90 Lines For John Ashbery’s
90th Birthday

In Memory of a Great American Poet, We're Reposting Birthday Wishes From July

September 5, 2017  By Literary Hub
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The following originally appeared on July 28, on the occasion of the late John Ashbery’s 90th birthday.

                                                                        We’ll make do,

another day, shopping and such, bringing the meat home at night
all roseate and gleaming, ready for the frying pan.
our names will be read off a rollcall we won’t hear—
how could we? We’re not even born yet—the stars will perform their dance
privately, for us, and the pictures in the great black book
that opens at night will enchant us with their yellow harmonies.
We’ll manage to get back, someday, to the tie siding where the idea
of all this began, frustrated and a little hungry, but eager
to hear each others’ tales of what went on in the interim
of our long lives, what the tea leaves said
and whether it turned out that way. I’ll brush your bangs
a little, you’ll lean against my hip for comfort.

                                    –John Ashbery, “The Underwriters,” Your Name Here (2000)

 

To celebrate the beloved American poet John Ashbery turning 90 today, we invited 90 of his dearest friends, collaborators, and admirers to pick a favorite line from his vast published corpus (the second volume of his Collected Poems, 1991-2000, will be published this October with Library of America) and write about it in 90 words or fewer. Ashbery’s poetic career now spans over six decades and includes more than 20 books of original poetry, the most recent being Commotion of the Birds (Ecco, 2016). His work has profoundly shaped, influenced, irritated, vexed, puzzled and/or pleased its world of readers ever since little JA began writing. His very first poem was penned in 1935, when he was eight years old: “The tall haystacks are great sugar mounds / These are the fairies’ camping grounds.”

Below, we invite you to read line selections and contributions from some of his most devoted fans, readers that include preeminent artists, critics, editors, educators, filmmakers, scholars, translators, poets, and publishers. Of course, playing favorites with Ashbery’s poetry is harder than simply having too many choices. His poetics, arguably, push against the very idea of exclusivity, given his syntactic tendency to rush past the merely quotable and singular line unit. Ashbery’s poems reveal a biosphere of verbal affects, their idioms and dictions drawn from all over the literary, vernacular maps of American English, French, and other languages. Even so, Ashbery’s syntax has morphed over time, a mixture of elegance and radical experimentation that inaugurated his early career from Some Trees (1956) and The Tennis Court Oath (1962) to The Double Dream of Spring (1970); later becoming more pythonic and sprawling between 1972’s Three Poems and 1991’s Flow Chart; until finally arriving in its more collaged yet clipped form since 2007’s A Worldly Country.

We cherish the anecdotes and interpretations these readers bring to encountering, remembering, and even re-remembering his poems. Such abundance pays tribute to the many lives that books, poems, and phrases take on as they continue to live out their own strange meanings in our collective imaginations. Their staying power is not only a testament to one of our greatest poets, but to the very gifts that reading a poem, that time in its passing, are—to what we all may bring to such life-granting work as John Ashbery’s. Here’s to another century in the world for this poet’s work as it surprises and delights new readers, many of whom are surely not even born yet.

Happy birthday, JA!

–Adam Fitzgerald and Emily Skillings

 

 

Damiano Abeni 

Seeming is almost as good as being, sometimes

–“Commotion of the Birds,” Commotion of the Birds (2016)

In this line of the title poem of his latest collection to date, lightness and heaviness are perfectly balanced, in a 100 percent Ashbery mode: you can look at it and simply laugh, enjoying the baffling irony of “almost” and “sometimes”; or you can gloomily think of our narcissistic era of fakeness and instant gratification, and perceive that maybe, just maybe, he’s telling us that Western “Civilization” is doomed. And you’ll be right and wrong at the same time, as always happens when you fall into John’s magnificent web.

 

Michael Almereyda

Anything can change as fast as it wants to, and in doing so may pass through a more or less terrible phase, but the true terror is in the swiftness of changing, forward or backward, slipping just beyond our control.

–“The Lonedale Operator,” A Wave (1984)

The sentence appears at a point in this fairly discursive prose poem when the narrator, recounting the first film he ever saw, flashes forward to describe a movie encountered when he was older. His memory blurs, incurring a sudden slide and plunge into wider speculation. A sense of wonder and dread fill the poem like dark water filling a ship. As ever, Ashbery simultaneously describes reality and calls it into question, drawing us to consider a larger order—or disorder—encircling our tame and tidy thoughts and spiraling beyond them.

 

Charles Alteri

That there is so much to tell now, really now.

–“As We Know,” As We Know (1979)

I love this line because of the brilliant contrast between “now” as a descriptive term and “really now” as an expression of urgency that brings out the full capacity of “now” to carry both the present tense and the act if seeing as that incorporates and wills an entire life. This line defines an inwardness without psychology or any assumptions about selfhood.

 

 Rae Armantrout

How they found you, after a dream, in your thimble hat,
Studious as a butterfly in a parking lot.

–“The Other Tradition,” Houseboat Days (1977)

I tried to choose just one line but it seemed impossible. The action is always somewhere in between, in transit, like the “studious” butterfly that settles briefly then veers off. A butterfly is never jaded. These lines might describe an Ashbery poem. They arrive in the wake of some event, perhaps momentous, perhaps quotidian. Who knows now? They (and we) are off to something else—the next parked car. John is the least pompous poet in the world. Here he / you / we are Thumbelina, in our thimble hats. At this scale, attention is intense and distributive.

 

Felix Bernstein

To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there

–“Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” Shadow Train (1979)

You exist to prop up the will to be seen seeing therefore I am seeing you where you are not: where you tapped in, leaving the levels of the memory palace always in place so as to lead back to the double inside, which remains outside of where the split would have been, had you not been. You’ve shored up there—where things don’t squirt all over, or miss each other, but only tap—not to memorialize the other, or memorialize the poem, but to make the poem itself another.

