Jealousy. Whispered weather reports.
In the street we found boxes
Littered with snow, to burn at home.
What flower tolling on the waters
You stupefied me. We waxed,
Carnivores, late and alight
In the beaded winter. All was ominous, luminous.
Beyond the bed’s veils the white walls danced
Some violent compunction. Promises,
We thought then of your dry portals,
Bright cornices of eavesdropping palaces,
You were painfully stitched to hours
The moon now tears up, scoffing at the unrinsed portions.
And love’s adopted realm. Flees to water,
The coach dissolving in mists.
                                                      A wish
Refines the lines around the mouth
At these ten-year intervals. It fumed
Clear air of wars. It desired
Excess of core in all things. From all things sucked
A glossy denial. But look, pale day:
We fly hence. To return if sketched
In the prophet’s silence. Who doubts it is true?

(John Ashbery, from Some Trees.)

the painter

Sitting between the sea and the buildings
He enjoyed painting the sea’s portrait.
But just as children imagine a prayer
Is merely silence, he expected his subject
To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,
Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.

So there was never any paint on his canvas
Until the people who lived in the buildings
Put him to work: “Try using the brush
As a means to an end. Select, for a portrait,
Something less angry and large, and more subject
To a painter’s moods, or, perhaps, to a prayer.”

How could he explain to them his prayer
That nature, not art, might usurp the canvas?
He chose his wife for a new subject,
Making her vast, like ruined buildings,
As if, forgetting itself, the portrait
Had expressed itself without a brush.

Slightly encouraged, he dipped his brush
In the sea, murmuring a heartfelt prayer:
“My soul, when I paint this next portrait
Let it be you who wrecks the canvas.”
The news spread like wildfire through the buildings:
He had gone back to the sea for his subject.

Imagine a painter crucified by his subject!
Too exhausted even to lift his brush,
He provoked some artists leaning from the buildings
To malicious mirth: “We haven’t a prayer
Now, of putting ourselves on canvas,
Or getting the sea to sit for a portrait!”

Others declared it a self-portrait.
Finally all indications of a subject
Began to fade, leaving the canvas
Perfectly white. He put down the brush.
At once a howl, that was also a prayer,
Arose from the overcrowded buildings.

They tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings;
And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush
As though his subject had decided to remain a prayer.

(John Ashbery, from Some Trees.)

a blessing in disguise

Yes, they are alive and can have those colors,
But I, in my soul, am alive too.
I feel I must sing and dance, to tell
Of this in a way, that knowing you may be drawn to me.

And I sing amid despair and isolation
Of the chance to know you, to sing of me
Which are you. You see,
You hold me up to the light in a way

I should never have expected, or suspected, perhaps
Because you always tell me I am you,
And right. The great spruces loom.
I am yours to die with, to desire.

I cannot ever think of me, I desire you
For a room in which the chairs ever
Have their backs turned to the light
Inflicted on the stone and paths, the real trees

That seem to shine at me through a lattice toward you.
If the wild light of this January day is true
I pledge me to be truthful unto you
Whom I cannot ever stop remembering.

Remembering to forgive. Remember to pass beyond you into the day
On the wings of the secret you will never know.
Taking me from myself, in the path
Which the pastel girth of the day has assigned to me.

I prefer “you” in the plural, I want “you”
You must come to me, all golden and place
Like the dew and the air.
And then I start getting this feeling of exaltation.

(John Ashbery, from Rivers and Mountains, 1967. Recording from 1966 here from Giorno Poetry Systems’s Biting off the Tongue of a Corpse, 1975.)

are you ticklish?

We’re leaving again of our own volition
for bogus-patterned plains, shreds of maps recurring
like waves on a beach, each unimaginable
and likely to go on being so.

But sometimes they get, you know, confused
and change their vows or the ground rules
that sustain all of us. It’s cheery, then, to reflect on the past
and what it brought us. To take stone books down

from the shelf. It is good, in fact,
to let the present pass without commentary
for what it says about the future.
There was nothing carnal in the way omens became portents.

Fact: all my appetites are friendly. I just
don’t want to live according to the next guy’s trespass,
meanwhile getting a few beefs off my chest,
if that’s OK. The wraparound flux we intuit

as time has other claims on our inventiveness.
A lot of retail figures in it. One’s daily horoscope
comes in eggshell, eggplant, and, just for the heck of it,
black. ’Nuf said. The deal is off. The rest is silence.

