Ashbery: Voyage in the Blue
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As I much later realised, when I met John Ashbery, he had just finished writing ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’. It was in the spring of 1973. I was 21 and on my way to Harvard Law School, one of many missteps along life’s path, and I had invited Ashbery to give a reading at my school, Pomona College, in Southern California.

There had been some difficulty. I’d been granted funds by the student government to invite W S Merwin to give a reading. For whatever reason, Merwin couldn’t come, so I asked to use the money to invite Ashbery. The student government demurred. They had heard of W S Merwin; they had never heard of John Ashbery.

With the patience of the righteous, I spelled it out for them that Ashbery was the distinguished author most recently of Three Poems (published in 1972) and a writer of major promise, and they might rue the day they had deprived their fellow students of the opportunity to hear him. They thought this over and told me they could live with the risk.

I happened to be the editor of the student literary magazine and there was some cash left in my budget, so I used that to pay for Ashbery to come to Pomona. It turned out that he was giving a reading nearby, at USC or UCLA, so it was not a big deal to piggyback on them and bring him out to Claremont (the town where Pomona is situated) for an evening. He was available. He was yet on the cusp of celebrity.

I have a vivid visual memory of seeing him for the first time. He was sitting in the kitchen in the home of one of my teachers. He was 45, but he looked very young, still with the big hair and the open shirt. He must have had the bushy Greenwich-Village moustache, too, though it’s not in the mental picture I retained. He also seemed, in that kitchen, although bland and self-possessed, somehow exotic, as though he was in Hawaiian colors and the rest of us were in stateside black-and-white. Some of that impression was probably my excitement at meeting him.

We were serious about poetry in Claremont. I was a Creative Writing major, but there were also some genuinely accomplished poets around. Two of my classmates, Brenda Hillman and Garrett Hongo, would become professional poets. Bert Meyers taught at Pitzer, one of the Claremont Colleges. My teacher was Dick Barnes, a sly and underappreciated poet. That was also a period, later renowned in the region, of great studio art at Pomona. All of this was a little strange in a small town 50 miles inland from LA that is best known locally as a retirement community for former missionaries. But we felt, however naively, that we were part of the world of the contemporary arts.

My friends and I read all types of poetry, and all types of poets came to Claremont to read, but the institutional brand was Black Mountain/California Beat—Robert Creeley and Gary Snyder. Snyder had given a reading at Pitzer a few years earlier and a thousand people turned up.

Ashbery was New York School, and, to a Southern California Beat like Dick Barnes, New York School meant Harvard, which is where, of course, as undergraduates, Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch first met. Barnes, in fact, had a degree in medieval literature from Harvard, but he was a mountain-man from San Bernardino, out in the Mojave Desert, whose father drove a snow plow, and, for someone like him, Ashbery probably seemed a bit of a snot, ironic, effete—in a word, gay, a coterie writer.

Ashbery didn’t seem particularly coterie or gay to me, but I would not have been looking out for those things or known why they mattered. He wasn’t snotty, either, but he was a person prepared to be amused. Somehow the conversation around the table turned to men who hunted goats, I guess mountain goats. This made Ashbery smile. ‘A noble sport,’ he said.

Ashbery’s irony I totally got. I am a very ironic person—I wish I was not—and I think I felt, as a struggling writer myself, that my irony was getting in the way of my sincerity, or my desire to say something without a parenthetical wink. So Ashbery, or Ashbery’s poetry, or, really, Ashbery’s sensibility, fascinated me. He was somehow winking and saying something at the same time. Finding writers like that, writers who seem to be telling you, ‘It’s OK to be the way you are’, are important moments growing up.

In those days, I don’t think I had a much deeper appreciation of Ashbery’s poems than that. Like I imagine most readers, I found myself tuned in to some of his poems and tuned out of others. Later, I read Helen Vendler’s great piece about Ashbery—a review of As We Know in The New Yorker in 1981—in which she laid out the case for Ashbery as an unadulterated romantic, a successor to Keats.

I liked that, mainly because it confirmed my inchoate sense that Ashbery’s poems were not willful exercises in deflection, or experiments in combining cultural registers, but were efforts to say something about the way it is. You don’t want to say, ‘The subject of Ashbery’s poetry is . . .’ If forced to, though, I would say that his subject matter is the phenomenology of mortality, what it is like to be living and, therefore, dying. That’s a more specific field of endeavor than it sounds, because it’s the only subject Ashbery is interested in.

