President Barack Obama presented a National Humanities Medal to the poet John Ashbery in 2012. Ashbery died Sunday, at the age of ninety.
Photograph by Pablo Martinez Monsivais
The greatest American poet of the last fifty years has died. I read and taught John Ashbery for years, and occasionally wrote about him. The idea of greatness clung about him as it does to only a handful of writers alive at any time. His early work was serene and beautiful; he then became rather frantic and trippy. He had a period of majesty unrivalled in recent poetry, stretching from the seventies through the nineties. His last phase was a kind of inventory of his mind, among the most interesting anyone has ever known. His method was to “snip off a length” of his consciousness, he said. It was, in part, a strike against the solemnities of achieved reputation, which confronted him everywhere in the forms of syllabi and colloquia.
He visited Wellesley in 2007. After a brilliant reading, he took some questions. A voice from the back row asked, “What influence has food had on your work?” John giggled and looked delighted. He started in on an answer when the man clarified: he’d said Proust. John’s spirit sunk a little, though he still managed to give a brilliant answer. I always think of that moment when I imagine Ashbery’s mind, so brightened by the opportunity to talk at length about the meals he remembered. He was a deeply personal poet, the greatest poet of memory. That he lived into our era of Google, when so many things from the past that might never have returned have returned, is to me a sign that God exists.
I visited him once in New York. I was nervous, and, friends, I studied up. Ashbery was an ardent cinephile, and I watched Turner Classic Movies for a week. I saw “The Beast with Five Fingers,” a horror movie, with Peter Lorre, involving a disembodied hand. When I offered my scholarly appraisal of the film, John told me about dozens of other films with disembodied hands.
He mentioned an early silent movie to me called “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend,” a truly bonkers work that I later watched on YouTube. Some months later, I saw that he had published a poem by that name, one of my favorites from his late books. This says something essential about him.
I remember his answer to the Proust question: he said that Proust had “spoiled him,” since everyone was constantly betraying everyone else. I thought, Now, that’s a man who finished Proust. But it also showed his innocence, which is what I prize in his poems most of all.