“All right. The problem is that there is no new problem. It must awaken from the sleep of being part of some other, old problem, and by that time its new problematical existence will have already begun, carrying it forward into situations with which it cannot cope, since no one recognizes it and it does not even recognize itself yet, or know what it is. It is like the beginning of a beautiful day, with all the birds singing in the trees, reading their joy and excitement into its record as it progresses, and yet the progress of any day, good or bad, brings with it all kinds of difficulties that should have been foreseen but never are, so that it finally seems as though they are what stifles it, in the majesty of a sunset or merely in gradual dullness that gets dimmer and dimmer until it finally sinks into flat, sour darkness. Why is this? Because not one-tenth or even one-hundredth of the ravishing possibilities the birds sing about at dawn could ever be realized in the course of a single day, no matter how crammed with fortunate events it might turn out to be. And this brings on inevitable reproaches, unmerited of course, for we are all like children sulking because they cannot have the moon; and very soon the unreasonableness of these demands is forgotten and overwhelmed in a wave of melancholy of which it is the sole cause. Finally we know only that we are unhappy but we cannot tell why. We forget that it is our own childishness that is to blame.”
(John Ashbery, “The Recital,” pp. 107–108 in Three Poems.)
“It is this ‘other tradition’ which we propose to explore. The facts of history have been too well rehearsed (I’m speaking needless to say not of written history but the oral kind that goes on in you without your having to do anything about it) to require further elucidation here. But the other, unrelated happenings that form a kind of sequence of fantastic reflections as they succeed each other at a pace and according to an inner necessity of their own – these, I say, have hardly ever been looked at from a vantage point other than the historian’s and an arcane historian’s at that. The living aspect of these obscure phenomena has never to my knowledge been examined from a point of view like the painter’s: in the round, bathed in a sufficient flow of overhead light, with ‘all its imperfections on its head’ and yet without prejudice of the exaggerations either of the anathematist or the eulogist: quietly, in short, and I hope succinctly. judged from this angle the whole affair will, I think, partake of and benefit from the enthusiasm not of the religious fanatic but of the average, open-minded, intelligent person who has never interested himself before in these matters either from not having had the leisure to do so or from ignorance of their existence.”
(John Ashbery, “The System,” p. 56 in Three Poems.)
“There is probably more than one way of proceeding but of course you want only the one way that is denied you, the leaves over that barrier will never turn the sorrowful agate hue of the rest but only burnish perpetually in a colorless, livid explosion that is a chant of praise for your having remained behind to think rather than act. Meditation rains down on you to be sucked up in turn by the sun like steam, making it all the more difficult to know where the branching out should occur. It is like approaching a river at night, uncertain of the direction of the current. But the pulsating of it leads to further certainties because, bouncing off the vortexes to be joined, the cyclical force succeeds in defining its negative outline. For the moment uncertainty is banished at the same time that growing is introduced almost surreptitiously, under the guise of an invitation to learn all about these multiple phenomena which are our being here, since a knowledge of them is after all vital to our survival in this place of provocative but baffling commonplace events.”
(John Ashbery, “The New Spirit,” pp. 31–32 in Three Poems.)
“It’s just beginning. Now it’s started to work again. The visitation, was it more or less over. No, it had not yet begun, except as a preparatory dream which seemed to have the rough texture of life, but which dwindled into starshine like all the unwanted memories. There was no holding on to it. But for that we ought to be glad, no one really needed it, yet it was not utterly worthless, it taught us the forms of this our present waking life, the manners of the unreachable. And its judgments, though harmless and playful, were yet the form of utterance by which judgment shall come to be known. For we judge not, lest we be judged, yet we are judged all the same, without noticing, until one day we wake up a different color, the color of the filter of the opinions and ideas everyone has ever entertained about us. And in this form we must prepare, now, to try to live.”
(John Ashbery, “The New Spirit,” pp. 7–8 in Three Poems.)
If it is spring it matters a little,
or not. Some are running down
to get into their cars, shoving
old ladies out of the way. I say,
dude, it made more sense a while ago
when we was on the grass. Tell it to the Ages,
that’s what they’re there for. You know,
miscellaneous record-keeping, and the like,
the starving of fools
and transformation of opera singers
into the characters they’re supposed to be onstage.