Vendler’s association of Ashbery with Keats and Harold Bloom’s association of him with Wallace Stevens misses (maybe because it is outside the academic canon) the fact that after he left Harvard and went to New York, Ashbery hung around in avant-garde circles in Manhattan. The cutting edge there for him was not Jackson Pollock (as the sloppy New York Times obituary had it, the same obituary that described ‘Self-Portrait’ as a book-length poem and referred to Frank O’Hara as John). The cutting edge was John Cage and Merce Cunningham.

The ‘center’ of Cage and Cunningham’s art was decentering. There is no ‘best seat’ for a Cunningham performance. He worked hard to obliterate the distinction between upstage and downstage, as Cage used chance methods to insure that his pieces would avoid hierarchical structures. Ashbery is supposed to have his breakthrough moment as a poet after hearing Cage’s ‘Music of Changes’, a composition created using the I Ching (also known as The Book of Changes.)

This is one reason for the scattered quality of the typical Ashbery poem. It resembles a little Cage’s famous silent piece for piano, 4’33”: it is a design for making you pay aesthetic attention to ambient sounds. In Ashbery’s poem, it’s ambient words, the locutions floating through one’s head and seemingly untethered to one another, the mental noise that is the symptom of being alive.

The poems I responded to tended to be the longer and more ambitious poems, maybe because they could afford, thanks to length, oblique starts and meandering patches. Every once in a while in those poems you reach a clearing, sometimes beautiful and moving, like a smell or a sound that taps into a memory (‘hiding places ten years deep’, to use the romantic formula) and then vanishes, forever unrepeatable, and you’re back in the underbrush.

The real reason I invited Ashbery to Pomona wasn’t because I thought he was going to become famous. It was because I had read a new poem of his, ‘Voyage in the Blue’, in The New Yorker and I wanted to hear him read it.

I had been infatuated with ‘Definition of Blue’, in The Double Dream of Spring, the poem that begins,

The rise of capitalism parallels the advance of romanticism
And the individual is dominant until the close of the nineteenth century.

I read it as a faux-solemn intonation of history-of-ideas platitudes, somehow both funny and moving, about modern life that then proceeded to try to capture, in a serious way, the experience, in such a world, of subjectivity.

. . . the blue surroundings drift slowly up and past you
To realise themselves some day, while you, in this nether world that could not be better
Waken each morning to the exact value of what you did and said, which remains.

‘That could not be better’: a perfect ironic ambivalence.

I thought that ‘Voyage in the Blue’ was a much better version of the same poetic idea. Like a lot of Ashbery’s poetry, it begins, almost arbitrarily, with a natural image,

As on a festal day in early spring,

that evokes the first line of The Canterbury Tales, which will always be read under the shadow cast by the first line of The Waste Land.

Also like a lot of Ashbery’s poetry, the fruit is plucked at the very end

As the distant castle rejoices to the joyous
Sound of hooves, releasing rooks straight up into the faultless air
And meanwhile weights its shadow ever heavier on the mirroring
Surface of the river, surrounding the little boat with three figures in it.

That could almost be Tennyson. Ashbery would produce one more version of this poem, ‘Grand Galop’, in the Self-Portrait collection—the poem that ends with an allusion to Browning’s dark tower. I like that one the best, I think, of all Ashbery’s poems.

Before the reading, we had an early dinner at a high-end Mexican place. Ashbery is supposed to have been drinking a lot in those years, but I don’t remember him drinking more than a Margarita, required libation in high-end Mexican restaurants. We talked about Auden, who had chosen Some Trees for the Yale Younger Poets series. I’m pretty sure we did not say much worth remembering. At least, I forgot whatever it was. When we left for the reading, I asked him to read ‘Voyage in the Blue’.

He did not. The reading was disappointing. I’ve since heard recordings of Ashbery readings that show that he could establish a bantering rapport with his audience that brought out the sometimes campy or ironic humor in his lines—the ‘noble sport’ tone—but he seemed bored or tired. Maybe he sensed a Black Mountain vibe.

Afterwards, there was a party with me and a few faculty at someone’s house. Ashbery said he had brought some grass with him from New York and suggested partaking. I had a calculus exam the next day, so I didn’t stick around. I did tell him I was sorry he had left out ‘Voyage in the Blue’. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and I left out a lot of poems I wanted to read, too.’ I know that’s the kind of thing that poets say, but, to be honest, I have always thought it was kind of a shitty answer.

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