Parlour Games: Michael Glover Discusses Modernism and Interiors with "The Greatest Living American Poet", John Ashbery (Right)
Glover, Michael, New Statesman (1996)
I begin with a 10am call to John Ashbery's house in Hudson, upstate New York. "I'm afraid John is asleep at the moment," his partner, David Kermani, tells me. "He was up very late working on proofs. It's a very pernickety business." Not one but two new books by the 77-year-old American poet have just been published by Carcanet: an edition of his selected prose and a new collection of poetry (his 25th), Where Shall I Wander.
Ashbery has been publishing books of poems for almost 50 years. His first, Some Trees (1956), was chosen by W H Auden for the Yale Younger Poets series. Yet some greeted it with a mixture of bewilderment and hostility. "I have no idea most of the time what Mr Ashbery is talking about ..." one critic wrote, "beyond the communication of an intolerable vagueness that looks as if it was meant for precision." Ashbery's friend and fellow poet Frank O'Hara countered: "Faultless music, originality of perception ... the most beautiful first book to appear in America since [Wallace Stevens's] Harmonium."
That pattern--excessive praise from some, raucous hostility from others--became familiar. In the 1950s, Ashbery was the most important member of a group of poets known as the New York School, who challenged the stiff academicism of the 1940s. Poetry, their work seemed to announce, could incorporate both high and low culture; it could be playful without any loss of seriousness.
I visit Ashbery at the late 19th-century coke merchant's house in Hudson that he and Kermani bought for $53,000 in 1978. They have been fixing it up ever since, and it is a wonder to behold. It is also excessively dark. Ashbery emerges from somewhere at the back with a bashful, gap-toothed smile and gives me a tour. He worked much of his life as an art critic for Newsweek and Artnews--making money to "feed the poetry habit", as he once put it--and many of the paintings in the house (including work by Alex Katz and Willem de Kooning) are gifts from old friends.
He sees me staring at a narrative painting hung behind the piano. A Mexican general seems to be dying in the arms of his comrades. "I'm especially fond of that one," he tells me. "It's one of a sequence of paintings from a novel that the painter regards as a Mexican classic of the 20th century. I liked it immediately when she told me that the man in the picture wasn't mortally wounded." He hesitates a moment. "Would you like to see my collection of American craftware in the library?" Also in the library are works by Piranesi, and even a small print by Edward Lear. But where are the books? "They called it the library because of that," Ashbery says, pointing to a modest bookcase tucked away in a corner.
"They weren't bibliophiles," I say.
After a cup of raspberry-flavoured iced tea in the kitchen, I follow him up the backstairs to the first floor. "This house was built with central heating," he calls over his shoulder, "gas and electricity, too. These people hedged their bets. They didn't know which utility was going to win out." Before we sit down in the parlour, he shows me the bathroom. In the middle stands a huge bathtub with claw feet, and on the ceiling above is a cartouche with delicate rococo moulding. "This is my favourite place in the house," he says, smiling down into the tub.
The upstairs parlour is also full of curios, but here there is plenty of sunlight to see them all by--for example, propped up on the floor in front of the grate, a drawing of John as a young man by Ron Kitaj.
We sit down on the sofa. It is not easy to conduct an interview with Ashbery, though not for the usual reasons. He is not obstructive. He doesn't tell you that areas of his life are off-limits. He does not patronise, nor does he dismiss one's fumblings with contempt. What he does do is deal in the masterfully reductive arts of humour and bathos, usually mixed together. …