Friday, April 29, 2011

John Ashbery on Sense and Self

From an interview in the Boston Review:

F: Does it bother you when your work is described as a refutation of common sense?

A: No, I couldn’t agree more. [Laughs]

F: Is it hard, therefore, for you to enjoy reading work too rooted in the laws of common sense? I can’t help thinking of a Rimbaud or Ashbery poem as an occasion to go a little screwy, not unpleasantly, with logic.

A: You mean like Robert Frost? Yes, I would say that is hard for me to enjoy. Then again, I don’t know if you can divide up poetry into what makes sense and what doesn’t. In any case, Rimbaud’s poetry accepts and feels beyond common sense, as you were saying, and feels, as I was saying, like the stuff of dreams. No other French writer did this. I’ve often thought that the French language was far too meticulous to allow for such wanton freedom. The fact that he managed without even thinking about it is miraculous. I’m not sure if it ever happened again, even in the poetry of the surrealists, though they’d like to think so.

F: You write, beautifully, “The self is obsolete” as a counter-riff on this famous phrase. Could you elaborate?

A: The self has been replaced by the simultaneity of all of life, everything happening in a given moment becomes the source of the poem, rather than the writer thinking about what he or she is going to write.

F: So writing’s a healthy way of escaping our good ol’ selfhood?

A: No, I think it’s unhealthy! [Laughs] The cubists’ coexisting views of objects that could not be seen by the human eye the way they’re portrayed on the canvas is a way of going beyond the self, or acknowledging it’s no longer doing its job.

F: That a single perspective is inherently limited when it comes to art?

A: Or that there’s no reason why multiple ones shouldn’t exist, too.


  1. I also like the part where he talks about a poem of his being misinterpreted:

    "Obviously, it has to be about O’Hara because of the word “harrow,” one of those famous “crypt words” or whatever they call them, which allow anyone to prove what they think you’re saying by pointing to words that sound vaguely similar. So that’s it. Case dismissed. [Laughs] But as Freud allegedly said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a harrow is just a piece of farm machinery."

    ...which pretty much sums up my feelings about critics generally.

  2. Do you feel as contemptuous of all readers? Critics are just readers who write down what they think, no?

  3. Interestingly I don't find Ashbery's language esp. dreamlike as he seems to imply, certainly not in the way that early Eliot -- say "Preludes" or "Rhapsody" -- is dreamlike, or even the way that, say, "Fern Hill" uses language in a dreamlike "illogical" way.

  4. "He" being Ashbery or the interviewer? I think Ashbery is saying that Rimbaud's poetry is dreamlike. Ashbery's may not be, but it does eschew logical progressions for the most part.

  5. Yes, the analogy w/ Rimbaud is extremely vague. "Just as Rimbaud's language is the stuff of dreams, my poems are seemingly about multiple different things."

  6. Not all readers, just most. For any given piece, there might be a handful of people whose ideas about it I'd be interested to hear.