 

Anselm Berrigan

My favorite JA lines include (all from Wakefulness [1998]):

a) Take this, metamorphosis. And this. And this. And this.
–“Baltimore”

b) No matter how you / twist it, / life stays frozen in the headlights.
–“Wakefulness”

c) All the wolves in wolf factory paused / at noon, for a moment of silence.
–“Laughing Gravy”

d) If everybody is so intent on illustrating what they know, / why is the ant syllabus closed
–“Deeply Incised”

Only the shy should choose. Rudy Burckhardt was fond of b, but I’m a sucker for c.

 

Mark Bibbins

And the face
Resembles yours, the one reflected in the water.

–“Summer,” The Double Dream of Spring (1970)

Although choosing a favorite John Ashbery line is like choosing a favorite wave in the sea, a few of mine can be found in “Summer,” one of the first poems of his that I remember reading. Here’s the ending: “And the face / Resembles yours, the one reflected in the water.” That phrase felt like it contained all the skewed longing I used to carry around as a younger person and was trying to figure out how to name. Happy birthday, John, and thank you—we love you.

 

Star Black

Say no to nothing is my credo
And pocket veto.

–“The Recipe,” A Worldly Country (2007)

My favorite line by John is the line I happen to be reading at the moment. All other lines he has written collapse into time and the line I see is an immediate experience. To select a favorite line would be to choose rather than schmooze, to enter the realm of the literary discernment rather than the “Chinese Whispers” of John’s seemingly baffling imagination, a good place to stop one’s thought process and loosen one’s dreams. Since I like music, I happen upon a rare rhyme in the poem, “The Recipe,” from his volume A Worldly Country: “Say no to nothing is my credo / and pocket veto.”

 

Jonah Bokaer

they none of them would leave without the other

–“How To Continue,” Hotel Lautréamont (1992)

Happy Birthday, and much love, from your Hudson neighbor and choreographer, Jonah Bokaer. Choreography stems from “circle writing,” in ancient Greek, one aspect of the artform, to love. Thank you for your awe-inspiring work.

 

Georges Borchardt

Dewey took Manila, and soon after invented the decimal system

–“Memories of Imperialism,” Your Name Here (2000)

There are a lot more than 90 lines that would qualify as my favorite Ashberys, but “Dewey took Manila, and soon after invented the decimal system” always brings a smile to my face. Even though now these memories of imperialism coupled with a vision of books floating in Manila Bay seem uncomfortably prophetic and ominous. I have stopped using manila envelopes, but have dreams of books floating freely in eBay. Happy Birthday, John!

 

Guy Bordin and Renaud de Putter

The sources of these things being very distant
It is appropriate to find them, which is why mist
And night have “affixed the seals” to all the ardor
Of the secret of the search. Not to confound it
But to assure its living aeration.

Les sources de ces choses étant très lointaines
Il convient de les trouver, c’est pourquoi la brume
Et la nuit ont « mis les scellés » sur toute l’ardeur
Du secret de la recherche. Non pas pour le confondre
Mais pour en assurer la vivante aération.

–“French Poems,” The Double Dream of Spring (1970)

For his 90th birthday, we thank John Ashbery for being this poet of wonderful charm, culture and liberty, whose insatiable curiosity and perpetual mobility between all fields and levels of art and expression realize a “living aeration” of the language and representations! Thinking of him, we immediately see his vivid blue eyes, so quick and witty, grasping instantly every parcel of the present with an incredible “sens du detail,” what makes him eternally young!

We are especially fond of this French poem of which John wrote both versions. Encouraging the reader to “exercise” between them, it reminds us of his strong link with French culture—how we had the chance to meet him when searching for Raymond Roussel and Charlotte Dufrène. May John continue to astonish us with his books and collages!

 

Caren Canier

It’s good to be modern if you can stand it.
It’s like being left out in the rain, and coming
To understand that you were always this way: modern,
Wet, abandoned, though with that special intuition
That makes you realize you weren’t meant to be
Somebody else, for whom the makers
Of modernism will stand inspection
Even as they wither and fade in today’s glare.

–“Commotion of the Birds,” Commotion of the Birds (2016)

Style is a fleeting illusion. Styles appear to follow rational, linear progressions but are really fickle constructions that confound past, present and future. De Kooning said: “Style is a fraud. I always felt the Greeks were hiding behind their columns… you are with a group or movement because you cannot help it.” In “Commotion of the Birds,” Ashbery reflects on style and history with humor and a colloquial matter-of-factness that is reassuring to me.

 

Garrett Caples

Ask a hog what is happening. Go on. Ask him.

–“Grand Galop,” Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)

my admiration for this line already a matter of public record, calling to mind carl sandburg’s “the right to grief” you take your grief and I mine—see? or robert frost’s letter to john bartlett damn an ingersoll watch anyway some item that is now little more than a feature of some obscure style—cornice or spandrel out of the dimly remembered whole which probably lacks true distinction. but if one may pick it up, carry it over there, set it down, then the work is redeemed at the end.

 

Todd Colby

Yes they are alive and can have those colors,
But I, in my soul, am alive too.

–“A Blessing in Disguise,” Rivers and Mountains (1966)

This creamy center of a line in a poem packed with creamy centers remains for me a statement of the true core of the punk rock ethos. It is very DIY and focused on participation over exclusion, but love is exclusive, or is it? Love has been defined as love of self in the eyes of the other. But love is also celebratory and exultant, as the poem tells us. I have reminded myself of this line countless times when I’ve had the crap beaten out of me by life and love. Thanks for writing it, John.

