Boys of 9 or 10 often know exactly what they want to be when they grow up. Some want to be firemen; others worship race car drivers. John Ashbery, however, had his own unique career ambition. "I was living in Rochester," says the 77-year-old poet in his New York City apartment, wind whistling loudly off the Hudson River. "I saw all these paintings from the famous surrealist show at the MOMA in Life magazine, and I decided then and there I wanted to be a surrealist when I grew up."
Ashbery has long since achieved this dream—in poetry, rather than painting, though he gave the latter a try—and he's kept at it long enough for the world to catch up to his tastes. Early in his career Ashbery's poetry was hailed as brilliant but difficult, beyond modernist. When it was published in the United States last month, though, his latest volume, Where Shall I Wander, wound up on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. In a long, career-spanning essay within, reviewer Charles McGrath made the astute observation that, "Ashbery has been curating and rearranging this material for so long now that, almost without our noticing, he himself has become part of our mental furniture."
Sitting on his sofa, dressed in charcoal slacks, sensible brown shoes and a navy blue sweater, Ashbery seems dressed to prove McGrath's point. He is not exactly the picture of bohemianism. Then again, he never was. While his Harvard classmates Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch stayed in New York and drank at the Cedar Tavern with abstract expressionists and Beat poets, Ashbery moved to Paris on a Fulbright. "I didn't even speak French," he laughs.
It's true, but he managed, in the way one could at that time but not perhaps now. He wrote about art, worked as a journalist and after some language courses, moonlighted as a translator. Between 1957 and 1975, a period during which he also worked at Art News and for the International Herald Tribune, among other places, he penned over 450 articles of criticism. "I'm a little embarrassed by that number," he says now, as if wondering where all the energy came from. He wrote his poems on a typewriter. He still does.
This is not to say there is professionalism to Ashbery's art, but that its muchness, steadiness and Apollonian mysteriousness—not to mention its intimately cerebral dialogue with the art that he viewed and wrote about—has set him apart from his contemporaries, especially poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, both of whom were born within five years of him.
While these poets made their names by revealing all, Ashbery made his by showing very little. "I thought if I could put it all down, that would be one way," Ashbery wrote in 1972. "And the thought came to me that to leave it all out would be a truer way."
"Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror," the 1975 volume which won Ashbery a Pulitzer, a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award, turned confessionalism into a funhouse mirror which projects an image that is powerful, artful, but elusive.
What little we know of Ashbery then tends to concern the early parts of his life. His trajectory from the household of a farmer and a biology teacher to Deerfield Academy and on to Harvard is well known. He had a brother who died when he was young. After that he was an only child, and he excelled like one. At Harvard he studied with Delmore Schwartz, wrote for the university's clubby magazine, The Advocate, and met Frank O'Hara in the last six weeks of classes.
They eventually became close friends, and it was with O'Hara that he competed for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the competition that has launched the careers of poets from Jack Gilbert to Robert Hass, Adrienne Rich to James Tate. W.H. Auden judged the collection and Ashbery won.
Since then, Ashbery has charted his own way, tacking between the poles of Audenesque lyricism and French surrealism. One early collection, The Tennis Court Oath, employed cut-up methods, disassembling language on the page so that Ashbery could reassemble it in his own newfangled way. Ashbery has since put away that method but he has dealt with its blowback ever since. "I began those experiments for my own benefit and never planned another book quite like that one," he says now, almost in apology.
Still, critics find him hard to place, impossible to contain. "It is a thankless and hopeless task to try and keep up with Ashbery, to try and summarize the present state of his art," one critic observed. "He will never stand still, even for the space (or time) of one poem."
The title of Ashbery's new volume can be interpreted as a promise that he will keep up this vatic stylistic innovation. Ashbery doesn't see this as playing hard to get. "O'Hara was romantically involved in his life and loved to tell about it," he says. "I never found my life that interesting. But I've never thought of myself as being in a cat and mouse game with my reader either. I always just think he or she will enjoy having to dig deeper to get at the meaning. If one could paraphrase the meaning of something it wouldn't be art, would it?"
In this regard, Ashbery's latest volume is something of a surprise. With its wintry, poet-in-his-seventies-ruminations, its wry wink to readers who have stayed with him all this time, Where Shall I Wander carries an emotional urgency that feels new, an acceptance of beauty that would seem conventional were it not so uniquely hard-won. "The year subsides into clouds / more beautiful than any I have seen," begins "A Visit to the House of Fools." It ends with one of Ashbery's most satisfying grace moments ever.
Like his other volumes, Where Shall I Wander was put together when Ashbery had enough poems for a collection. He writes poetry a few days a week and does not revise heavily what he writes. Phrases come to him, and he pockets them until the moment he sits down to write. This is not automatic writing, he says, just his way. "True automatic writing doesn't exist," he says. "Even the French poets who created this definition wrote in perfect diction."
As a result of this method, Where Shall I Wander has no contrived thematic unity, but rather an appealing organic eclecticism. Playfulness bleeds into mournfulness, the way one's mood can change in a day. The images he draws upon are wide and various, as usual, and they reveal that Ashbery is just as in charge of his craft as ever. Here is the opening riff of "Wolf Ridge," a poem which seems destined for the anthologies: "Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering watermarks this time of day. Time to get out and, as they say, about. Becalmed on a sea of inner stress, sheltered from cold northern breezes, idly we groove."
There is something deeply modern and hip about lines like these. If you set them to a thumping backbeat and added a chorus you could picture the singer Beck rapping them at you. Not surprisingly, music groups from the little known Folk Implosion to the semi-famous Pavement have cited Ashbery as an influence.
In recent years, poets and poetry critics have banged the drum loudly about readers lost to other media, such as rock music itself. Ashbery, however, is not worried. "In the early '60s a critic from Time magazine asked Frank O'Hara out for a drink after work," he says. "So they went to a bar and sat down and the guy asked O'Hara, 'What do you think, is poetry dead?' And Frank said, 'Well, if it was, you wouldn't be buying me this drink would you?'"
Ashbery has a laugh over that. "The parallel world of poetry is very large and very active," he says, managing not to sound like a booster. "There are hundreds of small presses putting out good work today."
And somewhere, back in Rochester, perhaps, a whole new generation of 9-year-old American kids is deciding to all be surrealists, too.