John Ashbery, 1981
POETRY MISCELLANY: There is a certain kind of cryptology inherent in your poems. In Three Poems you write: "We have broken through to the meaning of the tomb. But the act is still postponed before us // it needs pronouncing. To formulate oneself around this hollow empty sphere." Later you write about "a word that everything hinged on and is buried there," yet "is doing the organizing." The text seems always a supplement for the lost word, for something always unspoken, unwritten. More recently, The Hills and Shadows of a New Adventure" explores the problematic of naming; here one must deal with "certain illegible traces, like chalk dust on a blackboard after it has been erased" ( Three Poems). How much does this notion of poetry as a putting into play of traces and lost names figure in your poetic? How much of poetry, I wonder, proceeds by an essential misnaming?
JOHN ASHBERY: As it so often turns out, something you've just read or are about to read turns out to be very useful. There is an essay by Borges called "The Wall and the Books," where the narrator reports that he read not long ago how the "man who ordered the building of the almost infinite Chinese Wall was the first Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who also decreed the burning of all the books that had been written before his time." Borges goes on to make parallels between the two actions. He says that "perhaps he called himself Huang Ti in an endeavor to identify himself with that legendary Huang Ti, the emperor who invented writing and the compass and who,