John Ashbery in conversation with Bruce Kawin, WKCR radio, May 5, 1966

Transcription by Gregory Dunne

For years I have been listening to an interview on WKCR radio, recorded on May 5, 1966, in which John Ashbery did something he rarely did — a close reading or “explanation” of a poem. In this rare instance, it was “These Lacustrine Cities.” The whole interview lasts 27 1/2 minutes, but toward the beginning Ashbery reads the poem for interviewer/host Bruce Kawin, after which the poet discusses it for 13 minutes, after which the poem is recited again.

I am compiling this note during the weekend of John Ashbery’s death. I found myself pondering this portion of the poet’s disarming talk about his poem:

“Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears.” Well again, you have two conflicting things, three really: disappointment and tears, kind of combining to make something rather beautiful and pleasant to look at, like a rainbow. In other words, a final contradiction, which is one of many, which this poem is made up of, and which life and history are made up of.

Recently Tomoyuki Iino asked Gregory Dunne to transcribe the portion of the interview in which Ashbery “explains” the poem. Here, then, is that transcription. My making it available turns out, sadly, to be well timed.

* * *

Kawin: Good evening, this is WKCR FM’s literary workshop, your host Bruce Kawin. Tonight, for the last program of this season, we are interviewing John Ashbery.

Ashbery: Well, you said that you would like to ask me some particular questions about a particular poem, so I will start and read the first poem in the book and do my best to offer any explanations that seem necessary. It’s called “These Lacustrine Cities.” Lots of people have asked me what the word “lacustrine” means: it means “pertaining to lakes.” I think, in fact, that the lake dweller’s civilization is often referred to with that adjective, you know the people in Switzerland built houses on piles, pilings. [He reads the poem.]

Kawin: It has been held as the general New York opinion by most people who aren’t writing modern poetry that modern poetry is incomprehensible to the average reader. I thought we would take this opportunity for you to go through the poem that you just read and explain to the listeners to give them some idea of just what’s going on in the poem, for example, if there is any sort of plot motion –perhaps why you chose the word “lacustrine,” which I had to look up when I read the poem, and then read it again, and then we can proceed to a regular reading.

Ashbery: Well, I hope that modern poetry is not incomprehensible. I hope that mine, in particular isn’t. I must draw the line between obscurity and incomprehensibility. I firmly believe that poetry must communicate. It’s true that some of my poems are obscure but this may be because I feel that one can communicate more things more directly obscurely, at least at certain times, than directly. I will tell you a little bit about what I was thinking when I wrote the poem, which of course doesn’t really bear on the meaning of it because no reader could ever know this, but it might be of interest to your listeners. I wrote this poem when I was thinking about a trip I made to Zurich, Switzerland, (a city) which I find very pleasant because of its urban quality and the lake that is there. At the same time, this is not far from the place in Switzerland where the lake dwellers’ remains of their civilization was discovered in the last century. This might have had some bearing on my use of the word “lacustrine.” At the same time, Zurich is a city built on a lake. The reference is in my own mind to that particular place.

What I think the poem seems to be about is a kind of, perhaps, a dream of history on the part of the person writing it; in other words, the poet’s, not necessarily myself. And there is a kind of a thumbnail sketch of civilization in it, I think. At the same time, it has a kind of reference to the development of a single individual. You start out with the idea of these cities. Not necessarily the prehistoric ones, but any cities really. A city that is built on a lake in a way is typical of cities. They all have some kind of distinguishing characteristic like that.

They “grew out of loathing / Into something forgetful, although angry with history.” In other words, a kind of force of rage is one of the features that project civilization forward. And even though they are forgetful people, they forget their origins, these cities, they are still angry with history. In other words, civilization is being seen as a kind of continual quarrel with the stage that has just gone before, and “the product” is that man is “horrible,” for instance, though this is only one example. I think this might be a kind of almost burlesque way of characterizing some of the great motivating forces in civilization, such as rebellion against the previous regimes, or Puritanism or Calvinism, or something like that, an idea that there is some sort of original sin, man is horrible, for instance. Although this is only one example.

Then, the next part about “the tower” controlling “the sky” and “the swans,” “tapering branches,” and so forth, is, I think, a kind of image of the particular kind of city that I was thinking of, although at the same time, I didn’t want it to be a particular one. At any rate, “burning, until all that hate was transformed into useless love,” is a kind of way in which we work off our strong emotions, such as hate for instance, and transform them into something else, love in this case, although “useless love.” In other words, a kind of emotion that I think is just waiting there to be transformed into something else as the individual or the city continues to progress through various stages, which may reverse each other.

