Sunday, September 3, 2017

John Ashbery (1927–2017)

John Ashbery, from “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” in Houseboat Days (New York: Viking, 1977).

The poet John Ashbery has died at the age of ninety. The New York Times has an obituary. I chose the lines above for several reasons: the Wallace Stevens-like meditative voice, the intimations of mortality, the genial resolve to move along, like, say, Adam and Eve or Lycidas (“to be ambling on’s / The tradition”), the comic diction (“Therefore bivouac we,” “the big, / Vaguer stuff”). All in a poem that’s inspired by one Merrie Melodies cartoon (Duck Amuck) and shares a title with another.

And I chose these lines because “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” has special importance for me. The poem (available here) begins with a catalogue of items from the dowdy world that includes “the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile / Escritoire.” Who? A once-popular writer whose name I know only because of this poem. Years ago, I noticed one of Miller’s books at a library book-sale and sent it to John Ashbery in care of his agent. (Why not?) A year later, I received a letter of thanks, which I found in my mailbox right before walking into the poetry class in which I’d just taught an Ashbery poem.

In 2002, I visited New York City’s Museum of American Folk Art to see a Henry Darger exhibit and attend a reading by Ashbery, whose Girls on the Run (1999) was inspired by Darger’s work. (I was writing something about Ashbery and Darger.) I was second in line for the reading and sat in the front row (after vacillating). And who came in and sat down next to me? Yes, John Ashbery. I said hello (why not?) and he nodded back. “John,” I said, “you don’t know me, but I sent you a book several years ago by Helen Topping Miller.” “I still have that book,” he said. I said that I was glad. A little more conversation followed, before and after the reading. John Ashbery was not only one of the great poets of our time: he was a sweet, kind, generous man.

Related reading
All OCA John Ashbery posts (Pinboard)

comments: 2

Fresca said...

Lovely story!

I just read The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone--have you read it? It's a little disappointing, I thought, but it includes in a chapter on Darger some of his writings--his language was very odd and sad/scary/poetic–fascinating. (I saw an exhibit of his Vivian Girls art many years ago in Chicago--totally unforgettable.)

Maybe you know his writing? I'd be interested to read more.

Excerpt from his diary, 1971:
"Not much Life History until October, when I had an eye operation in the left one because of a serious infection, and was in bed at home until a little before Christmas. I Couldn't dare go out because of an eye covering for protection placed by the doctor. I had a very poor nothing-like Christmas. Never had a good Christmas all my life, nor a good New Year, and now resenting it. I am very bitter, but fortunately, not revengeful though I feel I should be. Now I am walking the streets again going to mass as usual. What will it be for me for New Years 1972, God only nows. This year was a very bad one, hope not to repeat it for— "

Michael Leddy said...

That sounds like a book I should look at.

Yes, I’ve read what’s been transcribed of Darger’s writing, or at least what had been transcribed as of a few years ago. The fiction is bizarre and highly mannered. I find the diary more engaging. I wish he and Vivian Maier could’ve met. :)