 

Douglas Crase

It is the lumps and trials
That tell us whether we shall be known
And whether our fate can be exemplary, like a star.

–“The One Thing That Can Save America,” Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)

Although I immediately loved these lines, who imagined their coming true in John’s own flesh and blood? On April 29, 1982, he and David were expected for dinner but ended up in surgery instead, for the epidural abscess that nearly killed him and threatened to leave him quadriplegic. He returned home in mid-June. Two weeks later I was stunned to see him alone on Ninth Avenue, gripping his aluminum walker like an emblem of power. If you were a younger poet at that time, suddenly you wanted a walker, too.

 

Richard Deming

Best not to dwell on our situation, but to dwell in it is deeply refreshing.

–“Homeless Heart,” Quick Question (2012)

This line returns to me often, enacting as it does the struggle between avoidance and acknowledgment that language and one’s responses can reveal. Consider the differences between “dwelling in” and “dwelling on.” Putting pressure on the same word to find out the two different ways that it can mean reveals the problem of words themselves. We dwell on what the word dwell means in one sense (“dwell on”) and then the other (“dwell in”) so as to make decisions that affect a way of being in the world.

 

Timothy Donnelly

As in the division of grace these long August days

–“Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” Shadow Train (1981)

Grace is traditionally divided into habitual grace, which refers to the condition of sanctity possessed by the soul, and actual grace, which refers to the transient ability or impulse to do salutary things, including but not limited to those divinely conferred gifts or charismata enumerated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12: words of wisdom, words of knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, diverse tongues, discerning of spirits, and interpretation of speeches. Meanwhile, here we have a gorgeously imperfect alexandrine whose near rhyme diminishes the conceptual distance between its hemistichs.

 

Marcella Durand

The storm finished brewing.

–“Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” Houseboat Days (1977)

In the early 2000s, during my tenure as John’s assistant, a project came up involving “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.” John reread the poem and began chuckling. He handed it to me, pointing to the line, “The storm finished brewing.” It took me a moment to get it and now it rarely leaves me—it’s such an example of John’s unerring ear for the tension within an everyday expression (as if a storm brews like a cup of coffee) and making that perfect twist to transform it into slow-burn dynamite.

 

Moira Egan

Something shimmers; something is hushed up.

–“This Room,” Your Name Here (2000)

There are many classic, catch-phrase “definitions” of poetry created by poets. Wordsworth: “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Dickinson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Sandburg: “the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.” To these I would add Ashbery’s “Something shimmers; something is hushed up.” Something shimmers, glints out at the reader, attracting, a bright bauble spotted by a raven. Yet something remains hushed up: silence, reticence: the mysterious quality that invites the reader to enter into the poem.

 

Robert Elstein

We have to live out our precise experimentation.
Otherwise there’s no dying for anybody,
no crisp rewards.

–“Breezeway,” Breezeway (2015)

This is JA speaking directly to his reader. He, Ashbery, must live out the experimentations that are rightly suited for him. And I must do the same for myself. I must do what’s right for Elstein. Shmo must experience whatever Shmo needs to experience. I can’t imagine better advice to an artist from a more wise role model than this. Thank you, John, for every single line, for each layer of an idea. Happy Birthday! Enjoy the crisp rewards!

 

Adam Fitzgerald

“Honey, what am I supposed to say?” “Say nothing, you big boob.
Just be glad you got away with it and are famous.” “Speaking of
boobs…” “Now you’re getting the idea. Go file those books
on those shelves over there. Come back only when you have finished.”

–“Memories of Imperialism,” Your Name Here (2000)

There was I a plunky, goo-brained undergraduate complaining Poetry Was Dead but then sporting into Cambridge and coming upon a copy of Your Name Here. The Harold Bloom blurb worth the price of admission alone (“not since Yeats, Hardy, Stevens…”). Your Name Here is still my first love, My Own Private Idaho of Ashbery splendor. Surreal melancholy. Wistfulness perfected. These lines in particular never stop making me laugh. For the first time in my too-serious poetry-loving life, it was good that a poem made me laugh. That I wanted it to. There’s a poetry (serious, spiritual) in that. And JA, on your 90th, you can say anything, you big boob. I hope you’re glad you got away with it and are famous. Your books are all shelved on my wall. Please never finish.

 

Mark Ford

Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted

–“Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)

This line struck me with the force of a revelation when I read it in my early twenties. Its effect on me then, as now, is of a camera shot focused on some obscure object on a distant horizon; this shot is then magically reversed, and begins panning steadily away from the object and nearer and nearer to the viewer or camera, until we pass through the lens or the eye into an inner landscape of impossible complexity. Here, in the uncharted terrain of the present, we must try to live.

 

Jonathan Galassi

These accents seem their own defense.

–“Some Trees,” Some Trees (1956)

You could almost say that all of JA’s work is encapsulated in this mysterious not quite self-erasing line. You could probably say it of every other Ashbery line, too, if you were a deconstructive purist; but these closing words of one of his great early poems feel emblematic in their spiky, badgerlike balling-up, at once assertive sally and protective hex, telling all the truth ambivalently slant—“as far this morning/ From the world as agreeing / With it.”

 

Forrest Gander

And while the fire-mind tries out its images on us one last time an unsettling tableau
of doom constructs itself from the greenish chalk on the green blackboard, but not yet

for these eyes, while the brandy decanter is bent and yards of cretonne
smother the schoolyard and take their place among the popping trees, yet
unendorsably, O nargileh.

Flow Chart (1991)

Remember when he wrote about Hitler’s brain? And then it was right back to him. Easy to note Ashbery’s eternal return to self-reflection, paradox, hilarity, and code-switching in a line like “the culte du moi being a dead thing, a shambles. That’s what led to me.” But I get wild on the sparkling virtuosity of another sort of line that stumbles semantically and, even as it abandons all foreseeable trajectories, trips the wire that sets off fireworks of ecstatic surrender (as losing one’s way provides the most exuberant experience).

