John Ashbery liked to tell jokes . . . When I was very young, I noticed that all the young male poets knew how to imitate Ashbery, and I didn't. They did it constantly, relentlessly and I couldn't, though in the process of reading his work trying to figure out what was going on, I unconsciously memorized huge swathes of it and obviously was affected by that. Influenced, you might say.
But I was pleased to learn that John Ashbery really liked to tell jokes. One joke John told Ted unrolled in the following circumstance: Ted goes over to Frank O'Hara's to get some poems for "C". It is late Sunday morning. Frank hasn't come out of the bedroom yet, actually. Then John comes over too, and Frank still hasn't come out (I don't know how they got into the apartment! the door had been left open?) They wait, they wait. Then, Jim Brodey comes out of Frank's bedroom, and leaves. Then Ted and John wait some more. Then John tells Ted the following joke. John: Have you heard about the Dumb Bunny Bomb? Ted: No, John. John: You drop it over a large city, and all its inhabitants instantly become stupid. (Pause) I think they dropped it this morning.
Anyway, I really want to tell this other joke, that affected me in particular. This seems to be the only way I can talk about John Ashbery at the moment. Around 1978 Tom Carey was one of the people who cared for and visited Jimmy Schuyler at the Hotel Chelsea. Jimmy was always in touch with John, and so various John information got circulated, as well as the titles of the books Jimmy was reading — prime input for all of us. One day Tom came over to Ted's and my apartment at 101 St. Mark's Place and said to me (Ted was out), Do you want to hear John Ashbery's latest joke? I said sure, and then he told it to me in his booming voice but all the time looking slightly puzzled and also hoping that I wouldn't be offended.
Joke: The joke takes place in some sort of cathedral or large church. It's about a priest saying confession (do you say it? I was brought up Protestant . . . ) The priest has noticed that there are very many young men waiting to confess. Then the first one enters the confessional and says Forgive me father for I have sinned, I had sex with Pussy Green three times last week. The priest forgives him, tells him to recite a few Hail Mary's and then receives the next penitent, who says Forgive me father, I have sinned, I didn't mean to but I had sex with Pussy Green several times this last week. The priest forgives him too. And the next, who has also had sex last week with Pussy Green. Every single young man in line for confession, it seems, has had sex with Pussy Green this last week. Finally, the priest decides to take a tiny break, sneaks out the back of the confessional to where he can't be seen and stands there a moment, joined by the custodian of the church. They chat. He peeks around the corner at the newcomers waiting to see him and espies a young woman waiting, who is utterly beautiful, has an incredibly beautiful face and sexy body and is wearing wonderful elegant sexy clothes. The priest says to the custodian, Is that by any chance Pussy Green? And the custodian says, Well it ain't the light through the stained-glass windows!
This joke is sexist and coarse and so on and really beautiful. I instantly perceived it as beautiful, with the light, the stained glass the word "green" and the suggestion of a landscape with pussy-willows. The thing is, as everyone knows, John had written a thesis on the British novelist Henry Green. So "Pussy Green" also reverberated as "Henry Green" — it was an incredible joke, actually, and has always stayed with me. I wrote a poem a few days later in which I referred to "the Pussy Green joke" — the poem, called "To Iceberg", has never been published but had a new break-out spirit in it, and I proceeded to write a series of longer poems influenced by my own reading of Henry Green's novels. Green's novels can be mostly or all conversation, and I wrote such works as "My Bodyguard," "Waltzing Matilda," and "As You Like It" under the influence of his novels and this joke.
John, you are great. This is my tribute to you this morning.
ALICE NOTLEY's latest book is Certain Magical Acts.