Features - December 2013
John Ashbery and the arts
While painting occupies a primary place in John Ashbery’s sense of the arts, his poems also have to do with the possibilities he has gleaned from individual artists in nearly every medium. In “Jane Freilicher,” an essay on the painter and his close friend, he writes:
We were in awe of de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Motherwell and not too sure of exactly what they were doing. But there were other things to attend to: concerts of John Cage’s music, Merce Cunningham’s dances, the Living Theatre, but also talking and going to movies and getting ripped and hanging out and then discussing it all over the phone. I could see all of this entering into Jane’s work and Larry’s and my own. And then there were the big shows at the Museum of Modern Art, whose permanent collection alone was stimulation enough for one’s everyday needs. I had come down from Cambridge to catch the historic Bonnard show in the spring of 1948, unaware of how it was already affecting a generation of young painters who would be my friends, especially Larry Rivers, who turned from playing jazz to painting at that moment of his life.
Poetry and painting are set in an interlinked relation of the arts, with music, dance, movies, theater, and literature, all feeding new aesthetic questions as they come into being.
With these overlapping affinities in mind, we went about assembling “John Ashbery and the arts” wanting to explore how artists across genres respond creatively to Ashbery’s poetry. Our most exciting revelation was how much everyone here fashioned work by reading himself or herself into Ashbery’s. That is to say, contributors created their pieces through reading their own sensibilities into Ashbery’s, and not the other way around.
The distinction is as subtle as it is generative. We discovered that the house of Ashbery is generous and catalytic: were many of the artworks published here to be gathered under other circumstances, they might not seem to have much in common. But instead, they roam through dance, theatre, poetry, music, translation, and essay, in styles so divergent, they push at the outer description of the word while still tracing correspondent lines to Ashbery’s work.
One of Ashbery’s particular strengths is how he accommodates so very much. His dexterity with tone allows for compositions into which he can place almost anything — movie titles, comets, skaters, abstract painting, and comics — and make them work. More precisely, perhaps, not so much “work,” as mystify, surprise, open language in ways that would be nearly impossible to anticipate.
Ashbery has discernibly influenced a number of poets. But the word “influence” here is much too confining to convey the impact he has had across genres and art forms, or the rich the impact that all the arts have had on him. His effect amounts more to a permission writ large: a permission to range widely, to experiment mightily, to be not like Ashbery, but to be allied in a deep sensibility of possibilities of the avant-garde and “this thing there is no name for.”
It is as though a day which had begun brilliantly in the blaze of a new sunrise had become transfixed as a certain subtle change in the light can cast a chill over your heart, or the sight of a distant thin ribbon of cirrus ebbing into space can alter everything you have been feeling, dropping you back years and years into another world in which its fragile reminder of inexorable change was also the law, as it is here today. You know now the sorrow of continually doing something that you cannot name, of producing automatically as an apple tree produces apples this thing there is no name for. And you continue to hum as you move forward, but your heart is pounding. (John Ashbery, “The Recital,” in Three Poems)