John Ashbery died nearly a week ago. He was born in 1927 and he died this year, our year, 2017. He was perfectly ninety. His birthday was July 28th. In honor of this big one people recorded his long poem “Flow Chart” and sent it to him, they (we) wrote paragraphs about who he and his work was for them. He received all these encomiums, they made him happy and then he died. John was a Leo. He leaves a partner, David Kermani who he lived with for over 30 years. In his life-time John Ashbery published more than 20 books, the 8th of which, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror in 1976 won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle making him the most celebrated poet of our time. Nobody else got all three. So he was a famous poet for the last forty years of his life and he was a generous one, blurbing books, writing recommendations, and pieces like this, so many, when important peers of his died. Of his generation he was the last man standing, and the great one. He was a sweet and a generous and a private man. I heard that he really wanted a Nobel Prize but anyone who knew his work also knew it was unlikely he could receive the Nobel Prize for Literature since there was no reason to give such a lofty international award to him. And that him definitely has a little gay twist. Have Nobel prizes gone to known gay aesthetes before. Ones who make light of it, and that it is pretty much everything. That was John’s great subject. Everything. Subjectivity itself.
Bob Dylan got a Nobel for writing songs which are always so much more everyone’s than poems are, and Dylan’s work at least in his youth seemed political. Whereas don’t think the world is ever ready for the proposal that the interior life of an art-loving gay person is political, as if politics doesn’t reflect the entire landscape itself, including the loud and the quiet, the overt and the steamingly subtle. On a radio show in Boston last night someone authoritatively stated that “John Ashbery grew up gay…” and one can say that now for sure because a biography of John was just published so it’s really true. John’s lonely gay childhood is described in the bio. And out of that lonely unpolitical pool (the interior of such a person – because “growing up gay” especially in the early part of the 20th century was entirely an inside job, not social at all) I’d wager that most of the great art of the 20th century, not just John’s, was spawned. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, a long poem from the award-winning book of the same title, loosely concerns itself with a young painter (Parmigianino) who confronts himself in a round mirror and simultaneously is painting a portrait of that. I say loosely because John’s poem incrementally goes off in every direction concerning itself with time, nature, opticality and love. And it drops us just like The Wizard of Oz does, back home in the end. Or Ashbery’s home which is homelessness. It ends:
…The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.
Lately I’ve been clinging to this poem like my personal memorial of John. Re-reading it. It had been written by the man I first met at readings and book parties when I first “came to town” and I’m more curious now than ever to know what he knew then (nothing he claims at the end) when the world first became his mirror.
Was Parmigianino gay? This young 15th century painter who worked in Rome at the time of The Sack, a time unstable and analogous to ours – with our tornados and constant war, white rioting, fear of “outsiders” and a crazy leader at the helm. The technology of consciousness as it’s presented in the small painting is tremendously fertile territory, was kind of a lid to another world, this one again, for a middle aged gay poet art writer four centuries in the future.
Ashbery was taken then as I am now by the very modern gesture of taking a selfie so to speak in order to understand the shape of the world, or Ashbery’s then or ours now, as it continues seeping away into the air. (In an interview with Adam Fitzgerald he describes his own reaction to first seeing a reproduction of Parmigianino’s painting as “Wow. This must mean something.”) Ashbery saw Parmagianino’s actual painting in Vienna. “I saw it with Pierre in 1959” he drops within the same poem. Pierre is Pierre Martory, a French Basque poet, ten years Ashbery’s elder. The two men were lovers, influencing each other’s work and living together in Paris for almost ten years. I think of them standing close, looking at the work. Gay artists in their prime, looking at art. Nothing political about that. Yet as John injects this tiny personal detail in his poem and the apparatus of love then careens and reflects throughout its entirety. And changed his time. This same poem that became the fulcrum of Ashbery’s life, the idle romantic moment of art viewing flipped him into sight.
The first time I’d heard Ashbery’s work discussed was in a poetry workshop in New York. The instructor, who was straight, described John Ashbery’s signature style as “evasiveness” and was evidence or just part and parcel of his homosexuality. Hmmm. His style for me was not so much changing or ducking the subject as continually looking at it from another angle so that when the subject changed you were indeed following something else, language maybe. Poet Rickey Laurentis on the same show last night described John Ashbery’s poetry as “talking back to itself.” An interior call and response, the persistent feeling of melancholy that infuses the work, a perverse and lively something wriggles imperceptibly and suddenly — in the same “high art” poem – he (gayly) takes it down, just like you might whisper to your lover or friend about “those assholes/Who would confuse everything with their mirror games…” thereby poking a needle into his own balloon, or balooning. His groove was just such stops and starts, so often invisible. Interventions. And you were in it, whatever the nature of the experiment. His was the state of the “unpolitical poem.” You don’t get told its meaning. You submit. You admit it’s all around you. Your phone won’t go ding in the presence of the beautiful. Why should it. Would God ever speak like that. If you know God at all you would know they speak in all kinds of ways. Ashbery took on the universe itself. Which strikes me as the most political thought. He was simply gay in it. Aren’t you. It’s a troubling posture. It’s guerilla. I think of all the razzamatazz still about his obscurity, his difficulty is just discomfort with that. You don’t know where you’re going. That’s what you’re learning in life. Still “we” want our poems to work. To guide us. To clunk us over the head with their labor, their message, their meaning. Instead you might find yourself in some gay bar. John was cool. Everything he wrote had a kind of easy elegance. A doubleness. A testing. How do I know I’m here. What’s here. He learned it early, his quizzicalness. He had the flow, which according to Virginia Woolf-think is the gift. He was the kind of writer who seemed to pour perfect stuff easily, readily and he did it for years.
My favorite unpolitical Ashbery joke comes from this same book Self Portrait. A poem called “A Poem in Three Parts” begins like this:
“Once I let a guy blow me.
I kind of backed away from the experience.
Now years later, I think of it
Without emotion. There has been no desire to repeat,
No hang-ups either. Probably if the circumstances were right
It could happen again, but I don’t know,
I just have other things to think about,
More important things. Who goes to bed with what
Is unimportant. Feelings are important.
Mostly I think of feelings, they fill up my life
Like the wind, like tumbling clouds
In a sky full of clouds, clouds upon clouds.”
He was a country boy, from Sodus, New York so everything winds up in nature, up there. This poem radiates with the glee of one who knows that you know (that he’s queer) and in the context of all that knowing he is making a joke about it, for us who get it, he is performing the liberal discomfort of a straight guy and this is certainly one of the many pleasures of being famously gay while not being famous for being gay which is an entirely different job. Probably mine, and those of my generation, not his. John had nothing to unload, and he was always unloading. He had a way which he taught us all and the time changed around him and he changed with it. Now he is gone and we miss him. We all do. We miss his constant song. Thank you, John Ashbery. Poetry will never be like that again.