And then, you leave the image of the city in the next part: “ … you are left with an idea of yourself / And the feeling of ascending emptiness of the afternoon / Which must be charged to the embarrassment of others …” 

Why must this feeling be charged to the embarrassment of others? I think because the ascending emptiness of the afternoon is a feeling of depression perhaps with a kind of exhilaration in it since it is ascending, a feeling which the poet, the person writing the poem, may feel may not be a legitimate feeling of his own but something that he is feeling as a kind of subject of the dream of history that is going on around him. He feels, possibly, as though he is the character in a dream by somebody else, a feeling that I often have. [Ashbery laughs a little.]

Then suddenly the voice seems to change in this poem: “Much of your time has been occupied by creative games / Until now, but we have all-inclusive plans for you.”

Kawin: I wondered about that, actually.

Ashbery: Well, in my poetry the pronouns can never be trusted to refer to any one person for any length of time. I believe in a kind of  polyphonic effect, which I try to get. And it seems to me indicated there that the person in the previous stanza, who talks about the idea of “yourself,” meaning “himself,” is suddenly changed to these other people, these people who are directing the dream, or directing history, and who have “all inclusive plans” for the subject of this poem. And these people had thought of various gratuitous things that he might do. He might be sent to the middle of the desert or a violent sea. In other words, the person growing up might have been an explorer of the desert or crossed oceans, or a final alternative, which doesn’t seem like a very exciting one, is having “the closeness of the others be air / To you, pressing you back into a startled dream.” In fact, this may be the one which he is finally stuck with. In other words, this, I think, is just an image of the feeling you get when you are in the city and surrounded by people whose reality you can’t quite believe and (one that) seems to press you back into “a startled dream.”

“But the past is already here, and you are nursing some private project.”

In other words, the poet may have come full circle since he has gone back to the past. In other words, the prehistoric civilization alluded to in the title, which is already here. In other words, he has come, in his meditation, around again to this original state of things. But “you are nursing some private project.” In other words, you still feel that you may escape this kind of legacy of history in some private project of your own, possibly the explorations in the previous lines. And in fact, it seems to be a kind of escape from this eternal cycle.

“The worst is not over, yet I know / You will be happy here.” There I think the voice, again, becomes confused. It could be either the people who are responsible for, or the Gods who are responsible for, history or the person who is saying the poem to himself, but it doesn’t really matter very much because he seems to have arrived at a temporary ledge in this cycle. Even though “the worst” is not yet over, a feeling of happiness is established: “Because of the logic / Of your situation, which is something no climate can outsmart.”

I think there that merely the feeling of being alive, of being an individual and playing a part in this cycle, gives the subject, or rather the poet, an identity which is something that no climate can outsmart, meaning no future changes in the present status quo.

And in fact the further reason for this temporary or possibly permanent feeling of security is the fact that “you have built a mountain of something.” And I think there you are suddenly looking back over the various stages of civilization, which seem to resemble a mountain, or in fact looking back over the life that you have already lived.

Proust, at the very end of his novel, describes life as a kind of growing precipice, which finally becomes very high and which you fall down at the moment of your death, possibly a similar imagery is mentioned here.

“Thoughtfully pouring all your energy into this single monument, / Whose wind is desire starching a petal, / Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears.”

The single monument being both the life of your own that you have created, the life of history, of which you are a kind of reflection. And the “desire” and “disappointment” and “tears” being kind of materials of this, of what it is made up of, and with an attempt to kind of reinforce the imagery of the mountain.

I am sorry I made a change in this poem. I changed it back from the way it is published now …

Kawin: Into?

Ashbery: … into the way I had it originally.

I have here “wind” in the next to the last line, which was “top is desire starching a petal,” which I think might be suggesting imagery of the white mountain top, a kind of flat look of a white petal for instance.

“Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears.” Well again, you have two conflicting things, three really: disappointment and tears, kind of combining to make something rather beautiful and pleasant to look at, like a rainbow. In other words, a final contradiction, which is one of many, which this poem is made up of, and which life and history are made up of.

Kawin: Yeah, sort of the same thing in the first line when you have this sort of shiny word like “lacustrine” and then you go to “loathing.”

Ashbery:  That’s right.

Kawin:  You said that you were looking at these cities and you had this reaction and you put that in a poem?

Ashbery:  Ah, I think I just wanted to keep referring to conflicting or contrasting forces and kind of build up a kind of impression of them balancing each other in what turns out to be a single monument.

Kawin:  Could you read the poem again then?

Ashbery:  Okay. [John Ashbery reads the poem again.]

Transcription by Gregory Dunne August 21, 2017