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

Ashbery in 1996. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)
Ashbery in 1996. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

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.

“Whole libraries have been written about John by now,” the critic Harold Bloom told me. “I find it just silly. It’s all devoted to this notion that he’s a French poet writing in English. Or that he’s a Language Poet. It’s all nonsense.”

“I don’t really feel like John should be pigeonholed into a particular school,” Alice Quinn, the former poetry editor at The New Yorker, said. “I think he demonstrates more what poetic thinking is. It’s both a jumble and coherent. He manages to capture a lot of the palpable feeling of being alive in his writing.”

His detractors say he’s too difficult. His fans say that the naysayers don’t know how to read poetry.

“I’m sure people do struggle with his poems,” the poet Paul Muldoon, Ms. Quinn’s successor at The New Yorker, wrote in an e-mail. “Why wouldn’t they? We struggle to give birth. We struggle to get born. We struggle to copulate. Some of us even have to struggle to die.”

Last month, I went to the Chelsea apartment where Mr. Ashbery has lived since the early ’70s. There were stacks of books and papers resting on every available surface, and the building’s old brick walls did little to keep out the sound from Ninth Avenue. I was greeted by David Kermani, Mr. Ashbery’s partner since around 1970, when Mr. Kermani was in his early 20s. He’s a small, spry man in his 60s, and he had helped set up the meeting, because Mr. Ashbery, who is 85, does not use e-mail much. Walking into a large living room, I could see the back of Mr. Ashbery’s head, a patch of messy white hair jutting out above the back of a recliner that faced the window. There were two walkers and a cane propped close by. A spinal infection that almost killed him in the ’80s left him with a limited ability to walk. He’d had a bad fall recently. He was wearing a button-down shirt and slacks and offered a sad smile when he said, “Forgive me for not getting up. I have mobility issues.” He spat out the last words like he held the diagnosis against his doctor. Outside it was drizzling, and he looked out the window at Manhattan as if he were sizing it up.

When I asked him what it was like growing up in the country, he said, “It was horrible,” and then groaned loudly. He’s always had a strained relationship with nature in his writing, a kind of anti-Romantic approach to the sublime that weighs more heavily on the side of terror—or at least an eerie melancholy—than of awe or beauty. In “At North Farm,” a modified sonnet from the 1984 collection A Wave, he writes:

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are busting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky.

He lived with his grandparents when he was young so he could attend school in the city. His grandfather was a professor at the University of Rochester. He moved back in with his parents when he got a little older, but he was lonely on the farm. When he was 12, his younger brother died of leukemia. He spent most of his time by himself until a wealthy friend of Mr. Ashbery’s mother agreed to pay for him to finish high school at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.

“By that time I had already discovered modern poetry,” he said. “High schools used to have current events contests sponsored by Time, if the class subscribed to the magazine. They were quite easy. I won the prize of a book. Of the four that they offered, the only one I was vaguely interested in was an anthology of modern American and British poetry by Louis Untermeyer.”

He had a friend at Deerfield who stole his poems and sent them to Poetry magazine with his own name attached. (He apologized, but then did it again with the lower-grade magazine Voices.) The friend followed Mr. Ashbery to Harvard, but once the two drifted apart, Mr. Ashbery started hanging around with poets who didn’t plagiarize his writing. He worked for the Advocate, where he met Kenneth Koch and Robert Bly. For most of college, he knew Frank O’Hara only by reputation. O’Hara was publishing stories and poems in the Advocate and was a fixture at parties around Harvard Square, but was too intimidating to talk to. A few months before graduating, Mr. Ashbery went to an opening at Mandrake Books for the illustrator Edward Gorey, O’Hara’s roommate. He overheard O’Hara talking to a group of people about the composer Francis Poulenc and noted a similar northeastern accent. Mr. Ashbery had drunk just enough wine to go up to him and say, “Hey, you sound just like me.”

At Harvard, they’d share poems and spend afternoons messing around with a piano. O’Hara would play his compositions—which have all been lost—like his sonatina that lasted three seconds. Once O’Hara returned to New York after finishing graduate school at the University of Michigan, the two attended John Cage’s 1952 New Year’s Day concert put on by the Living Theater. Cage played “Music of Changes,” an atonal, rhythmless work for solo piano.

“I was completely taken by surprise,” Mr. Ashbery said. “It was just arbitrary bangs on the piano over quite a long period of time. And long pauses. I had been in a drought with my writing. I felt I hadn’t written anything good in almost a year. It really gave me ideas about how to write poetry again.”

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