In 2011, the National Book Foundation gave John Ashbery a Lifetime Achievement Award. I was asked to introduce him on the occasion, which took place in a vast room at Cipriani’s on Wall Street in downtown New York. John’s acceptance speech is worth having a listen to, as he is his usual charming, self-effacing, confident, funny, erudite self. He talks about difficulty, and he speaks about the “fun” he gets by writing poems, pointing out that difficulty is part of the fun. I have so much to say about him and his work, how essential he has been to my own sense of the difficult fun, and also the most profound sense I have of a deep affinity, a kind of recognition of similar chords of listening and perceiving. This quality is beyond anything as simple as crude influence; it is closer to a form of familial connection. In any case, I thought I would offer my introduction to John on that occasion, partly because it makes me believe he is still, and always, among us:
As many of you undoubtedly know, if you try to find the person called John Ashbery in the poems of John Ashbery you will be out of luck, even though one of his most celebrated works is Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the title poem of the book that in 1975 won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror was titled after a painting by the 16th century Italian artist Parmigianino, so you begin to get a sense of the play of identity and reference that characterizes the Ashberian poetic. What is mirrored is not so much a self as a world, or, more precisely, a constantly mutating duet with the world. Without question, John Ashbery radically revised our sense of poetic voice and address, and I wish I could adequately convey the liberating exhilaration I felt when I first heard him in London in 1972, where I was trying my best to become Sylvia Plath without having to kill myself. I did not yet know of Rimbaud’s provocative comment, “I is another”, although John, fluent in all things French, clearly did. Ashbery’s otherness of the I takes up not only Rimbaud’s quip, but, more consequently for contemporary poetry, what Whitman called the signal American “loose drift of character”, its openness and flexibility, inclusiveness, good humor and generosity; in short, its humanity. These traits and this demeanor capture the core tone of John Ashbery’s work. As you watch images of his collages cycle through on these vast screens, you might get a sense of how a brilliant syntax and fluid diction suture the exfoliating geography of an Ashbery poem; how disparate things are found in unexpected but pleasurable relation, where, to invoke another precursor, Wallace Stevens, the real from its crude compoundings come(s). The Ashberian real is not static, just as the Ashberian “I” is not singular. The temporal present unfurls in fields of receptivity: a wave, a flow chart, extending our imagination and eliciting a sense of wonder at what he once called, in an often quoted phrase, the perceived world’s “wide authority and tact.” Across some thirty-five books, in writings that include translations and essays on poetry and art, John Ashbery has given us an astonishing linguistic habitat, animating our sense that the dissonant and odd are inseparable from the beautiful and congruent. We see that abstraction is the sum of myriad familiar details. We experience dynamic shifts within a continuum of attention, and the profound solace of recognition: ah, this is how it is.
ANN LAUTERBACH is a poet and essayist. Her next book is due from Penguin in 2018. She teaches at Bard College.