In 2006, my friend Travis called me to say he was coming to New York City and wondered whether or not there was a good poetry reading we could both go to. I was freshly dumped out of college and only pretending to be working at a bookstore from which I would soon be fired.
Accidentally—or rather, instinctively—I popped into Google “John Ashbery poetry reading NYC” when I had meant “poetry reading NYC.” A Google search can change your life. I drove up with friends to Dia:Beacon on June 11th—on a Sunday, I think?—and finally met my favorite poet, of whose books I had already read ten or twelve, devouring every word. (Insanely, I brought them all to the reading for him to sign. And he did, not without saying in a breathy drawl like Blanche DuBois: “I always dreamed of this day.”) The person I met was shy yet welcoming, and during the little reception hosted afterwards, proceeded to hash out—with me, a dolt-eyed stranger!—his thoughts and feelings on Wallace Stevens and Paris, about his relationship to dental work and having had just finished a new book of poems inspired in part by the events of September 11th. (About the latter, that is A Worldly Country, John always denied having ever said such a thing, but little did he know I’d immediately gone home and transcribed his every word, bulldozed over as I was by his gooey brilliance.)
The rest is, as they say, history. John wasn’t just my monocle of monocles to inspect the world. He was my world. At various points in my life, intensely, I’ve wanted to be a Catholic priest, stage actor, folk singer. But ever since meeting John and becoming his nincompoop assistant for a short/long while before shoving off to grad school to edit his unpublished essays on Auden and Henry Green, then finally installing myself in New York City where I’ve lived ever since, all I’ve ever thought is how to be more like John Ashbery. The idea of being seen as a knockoff, imitator, copycat of John’s always seemed to me like the greatest compliment on earth. (He left me a voicemail once that began: “Dear John Ashbery, Jr., it’s your mentor calling…”) Even so, he’d often reminisce that, as Busoni or de Chirico had said, it was absolutely necessary to turn one’s back on the art one loved. Of course, this is precisely what John had done with Auden and Stevens or any number of early yet profound influences. In fact, it’s what poets and artists have always done. You expend enormous energy trying so desperately to be the thing you love but instead mutate into something else. Or as he said once in an interview, quoting Heimito von Doderer, utterly enigmatic and clear: “At first you break windows. Then you become a window yourself.”
Friends, lovers, collaborators, even my publisher—so many of these relationships were profound gifts (I like the word accidents better) of John’s. But I should be clear. John was not a proselytizer of anything except dessert cookies and old, bad but great movies, like Val Lewton’s The Ghost Ship, which I remember seeing with him on Turner Classic Movies many moons ago. Instead, his manner of instruction was, well, environmental. Like ambient drone. (What I take to be the meaning behind his title Notes from the Air.) The genius obliquity of his sensibility conveyed the promise that if you just stood around, hung around long enough, were willing to chat aimlessly (pithy anecdotes mixed with obscure recommendations, some gossip), paid subtle but not too heavy attention, the real meaning of being alive would eventually overwhelm you. Even if sometimes it might take days or years to catch up. Like the day we wandered the aisles of a CVS upstate and he asked if I’d ever seen Blue Velvet while, to my mind then, the names David Lynch and David Cronenberg were still pretty vague and interchangeable. Or the day we pulled through a drive-thru at Burger King while he tenderly plopped on a cassette tape of Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for a Player Piano. I tried to normalize it all. I knew it wasn’t normal.
Nothing about John Ashbery was normal; not him, not the poetry he wrote. The fact that he lived ninety years and managed to produce gorgeous book after book, including his greatest late late masterpiece Breezeway. It wasn’t normal that he’d been such a touchstone for hundreds of friends, poets, artists, young and old—in other words, complex people who agreed on little else. That he’s irrevocably blurred the status of insider and outsider. His generosity. His grin. His weirdo total recall for the littlest details and anecdotes, which he collected like charms. His razor eye as a copyreader, when all along you thought he was too preoccupied with some grand boredom to notice a clause or comma that had strayed from its path. The way he would fetishize contemporanea like GIFs or the Kardashians, which he would dispatch with knowing clumsy, as effortlessly in chitchat as he did in his collagiste poems. The idea of John teaching college students rock and roll lyrics to appease them, sometime after his return to the States in the late ’60s or early ’70s. How he relished nearly fifty years later the memory of the day when a student approached him after class to say, regarding his decision to finally introduce them all to the work of Marianne Moore: “A lot better than that other shit.”
What an odd, beautiful life.