 

Alan Gilbert

The rise of capitalism parallels the advance of romanticism

–“Definition of Blue,” The Double Dream of Spring (1970)

Most poets reflect the larger culture (consciously or unconsciously); a smaller number anticipate it; and the rare few do both. John Ashbery is among that select group to engage with the current moment while simultaneously staying a step ahead of it, not in order to reach a conclusion or even to serve as a knowing guide, but to keep possibility open: “always on the way” as he says in another poem in The Double Dream of Spring, or more recently: Where Shall I Wander—not a question but a declaration of intent as non-intentional.

 

Maxine Groffsky

And all because you succumbed to what seemed an innocent and perfectly natural craving, to have your cake and eat it too, forgetting that, widespread as it is, it cannot be excused on any human grounds because it cannot be realized.

–“The System,” Three Poems (1972)

Dear John,
It was realized in 1971 when you sent “The System” to me for publication in the Paris Review. Thank you, dear friend, for the great pleasures of your poetry. ***Happy Birthday***

 

Langdon Hammer

“I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.”

–“As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat,” Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)

It’s the first line of “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat,” the first poem in Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, which was the first John Ashbery poem I had read—it was spring 1977 and the book was the little orange and silver Viking paperback, which you could put in your pocket—and I was hooked for life by the energy, the seriousness, the impudence, the vision. That’s 40 years ago, and I still get a shiver when I think of it.

 

Arlo Haskell

…I can’t smoke this weed,
I give it back, we are all blessed, commensurates within
a star where many things fit, too many, or not too many, whatever
it says about you, whatever saves.

–“Moderately,” Wakefulness (1998)

The poem I return to most is “Moderately,” from Wakefulness, and the (broken) line that rings in between these readings is “commensurates within / a star where many things fit.” Why? Partly it’s the discovery of that word as a noun, which my spellchecker can’t find and my OED won’t defend, reminding me that poets create our language. But better still: the faith that this jagged militaristic shape (or burst of gas?) has room for all of us as wondering, wandering equals. An America we can still pine after.

 

Elizabeth Hazan

You remember how still it was then, a season putting its arms into a coat

–“Words to that Effect,” Where Shall I Wander (2005)

Although John may have a particular friend or lover in mind when he addresses a “you” in his poems, I always appreciate the open invitation to slip into the passenger seat of his travels. Lately, though, I have preferred to imagine the you in “Words to that Effect” and other poems in the delightful Quick Question as spoken to my mom, Jane (Freilicher). “You remember how still it was then, a season putting its arms into a coat …” Some kaleidoscopic fragments conjure for me visits from John to Water Mill (things going haywire, days like tumbleweed), or a moment in her painting. And likewise when she says “in realist painting, it’s hard to convey a feeling of intoxication,” I think she is also speaking for John. xLizzie

 

Oli Hazzard

…and indeed the sun slanted its rays
Through branches of Norfolk Island pine as though
Politely clearing its throat

–“The Other Tradition,” Houseboat Days (1977)

I wasn’t really listening to the person reading the poem, by an American poet I’d never heard of, when these lines stretched out across the room and bored straight through me—pinning me like a butterfly to the afternoon, my friend Greg, my specificity. One T-shirt (‘There he touches his being!’) sold. Authority, tact, phenomenal enchantment, pained, amused scepticism. That adjustment of ‘through’ to ‘though’ to ‘throat’… as though everything were a single thing illuminated from different angles as the sun rotated, or prelude to a decent Scrabble move?

 

Tom Healy

 Scratch any itch, the somber legato underneath will surge prominently, lean on the right lever

–“Where Shall I Wander,” Where Shall I Wander (2005)

I’d say John’s great non-question is “Where Shall I Wander.” And here John is… wandering in the August heat… at 90! That is hot, my friends. So one cool line from just one book to honor John and wish him Happy Birthday? “Scratch any itch, the somber legato underneath will surge prominently, lean on the right lever.” The itch, the legato and the lever—all of Ashbery is in those three. And three times three is 90—if you do it 10 times. And that’s never enough.

 

Susan Howe

of western New York state
were the graves all right in their bushings
was there a note of panic in the late August air
because the old man had peed in his pants again

–“As You Came from the Holy Land,” Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)

My favorite line is a title that bleeds into its poem. The break between title with its reference to Ralegh’s Elizabethan love poem of age and regret, and the clash with the poem’s first line and these following. He captures the oddity and allure of that unholy holy burnt over district. Why did God speak to Moses from a burning bush? etc. I always felt a note of panic when driving between Utica and Buffalo in late August. After Albany and the Mohawk Valley. Meanings that have been expelled yet are still lurking. The vague sense of entering serial killer territory. I stuck to the highway.

 

Nicolas Hundley

The day was gloves.

–“The Skaters,” Rivers and Mountains (1966)

Of the many Ashbery lines I carry around in my head, this one pops into my thoughts most often. I love its deceptive simplicity. The image is uncanny, perhaps because it renders exotic such quotidian language, prompting one to wonder what strange and marvelous combinations are possible from everyday objects and language. For all the maximalism of “The Skaters,” the line betrays a minimal impulse. Yet, one suspects that lurking beyond is something immense and dangerous.

 

Erica Hunt

There is nothing to be done, you must grow up. The outer rhythm more and more accelerate, past the ideal rhythm of the spheres that seemed to dictate you, that seemed the establishment of your seed and the conditions of its growing upward, someday into leaves and fruition and final sap.

Even as I say this to you I seem to hear you wishing me well. Your eyes taking in some rapid lateral development

reading without comprehension

and always taking up on the reel of what is happening in the wings.

