Karin Roffman On the Young John Ashbery

In the summer of 1992 while traveling out west I lingered in Austin Texas long enough to go to a club and see a rock band called the True Believers. Wanting to take a piece of that memory with me, before leaving Austin I stopped into a record store and bought a CD by the band’s leader, Alejandro Escovedo. It had been released earlier that year and it was his first solo album. Different as it was from the True Believers I was instantly attracted to it and it has remained a favorite all these years later. In the CD booklet, after the lyrics and the Thanks, is this sentence:

This album is dedicated to Roberta Erlinda Levie Escovedo. It will never be the same without you.

August 3, 1951 – April 24, 1991

I did not know that this was Escovedo’s wife and that she had committed suicide (I only know now in researching for this article). I did not know that she had done so six months after giving birth to her and Alejandro’s second child. I did not know that Alejandro called her Bobby. I did not know anything, and did not need to know anything to understand what was going on in the songs on that album. The mélange of emotions in the songs and performance told me everything I needed to know. It was all there: the unbearable aching, the gaping hole of loss, the bitterness, the sense of being abandoned with barely the strength to stand, the colossal punch to the gut, the drunken sense of unbalance, the feeling that life was a sick and senseless joke, and tears, endless tears. Alejandro Escovedo communicated all of this and more without divulging any details of his private life. This is art.

Later in that same year of 1992 I was living a couple of blocks away from the Miracle Mile shopping mall in Miami. There was a Brentano’s bookstore in the mall and one day I did not walk but ran into that store with cash in my sweaty hand. My favorite contemporary writer, John Ashbery, had just come out with a new book, and not just any book. Flowchart was a single poem of over 200 pages. I ran as if their only copy would disappear off the shelf before I could get there. I took it home and began reading. On page five I got to this:

Early on
was a time of seeming: golden eggs that hatched
into regrets, a snowflake whose kiss burned like an enchanter’s
poison: yet it all seemed good in the growing dawn.
The breeze that always nurtures us….
pointed out a way that diverged from the true way without negating it,
to arrive at the same result by different spells,
so that no one was wiser for knowing the way we had grown,
almost unconsciously, into a cube of grace that was to be
a permanent shelter. Let the book end there, some few
said, but that was of course impossible; the growth must persist
into areas darkened and dangerous, undermined
by the curse of that death breeze, until one is handed a skull
as a birthday present, and each closing paragraph of the novella is
underlined: To be continued….

Of the phrases that captured my imagination most—“golden eggs that hatched
into regrets, a snowflake whose kiss burned/ cube of grace”—I was particularly struck by one is handed a skull as a birthday present. The phrase sparked a memory. My memories of my abusive father are overwhelmingly painful, but they’re not all negative. When I was a young boy my father was generous with toys. One Easter tucked in with the candy eggs and chocolate bunnies he had left me a skull. Picture that: a skull in an Easter basket. To this day it is one of the coolest gifts I’ve ever been given. And it came from my father! It was the size of a SuperBall, it glowed in the dark and opened up to reveal a blob of Silly Putty. The sweet note of this memory, mixed in with the inevitable baneful tone of any memory associated with my father mingled with the other elements of Ashbery’s poetry. For example I recalled a bitter argument with one of my sisters that ended in a midnight walk in freshly fallen snow. Sadness and sweetness blended together for me as I read this passage but even more poignant was the feeling that no moment could be arrested and kept but that time keeps flowing, sometimes mercifully, sometimes mercilessly, forward. Ashbery accomplished this in language of incomparable beauty.

Now that I have read Karin Roffman’s The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life I know that when John was twelve years old his brother, aged nine, died of leukemia, that in an attempt to spur healing, friends took the Ashbery family on a trip to Blue Mountain Lake and that John, whose birthday corresponded with the trip and who had been there with his brother two years earlier, could not dissociate memories of his brother from the place.

In his grief, John found that everything that had happened before, especially those fleeting, pleasant memories, had taken on a different valence and color, as though the memory itself had changed. (p 50)

I did not need to know any of this to appreciate the passage from Flowchart but knowing it now I doubt I will ever read the phrase, “growth must persist” without thinking of Richard Ashbery’s leukemia and in the context of the poem it will have for me a terrible double meaning. I have to wonder if reading the passage two years from now the supplement of Ashbery’s biography will have supplanted my personal associations and if so will the passage seem less mysterious and less magical to me.

