mr. Alatriste’s literary heroes, the task rose above the bureaucratic tipping of the hat to a markedly more expressive plain. He mulled over the right words for days—in his apartment on Bleecker Street, on the subway, everywhere—before jotting down his thoughts.

“As a poet, I felt it was essential that a poet write his proclamation,” said Mr. Alatriste, a somewhat jittery man with curly black hair and glasses.

On Wednesday, he wore a canary-yellow shirt, opal cufflinks and a gray suede vest. A Nikon d100 digital camera hung on a strap around his neck. In addition to his duties as the Council’s scribe, he is also its official photographer. It was in that latter capacity that he mustered the courage to approach Mr. Ashbery, who sat on a folding chair in the City Council’s chamber waiting for the ceremony to get started. It had been scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., and it was already 1:15. Mr. Alatriste took advantage of the delay to snap some extra pictures of the poet, who was wearing a tweed blazer, tie and navy V-neck sweater.

Mr. Ashbery’s smile exposed a gap between his front teeth. At 79, he has thinning silver hair, a consuming blue-eyed stare and a pronounced chin and nose. Mr. Alatriste bent down to exchange a few words with the poet and then walked quickly out of the room.

“That guy is trying to fetch me a copy of the text so that I can see what is in it,” Mr. Ashbery said in his soft, almost meek, voice. “I’m not sure exactly what is being proclaimed.”

Mr. Ashbery, whose honors include a Pulitzer and National Book Award and who was part of the New York School of avant-garde poets in the late 1950’s, had never before set foot in City Hall.

“David Lehman cooked up this Ashbery festival at the New School, and this was part of it,” explained Mr. Ashbery.

Mr. Lehman, poet and poetry coordinator of the New School’s graduate writing program, sat a seat away from Mr. Ashbery and next to Robert Polito, chair of the university’s graduate writing program, who looked bored in a grape-colored scarf. Mr. Lehman bent over Mr. Polito to explain where he got the inspiration for the award.

“My wife Stacey had the idea to ask the Mayor to declare April 7th John Ashbery Day,” explained the bespectacled Mr. Lehman. “It’s a good idea. He’s lived most of his life in New York.”

“Like so many others,” noted Mr. Ashbery, who grew up on a farm outside of Rochester. He said his father had always been against the idea of his coming to New York: “He had his own thoughts about New Yorkers—that they are all out to rob you.”

By 2 p.m., a handful of City Council members had wandered into the mahogany-walled chamber. Some of them exchanged backslaps and handshakes on the red-carpeted floor. Others withdrew to the stairwell, shielding their mouths with their hands while they whispered into their cell phones. Mr. Ashbery seemed to be growing impatient. The ceremony was now an hour and a half behind schedule. He folded his legs. He unfolded them. He folded them again. He ate a granola bar and playfully threw the wrapper at Mr. Lehman. Finally, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn arrived.

“I bet you didn’t know that because of the City Council, April 7 is John Ashbery Day in the City of New York,” said Ms. Quinn, who hurriedly called Mr. Ashbery up to receive his proclamation.

Mr. Ashbery shuffled to the center of the room. Mr. Alatriste positioned himself to take photos. But with each “Whereas” in the proclamation, he seemed increasingly moved by his own words. He lowered the camera from his face and listened to the Council’s baritone orator read how Mr. Ashbery wove “poetry into the flux and flow of life in order to get at the numinous core of what it means to be human” and pay tribute to the poet’s “vatic, colloquial, dissonant and lyrically direct” work.

“I’m tremendously dazed and grateful for this,” said Mr. Ashbery. “I’ve long had a love affair with New York. It’s nice to hear that it is requited.”

“I’m sorry, we’re a little bit delayed today,” said Ms. Quinn, racing on to the next proclamation, which honored the 10th anniversary of the musical Rent.

A few minutes later, Mr. Ashbery, visibly exhausted and accompanied by his two friends, reached the bottom of City Hall’s sweeping marble staircase.

“We got through it,” he said. “Somehow.”

It turned out that few of the City Council members had heard of Mr. Ashbery, but that’s not to say the lawmakers didn’t have a poem in their hearts. Asked to name their favorite poets, they came up with Robert Frost (“I love all the farms, trees, New England, stars,” said Democrat Gale Brewer of Manhattan) and William Ernest Henley (“‘Invictus’—it stuck with me,” said Democrat Leroy Comrie of Queens), among others. While Democrat Michael E. McMahon likes “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (“because that’s my whole political philosophy”), his fellow Staten Islander, Republican James Oddo, enthusiastically recited L.L. Cool J.’s “I Need Love”: “When I’m alone in my room / sometimes I stare at the wall / and in the back of my mind / I hear my conscience call / Telling me I need a girl who’s as sweet as a dove / For the first time in my life / I see I need love.” —Jason Horowitz Proclaiming Ashbery