–“The New Spirit,” Three Poems (1972)

First read in 1980-81, I wrote these lines down in my journal; they seemed close to the tuning of one of my internal voices, addressing a shifting “you” in Some Trees, and inventing the prose poem, in a line so sinuous it enacts thought winding its way through a richly textured sensorium. The barriers fell; now, a literary text could work at the speed of thought, map the metamorphosis between sight, feeling, constructed object, a poem to better compass knowing how we meet the world.

 

Tomoyuki Iino

Each person
Has one big theory to explain the universe
But it doesn’t tell the whole story

–“Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)

I just can’t tell you how much I learned from these lines.

 

Lucy Ives

. . . the exhausted shepherd
The marble of his Swedish copper forehead

–“To the Same Degree,” The Tennis Court Oath.

I once put this line (though really it is an excerpt from a pair of lines, a phrase) in a list of the “best images in the poetry of John Ashbery.” This list was included in an essay titled, tellingly, “On Imitation.” I think all the time about that shepherd’s forehead; it seems at once bright and dim, hot and cold. How lovely, to be internally aflame and dozing in the shade. How desirable, to be consumed by dreams that give one’s face an impossible allure. This phrase is a guide in miniature, I think, as to how a person can become a poem.

 

Jim Jarmusch

All beauty, resonance, integrity,
Exist by deprivation or logic
Of strange position.

–“Le livre est sur la table,” Some Trees (1956)

I first discovered John Ashbery’s beautiful poems in Some Trees in 1974. These brief opening lines, particularly, have vibrated inside me ever since. Their succinct elegance somehow seemed liked a challenge from the poet to take them literally. And so I have. Understanding that these three qualities “exist by deprivation” has guided me to embrace limitations as strengths. Similarly, embracing the “logic of strange position” has encouraged me to celebrate the inherent gift of feeling like an outsider, and enthusiastically viewing things from the margins.

 

Patricia Spears Jones

Le Tribute

Funny you request 90 words for 90 years
Okay the thing about Ashbery
Is that he makes us
unsure of which direction is the direction home
But, there is always home in Ashbery’s work, now isn’t there?
Home & fame’s odd wit.
John tells me about seeing Marlon Brando Boston tryout
in A Streetcar Named Desire. A new masculine norm.
The abstracted beauty of it all & odd tempered music
and the ears ready to hear.
That he has
Something to say
and will just
Say it. So there.

 

Vincent Katz

What had you been thinking about

–“The Tennis Court Oath,” The Tennis Court Oath (1962)

My friends and I used to listen to a recording of John Ashbery reading this poem on a Giorno Poetry Systems LP. Hearing his voice reading these lines brought out their inherent musicality, providing an alternate avenue to comprehending them. In the reading, they became pure, spectacular music, and we were left delighted. This line is the first line of the title poem, and it sets up a rhythm for the entire poem and book. “What had you been thinking about” retains its crystalline opacity. Thank you, John!

 

Kevin Killian

I feel that this season is being pulled over my head like a dress, difficult to spot the dirt in its mauve and brick traceries.

The Ice Storm (1987)

I’m glad I didn’t have a writing teacher in Smithtown, for he or she would have told me, “Kevin, you don’t really need to start this line with ‘I feel that,’ now, do you? It’s obvious that what you’re asserting in this line is your opinion, the way you’re feeling.” At the seminar table, blushing, inchoate, I would defend myself from the professor’s scorn, barking it out with a fierce caprice that would alarm my cohort, “Without those opening words the line would collapse—so would my whole burgeoning career.”

 

Wayne Koestenbaum

And the river threaded its way as best it could through sharp obstacles and was sometimes not there

Flow Chart (1991)

I love that the river is sometimes not there. In all his work, JA turns absence—refusal, moonlighting, reverie, funk—into poetic gold. The poem-river’s ability sometimes to be not there permits linguistic sumptuousness, a verbal voluptuousness that thrives by turning away from presence’s official tasks. As he puts it elsewhere in Flow Chart: “a Florentine wonderment drips from the sky.” The river’s Bartleby-like disappearance—momentary—ensures that a digressive Florentine wonderment will continue to drip into the delighted souls of Ashbery’s readers, who relish every brocaded detour.

 

Stuart Krimko

All our lives is a rebus
Of little wooden animals painted shy,
Terrific colors, magnificent and horrible,
Close together.

–“The Wrong Kind Of Insurance,” Houseboat Days (1977)

A sentence counts as a line, right? I love it because it’s true. This is one of the poems that first opened up the floodgates of praise and wonder for me. Viva John! Thank you for everything!

 

Deborah Landau

but we live

In the interstices, between a vacant stare and the ceiling,
Our lives remind us. Finally this is consciousness
And the other livers of it get off at the same stop.

–“Saying it to Keep it from Happening,” Houseboat Days (1977)

This poem has always been important to me since I first read it on an Amtrak train from NYC to Boston years ago. I was in grad school, learning how to read JA, feeling confounded—and then these lines seemed to open a door. I had a sense then of how to proceed in reading him.

(I’m also very fond of “After you’ve lived in Paris for awhile you don’t want to live anywhere, including Paris”—a signature quip mixing dark wit/pathos—but alas not from a poem!)

 

David Lau

Take this, metamorphosis. And this. And this. And this.

–“Baltimore,” Wakefulness (1998)

In the vague antecedent of the demonstrative “this” lurks a churning dialectic of the one and the many found in the most ordinary terms. A late line, it contains a career and its fluctuating times; the flickering ahistorical surface effects of the hectic, postmodern “metamorphosis” antagonize the poet. Yet “take this,” the poem says, both combatively and generously, against the same familiar technological revolutions of industrial society. The title metropolis brings to mind of Jacques Lacan or Nina Simone covering Randy Newman. Difficulty is real. A line is a city.