Here comes Tosca, chattering with Isolde
about some vivacious bird’s egg winter left behind.
I turn the corner into my street
and see them all, all the things that have mattered
to me during my long life: the dung-beetle
who was convinced he could tap dance; the grocer’s boy
(he hasn’t changed much in eighty years, nor have I);
and the amorphous crowd in black T-shirts with names like
slumlords or slumgullion spattered over them. O my friends
(for I have no other), the beginning of fermentation is here,
right on this sidewalf, or whatever you call it.
We know, they say, and keep going.
If only I could get the tears out of my eyes it would be raining now.
I must try the new, fluid approach.
“All too soon, no one cares. We go back to doing little things for each other,
pasting stamps together to form a tiny train track, and other,
less noticeable things. The past is forgotten till next time.
How to describe the years? Some were like blocks of the palest halvah,
careless of being touched. Some took each other’s trash out,
put each other’s eyes out. So many got thrown out
before anyone noticed, it was like a chiaroscuro
of collapsing clouds.
How I longed to visit you again in that old house! But you were deaf,
or dead. Our letters crossed. A motorboat was ferrying me out past
the reef, people on shore looked like dolls fingering stuffs.”
(John Ashbery, from “Chinese Whispers”.)
Does it mean one thing with work,
one with age, and so on?
Or are the two opposing doors
irrevocably closed? The song that started
in the middle, did that close down too?
Just because it says here I like tomatoes,
is that a reason to call off victory? Yet it says,
in such an understated way, that this is a small museum
of tints. I’m barely twenty-six, have been on “Oprah”
and such. The almost invisible blight
of the present bursts in on us. We walk
a little farther into the closeness we owned:
Surely that isn’t snow? The leaves are still on the trees,
but they look wild suddenly.
I get up. I guess I must be going.
Not by a long shot in America. Tell us, Princess A-Line,
tell us if you must, why is everything territorial?
It’s O.K., I don’t mind. I never did. In a hundred years,
when today’s modern buildings look inviting
again, like abstract bric-a-brac, we’ll look back
at how we were cheated, pull up our socks, zip
our pants, then smile for the camera, watch
the birdie as he watches us all day.
His thematically undistinguished narrative gives no
cause for complaints, does one no favors.
At night we crept back in, certain of acquittal
if not absolution, in God’s good time, whose scalpel redeems us
even as the blip in His narrative makes us whole again.
We were reading to ourselves. Sometimes to others.
I was quietly reading the margin
when the doves fell, it was blue
outside. Perhaps in a moment,
he said. The moment never came.
I was reading something else now,
it didn’t matter. Other people came, and
dropped off their resumés. I wasn’t being idle,
exactly. Someone wanted to go away
altogether in this preposterous season.
(John Ashbery, in As Umbrellas Follow Rain)
The tests are good. You need a million of them.
You’d die laughing as I write to you
Through leaves and articulations, yes, laughing
Myself silly too. The funniest little thing . . .
That’s how it all began. Looking back on it,
I wonder now if it could have been on some day
Findable in an old calendar? But no,
It wasn’t out of history, but inside it.
That’s the thing. One whatever day we came
To a small house built just above the water,
You had to step over to see inside the attic window.
Someone had judged the height to be just right
The way the light came in, and they are
Giving that party, to turn on that dishwasher
And we may be led, then, upward through more
Powerful forms of poetry, past columns
With peeling posters on them, to the country of indifference.
Meanwhile if the swell diapasons, blooms
Unhappily and too soon, the little people are nonetheless real.
(John Ashbery, from Houseboat Days.)
“Eventually we all wound up in New York studying of looking for jobs – which reminds me of a point I would like to make about New York, namely, that if you live in most other places, like San Francisco, Paris, or Bloomington, you are, almost against your will, taking a stand of some kind, and the stand is that you are not living in New York. If you live in New York, however, you are probably not doing so because you like it or you feel it expresses you, but because it’s the most convenient place: there are people, jobs, concerts and so on, but it doesn’t add up to a place: one has no feeling of living somewhere. That is another reason I dislike the New York School term – because it seems to designate a place, whereas New York is really an anti-place, an abstract climate, and I am not prepared to take up the cudgels to defend such a place, especially when I would much rather be living in San Francisco.”
(John Ashbery, “The New York School of Poets,” p. 114 in Selected Prose.)