(John Ashbery)

that everything is surface

                             But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.
There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves,
And the window doesn’t matter much, or that
Sliver of window or mirror on the right, even
As a gauge of the weather, which in French is
Le temps, the word for time, and which
Follows a course wherein changes are merely
Features of the whole. The whole is stable within
Instability, a globe like ours, resting
On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball
Secure on its jet of water.
And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,
No words to say what it really is, that it is not
Superficial but a visible core, then there is
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.
You will stay on, restive, serene in
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.

(John Ashbery, from “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”)

curated poetry systems

Ubu has posted the Giorno Poetry System recordings. A capricious selection – all links are to MP3s:

William Carlos Williams:

  • “The Yellow Flower” (1954)
  • Edwin Denby:

  • “The Shoulder”/”The Subway”/”Over Manhattan Island”/”Disorder, mental, strikes me”/”Suppose there’s a cranky woman inside me” (1974)
  • Frank O’Hara:

  • “To the Film Industry in Crisis” (with Jane Freilicher & John Gruen, 1959)
  • “Ode to Joy”/”To Hell with It” (1963)
  • “Poem”/”Poem” (1963)
  • “Adieu Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean Paul” (1964)
  • “Having a Coke with You” (1965)
  • John Ashbery

  • “A Blessing in Disguise” (1966)
  • from “Litany” (1980?)
  • Kenneth Koch:

  • “Spring” (1966)
  • Joe Brainard:

  • from I Remember (1970)
  • from More I Remember More (1974)
  • Ron Padgett:

  • “June 17, 1942” (1974)
  • “No Title” (1978)
  • “Zzzzzz” (1980?)
  • Ted Berrigan:

  • from “Memorial Day” (1974)
  • “Today in Ann Arbor” (1970)
  • Charles Olson:

  • “Maximus of Gloucester (‘Only My Written Word’)” (1967)
  • “The Ridge” (1967)
  • “Letter 27: Maximus to Gloucester” (1967)
  • Ishmael Reed:

  • “Sky Diving” (1977)
  • John Cage:

  • “Mushroom Haiku” (1969)
  • excerpt from Silence (1969)
  • Mureau” (1975)
  • “Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake (1976?)
  • “Song, Derived from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau” (1976)
  • “Five Stories in the Style of Indeterminacy (1979)
  • Claes Oldenburg:

  • “June Was”/”Panodramdra” (1976)
  • Emmett Williams:

  • “Duet” (1968)
  • Jackson Mac Low:

  • “Guru, Guru, Gate” (1976)
  • on acceptance

    Tender Buttons has made it into a Modern Library selection of Gertrude Stein’s writing, but how many people have actually read it and of those how many can claim to have gotten anything at all from it? Despite lip service, her achievement, though present, is somehow endangered, and it will be a long time before a true evaluation of it will be possible. Matisse’s work is secure; Gertrude’s and Picasso’s, ubiquitous as it is, remains excitingly in doubt and thus alive. This is why the show of the Steins’ collections turns out to be not only very beautiful but at times almost painfully exciting to witness.”

    (John Ashbery, “Gertrude Stein”, originally in ArtNews, May 1971, collected in Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957–1987, p. 111)

    the golden age of the blurb

    From the dust jacket copy of Edwin Denby’s Mrs. W’s Last Sandwich (1972; reissued as Scream in a Cave):

    Ron Padgett says: “Edwin Denby’s Mrs. W’s Last Sandwich is as charming and pleasurable for me to read as an adult as The Hardy Boys series was when I was a boy. He is one of the best writers in America.”

    Anne Waldman says: “Mrs. W’s Last Sandwich is a pure, authentic 30’s novel – suspense, humor, melodrama, adventure, what you will. It will make you drag your own cookies. I can’t put it down.”

    The only thing better than this is W. H. Auden’s blurb for John Ashbery & James Schuyler’s A Nest of Ninnies (1975):

    My! What a pleasant surprise to read a novel in which there is not a single bedroom scene . . . there are, to be sure, some scenes of violence, but the violence is meteorological: the characters can hardly go anywhere without encountering torrential rains. More extraordinary still, though many of them live in suburbia, they all seem, believe it or not, to be happy, and, though sometimes bitchy, actually to like each other .  .  . A NEST OF NINNIES is a pastoral .  .  . it took Messrs. Ashbery and Schuyler several years to write. Their patience and artistry have been well rewarded. I am convinced their book is destined to become a minor classic.