 

Ava Lehrer

They still connect
(it still connects?)—
the feeling of the middle of the evening
as it is overtaken
by its sides.

–“Structures in Sand,” in Planisphere (2009)

“Structures in Sand” is a short poem. At the heart of each of its three stanzas is a question—a call, “in the middle of evening,” to an unknown recipient. Like many of my favorite Ashbery poems, the questions in “Structures” have addictive properties. They keep the conversation going. “When are you returning?” is the blessed question asked in the last line of the poem. In puzzled gratitude (or is it grateful puzzlement?), we return to Ashbery—and his questions—again and again.

 

Jeffrey Lependorf

I’ll bite your toes, see you in the morning.

–“The Large Studio,” Hotel Lautréamont (1992)

From a love song, perhaps, to one you should forget? The studio larger because of absence, or perhaps it’s the opposite. I accumulate such a history reading this poem, though I’m not sure if it’s mine or someone else’s. I don’t think it matters. I know exactly what it means and also have no idea.

 

Tom Levine

But you are too preoccupied
By the secret smudge in the back of your soul. 

“Just Walking Around, A Wave (1984)

Such a poignant line that always makes me wonder what my own most recent secret smudge is. John’s imagination and the way he interprets life is singular and heartfelt. He owns his words and the uncommon tools he uses to shape them. He mixes it all up. On close reading one admires how he masters a phrase, like watching a weaver’s dancing hands in a blur as the fabric flows, becoming an ever-longer tapestry. As craft vanishes, the spirit of the poem comes into focus. John’s work continues to change my life—the way I think, the way I read, the way I experience relationships, the way I see the world.

 

Rachel Levitsky

My favorite line of yours as long as my
favorite today, or this moment I
read you new, anew, laugh about how naughty
how clean you make naughty still
being naughty or smelly, flattening the ever scandal
of everyday life, capital poisoning its rivers and streams
its whatever current world demise that daily strike us wry like
defecation, what we shed and pick
then: elevating our sweetest
crying for my lost love lost appearances as the weeds wave
Bountifully out of bounds you are
All things
are
secretly bored* 

*all italicized lines are from The Vermont Notebook, a collaboration with Joe Brainard, published in 1975 (Z Press) and again in 2001 (Granary).

 

Eric Lorberer

And then it got very cool.

–untitled poem on the “Ashbery Bridge” in Minneapolis (1988)

How to choose? Hundreds of Ashbery lines cascade like a waterfall in my mind, lines that I’ve bathed in, marveled at, been rescued by. I suppose the last line of my beloved bridge poem is as good a starting (stopping?) point as any, its double meaning leaping beyond mere weather toward the ever amazing future. Maybe this is where Ashbery has lived this whole time, in that future? A big huzzah to him for dragging a legion of readers toward it over a spectacular lifetime in poetry.

 

Anthony Madrid

Just like a project of which no one tells—
Or do ya still think that I’m somebody else?

–“The Songs We Know Best,” A Wave (1984)

There’s a special elegance to rhymes that are “off” in this way. I can’t say I’ve thought it through; all I know is it’s somehow nice, when the rhyme poses a tiny temptation to distort the pronunciation of the second word in the rhyme pair. Example from Edward Lear: “There was an Old Man who said “Hush! / I perceive a young bird in this bush!” (Ashbery’s 90 today. Yet I perceive a young bird in this bush.)

 

Alberto Manguel

That you may be running through thistles one moment
And across a sheet of thin ice the next and not be aware
of any difference, only that you have been granted an extension.

–“Adam Snow,” April Galleons (1987)

When I first read the poem I thought of “The Rider on Lake Constance” by the 19th-century poet Gustav Schwab, in which a rider gallops across a frozen lake not knowing it is a lake, and when he is told what he has done he dies of fright. Ashbery turns Schwab’s melodrama into an image of hope. The objective experience of crossing a field in winter becomes an emblem for the arbitrary generosity of the world that grants us more than what we think we are granted.

 

Javier Marías

You can’t say it that way any more.

–“And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name,” Houseboat Days (1977)

This line, by itself, expresses the continuous, inapprehensible changes of time, age, and in the end, life—death included. When, and why, do we discover that we can no longer use the usual words of childhood—that is, the firmest, the inaugural ones, or of youth—when we most play with them—, or of manhood, when we feel we have finally found and chosen the most correct and accurate way of saying? When, and why, do we discard the vocabulary that was once inherent to us? It is a dreadful discovery, that there are also casualties among words. And we never quite know whether it is “the times” that whimsically retire them, or is it us, do we get tired of them, or is it they who tire of us?

 

Paul Muldoon

It happened to be a beautiful time of season, spring or fall,
the air was digestible, the fish tied in love-knots
on their gurneys. Yes, and journeys

–“Chinese Whispers,” Chinese Whispers (2002)

The thing I like about these lines from “Chinese Whispers” is that all Ashbery is there. We have the sense of the ludic from the title, of course, with its reference to the game in which “while the objective is to pass around the message without it becoming garbled along the way, part of the enjoyment is that, regardless, this usually ends up happening.” The humorous effect engendered by the “gurney/journey” confusion is tempered by the fact that the gurney is often a vehicle for the journey to end all journeys.

 

Eileen Myles

And then I start getting this feeling of exaltation.

–“A Blessing in Disguise,” Rivers and Mountains (1966)

This is my favorite John line because it is a state, and it is a state that occurs at the end of the poem and the poem is sort of blocky, or cubist or even Bizarro. It’s not a love poem that flows, but jerks passionately I think and it takes a big breath at the end and feels great. I love that he got there, and I the reader did too.

