The beginnings concept (PoemTalk #9)
John Ashbery, 'Crossroads in the Past'
Our PoemTalkers — this time, Gregory Djanikian, Tom Devaney and Jessica Lowenthal — gathered to talk about a late poem by John Ashbery, “Crossroads in the Past,” from his book Your Name Here (2000). Amid the usual Ashberyean ontological bounty, here’s a poem that disentangles the crossed lines of narrative middles and ends (and beginnings). Straightens things out, or at least imagines the goodness of such straightness. And indulges in a nostalgia for the way things were at the start.
Is it age — or the loss of a loved one — that draws an anti-narrative poet to beginnings at the end? That, in short, is the question we posed of this poem. And does such a thing undermine a career-long devotion to middles with implied pre-stories? The wind blows in the direction it blows, and can’t be “wrong.” What about a “relationship”? Can — or should — a relationship be talked back to its beginnings, a narrative housecleaning?
Jessica and Greg decided finally that the apparently definitive ending dead-ends in an obvious imagery and sentiment. Tom and Al disagreed, seeing the poem as thus a meta-poem: a poem about the poet who has reached a point where he must re-imagine “the beginnings concept” and who realizes its failure.
John Ashbery read this poem as a Kelly Writers House Fellow in the spring of 2002. We have video recordings of the reading and an interview/conversation moderated by Al Filreis.
Here is a link to the Poetry Foundation’s PoemTalk page.
Here is PennSound’s John Ashbery page. This page has grown enormously in recent weeks, as PennSound becomes the prime available-for-download repository of audio recordings of this great contemporary poet. Here is a link to Ashbery’s reading of our poem, “Crossroads in the Past.”
PoemTalk #9 was recorded in Studio 111 at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing in Philadelphia. Our engineer-director and editor was Steve McLaughlin.
At top: standing from left, Tom Devaney and Jessica Lowenthal; seated from left, Gregory Djanikian and Al Filreis.