The question may be of little importance to readers. After all, curious minds want to know. But it is of vital importance to writers. Ashbery, far more than other writers I am aware of, knows the value of getting out of the way of the reader’s imagination. How to construct a poem that allows the reader to bring their own associations to it without the writer imposing their own personal experiences and in such a way that the poem is utterly engaging and compelling—that is the supreme challenge. I believe this is an ethical matter that goes beyond aesthetics. From my point of view, it is an approach to writing that shows the most respect for both art and the reader. Ashbery’s private life and experiences only factor into the poetry as pigments among many others on a very large palette. At a time when debate over the value and function of identity politics has entered every area of our lives, the kind of poetry Ashbery writes may begin to fall out of fashion in favor of new forms of confessional poetry with group ties. But he has always been ahead of his time and always will be ahead of his time until the time when we, human beings all sharing this suffering planet, are beyond such debates. And I suspect that Ashbery would be displeased to think that his personal experiences (whether derived from a biography or in some other manner) threatened to take the place of the reader’s experiences while reading the poetry.

Fortunately I can report that this is the only example from the poetry mentioned by Roffman that may have this effect on me. It is fun to know, for example, that shortly before writing The Instruction Manual Ashbery had in fact been on a trip to Mexico and that he had been working alone in an office, required to read boring technical documents, where he’d stare out the window and daydream.

Other readers may be titillated to know of petty jealousies between Ashbery, O’Hara and Larry Rivers. I really couldn’t care less. However I think it’s an important history lesson to know what Ashbery went through growing up gay in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. When he first began having those feelings he suspected he may have been the only person so “afflicted” (p 42). According to Roffman, “afflicted” was a word he routinely used in this context. In Ashbery’s lexicon the word has a double meaning. It means that he had to keep his homosexuality hidden at times, compelling him at times to live a double life, but it also means he did not choose it, that it was not a lifestyle choice, as some would have it. This was a time when coming out could get one expelled or fired. Ashbery confesses to being frightened during the McCarthy hearings, in which homosexuals were repeatedly listed among subversives and undesirables. Ostracism and bullying were commonplace. When Ashbery’s play The Heroes was accepted for publication and the editor rather giddily inquired, “Is it ‘camp’ or what?” (p 197) the author balked, afraid the work would be perceived as too light, too gay. Most tragically, Ashbery was never able to come out to his parents. They would not have understood or approved.

While I impatiently waited for my copy of The Songs We Know Best to arrive, I googled Karin Roffman to learn something about her and came upon a talk she gave in 2012. The talk is worth listening to as a summary of her view of how Ashbery, from an early age, meditated on his personal experiences, feelings and memories, watching his own mind at work and somehow transforming that lucid material—that “experience of his experience” (p x)—into poetry.

A moment at 17:00 caught my attention, when Roffman, after quoting from the diary Ashbery kept as a boy (which starts at 15:09), with obvious admiration comments on the future poet’s “total lack of self-consciousness”. She repeats it a moment later. I paused on this because if there’s one thing I think is most characteristic of Ashbery the writer it is his extreme consciousness of himself (‘self-awareness’ was the term that came to mind). The comment seemed to be at odds with her whole argument.

When I finally held the book in my hands I found that she quoted the same diary passages but this time there was no mention of (lack of) self-consciousness. Now she drew attention to the

wit, focus, and self-awareness, hallmarks of what would become his best poems. (p 63)

Perhaps this is evidence of a development in Roffman’s point of view, at least in the terms she used to present it. I would love to ask her about the apparent difference she alludes to between self-consciousness as a negative quality and self-awareness as a positive one.

I think two Ashbery books need to be produced:

1) A picture book with his collages and paintings as well as photos of objects from his Hudson home (perhaps even views of some of the rooms) beside quotes from interviews, his juvenilia and his poetry.

2) A collection of that early poetry.

Wouldn’t that be sweet! Until then Roffman’s biography is a great place to start. And I’ve just discovered that, thanks again to Karin Roffman, an interactive website of Ashbery’s house will soon go live.

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One Response to Karin Roffman On the Young John Ashbery

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Thank you so much for this, Mark. Of many beautiful insights, this is one I want to note: “Sadness and sweetness blended together for me as I read this passage but even more poignant was the feeling that no moment could be arrested and kept but that time keeps flowing, sometimes mercifully, sometimes mercilessly, forward.” Very much in the spirit of Ashbery’s work. Another is this: “Ashbery, far more than other writers I am aware of, knows the value of getting out of the way of the reader’s imagination.” This indeed is one of the greatest gifts he gives to us as readers.

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