 

Charles North

It was always November there.

–“The Chateau Hardware,” The Double Dream of Spring (1970)

What first struck me is that my copy (Dutton, 1970) has it as Novemeber! (The pencil line I drew through the extra e is still there.) I still love it as an opening line; concise and confident, it appears to introduce so much. It also sets the stage for what was to me then a new kind of language, music, and even meaning: on the “technical” or at least oblique side, paratactic, unspecific, unexpected (including the passive voice), staccato to start but capable of expanding in all sorts of ways.

 

Alice Notley

The snowball is a model for the soul because billions of souls are embedded in it, though none can dominate or even characterize it. 

–“Coma Berenices,” Where Shall I Wander (2005) 

I think of this line, which is a prose sentence (and its entire subsequent paragraph) often, but I can never remember the exact words. Whenever I look it up, the exact words blow my mind again. Happy Birthday John, it is such a pleasure to be alive as your new books come out! I particularly like so-called “late Ashbery.”

 

Geoffrey O’Brien

But it is the nature of things to be seen only once,

–“Syringa,” Houseboat Days (1977)

—and impossible to take one line out of place—“you cannot isolate a note of it”— “as the whole wheel / Of recorded history flashes past”—“a picture of flowing”: every line is involved in a movement that does not end with the end, persisting somehow in “hidden syllables” telling the tale of “a totally different incident”: pull on that one thread and the whole poem comes with it, and doesn’t stop, merely disappears into the word “summer.”

 

Geoffrey G. O’Brien

And turning out the way I am, turning out to greet you.

–“The Chateau Hardware,” The Double Dream of Spring (1970)

Doubling “turning out” attunes us to its senses, turns them out on its line: eventuation, factory production, balletic movement, expulsion, becoming. In this paean to illegal cruising during the age of Althusser, polysemy maintains some wiggle room for its grammatical subject, keeps it from being only that hailed into being by the police. It turns being from a Cartesian “I am” into “way,” and grounds that way in mutual recognition (“to greet you”), replacing the state’s hail with a queer hello, and police raids with the pleasure of bodily pursuits.

 

Father Brandon O’Brien

For only you could watch yourself so patiently from afar
The way God watches a sinner on the path to redemption,
Sometimes disappearing into valleys, but always on the way

–“The Bungalows,” The Double Dream of Spring (1966) 

I discovered this poem in 2009 while studying for the priesthood. These lines struck me because they perfectly encompass the understanding of the Christian God. God is not an abstract presence. He participates in the lives of all those who willingly accept Him. The path toward redemption is a path of ups and downs, but it is a path that God joins us on, constantly helping us “on the way.” This inspired me to write to John. He replied, and his reply has resulted in a friendship of eight years.

 

Timothy O’Connor

What is it for you then, the insistent now that baffles and surrounds you in its loose-knit embrace that always seems to be falling away and yet remains behind, stubbornly drawing you, the unwilling spectator who had thought to stop only just for a moment, into the sphere of its solemn and suddenly utterly vast activities, on a new scale as it were, that you have neither the time nor the wish to unravel?

–“The Recital,” Three Poems (1972)

The boundless present must compete with our preoccupations. In “The Recital,” however, even avoidance is an act of being within a spectacle “to be acted out and absorbed.” If humans “cannot bear very much reality” (Eliot), then perhaps our illusions are still a beatitude and participation to which we’re simply “blind” (Ashbery). Later, we discover that the turning point requires no unraveling, but is instead an artwork absorbed in its own temporality: a fusion of old and new, but also of high and low, reality and fancy, self and not-self.

 

Meghan O’Rourke

For time is an emulsion, and probably thinking not to grow up
Is the brightest kind of maturity for us, right now at any rate.

–“Soonest Mended,” The Double Dream of Spring (1970)

This couplet is among my favorite passages in JA’s work. But it’s pretty much impossible to choose a “favorite” line of Ashbery’s; in trying to, I’m reminded that his poems aren’t really about the line, but about great swoops of thought—moving vertiginously from the Shakespearian “emulsion” to the goofy “brightest kind of maturity.” I love the combination of the sublime and the silly here.

 

Michael Palmer

There is a line that John Ashbery has not yet written, one that is, or will sooner or later become, a favorite of mine. Of this line one might say, It will appear to him in my sleep. Of this line one might say, It is at once curved and straight, or neither curved nor straight, depending upon one’s sublunary perspective. Finite yet unbounded. When it does arrive, of course, it will no longer be “a line in the future,” much anticipated, nor “a possible line.” It will simply be.

 

Jed Perl

These are not poets of the center stage, though they have been central for me. If that means I too am off-center, so be it.

Other Traditions (2001)

I cherish these words of John’s—and, yes, they’re prose not poetry—because they present, in their ever so casual way, the most magnificent riposte to T.S. Eliot’s insistence on the impersonality of tradition. John is saying that tradition in the arts is absolutely personal, a matter of finding your own centrality, which may well be an off-center centrality. Some will say that’s a postmodern idea. I don’t agree. To me it’s deep modern. Why can’t the canonical texts be a moveable feast?

 

Emily Pettit

At this time of life whatever being there is is doing a lot of listening, as though to the feeling of the wind before it starts, and it slides down this anticipation of itself, already full-fledged, a lightning existence that has come into our own.

–“The System,” Three Poems (1972)

I like to read this line again and again and again.

 

Robert Polito

The room I entered was a dream of this room.

–“This Room,” Your Name Here (2000)

There are so many Ashberys, of course, so I wanted to pick something also personal—“This Room” inevitably (for me) linked to ASHLAB, a project I conceptualized in 2011 after conversations with David Kermani, and developed at the New School with Tom Healy, Adam Fitzgerald, and Irwin Chen. ASHLAB proposed a digital mapping of Ashbery’s Hudson house via his work—and the reverse: a digital mapping of his work via that Hudson, NY, house. I’ve come to think of our adventure as spanning three houses simultaneously—a literal house upstate overflowing with objects, art, people, and continuing production; a virtual house, where students and faculty represent, document, and annotate those objects, art, biographies, and artistic productions; and finally a sort of metaphorical house, accommodating Ashbery’s vast archive, with many routes leading from and into Paris, 19th-century upstate New York, and 20thcentury painting, music, literature, and film. Happy Birthday, John!

 

Jana Prikryl

…But am afraid I’ll
Be of no help to you. Good-bye.

–“The Skaters,” Rivers and Mountains (1966)

Recently I became absorbed in rereading “The Skaters,” and especially the half dozen or so stanzas leading up to this line. They pull me (as on a funicular) to the top of a high plateau, and when I get to “Good-bye” it’s as if a stranger, a fellow sightseer, had led me past the guardrails to the very edge, allowing me to reckon the drop, without helping me go over. That’s left entirely to me. The freedom is so sudden I don’t know how to thank him.

 

Archie Rand

Quite a thrill too to bend objects
that always return to their appointed grooves—

–“Retro,” Where Shall I Wander (2005)

Landmines strung underfoot rock you off course. Odors invade, centrifugal force hauls you out of the poem while conjoining attachments are welded. The context, “where,” is suspected.  Here, “thrill” becomes “trill”—a warbler appears. “Too to bend” produces ballerinas. “Quite a thrill” becomes “quill,” (bent by Uri Geller) and “appointed” becomes “point” which now make colonial scribbles into a Victrola record’s “grooves” comfortably hosting this needle/ (-“point”) that parlays into an embroidered sampler. It’s rich reading. Dizzy, I climb back on board. Thanks for the nourishment.

 

Ariana Reines

On the great, relaxed curve of time.

–“Ode to Bill,” Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

Slim shift dresses that fall to mid-
calf, worn with black combat bo-
ots; flowered dresses cut to flat-
ter the body, worn with same.
Bread baked in a hole in the gro-
und and passed up to the custo-
mer through a window. The fra-
grant loaves look like wooden cut-
ting boards. Now the baker is en-
joying a cigarette. A woman who
resembles Gertrude Stein sells pe-
aches and green figs on the corner.
She wears a black cloth with a mo-
tif of white cannabis leaves tied ar-
ound her head. The national epic
from the twelfth century extols
the exploits of a female king. A
moderate tyrant is in power.

Dear John Ashbery, it isn’t easy
to say which lines of yours are
my favorites. No living poet
has comforted me more, or
brought greater capacity to the
sometimes narrow confines
of what ordinary emotion tends
to allow. “The long relaxed curve
of time” comes back to me a
lot. Lovers have read me “A

Blessing in Disguise.” I think
Often with rueful humor that
“the unjust one is doomed to
burn forever / around his er-
ror, sadder and wiser anyway.”
Another line that my body
has turned into a kind of
prayer without my ever even
intervening: “wide authority
and tact.” Happy Birthday!
With love from your long-
time fan, Ariana Reines

 

Joan Retallack

True, we had much to worry about,
other things to think about, but when has mankind had the leisure
to distract himself from these and other unassailable syllogisms?
So the truth just washed up on the shore,
a bundle of nerves, not resembling much of anything
we cared to remember.

Girls on the Run (1999)

Laced with Ashbery’s characteristic concoction of humor and gravitas, this passage is startlingly relevant to our current socio-political conundrum of truth vs. alternative facts. That “bundle of nerves” surely presages the revenge of the real.

 

Eugene Richie

We are trying with mortal hands to paint a landscape which would be a faithful reproduction of the exquisite and terrible scene that stretches​ ​around us.

–“The Recital,” Three Poems (1972)

I didn’t remember this sentence after first reading Three Poems, but when Bill Sullivan told me it captured the essence of what he was trying to do in his own painting, it came back to me like an echo of a lost fragment of Heraclitus or Sappho, a touchstone of what every one of us is trying to do in a poem or a story or a painting or film. As The Penguin Poets 1977 paperback edition says, “Ashbery is considered “today’s most original American poet,’” and he still is.

 

Karin Roffman

Like flowers, like the first days

–“The Hero,” Three Plays (1978)

The 6th of 10 lines from “The Hero.” Ashbery is known for writing so much, but this remarkable line and poem demonstrate his genius at brevity and silence. Listening to Webern at the time, he (you) writes a poem, like Webern’s music, that is merely an utterance. Each short line hangs in the air, comfortable with its separation from the next. The atonality and unfinished quality of the poem that results is so beautiful and so original.

 

Danniel Schoonebeek

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.

–“At North Farm,” A Wave (1984)

More than the existence of god or the meaning of life or the question of which sandwich I should have for lunch on a given day, the major unknowable questions I obsess over are the ones I first started thinking about when I first read this poem at the luckless age of 18. I mean, try to picture the rogues gallery of all the people in the world you’ve never met: how many of those same people will come into your life at some decisive, unavoidable juncture, and how long will it take the two of you to arrive at your point of collision? The fatalism inherent in these questions—the thought that people are barreling inevitably toward us every day—is something I find both heartening and fearsome. Because what else is barreling inevitably toward us every day and eluding our knowledge until it arrives? A freak diagnosis at the clinic? A stray bullet? The fact that these three lines above are able to make a reverie of their own unknowability is something I hope sticks with me into all the luckless years ahead of me.

 

David Shapiro

It was always November there.

–“The Chateau Hardware,” The Double Dream of Spring (1970)

“Tears that streak the dusky firmament.”

 –The Tennis Court Oath

The world is John Ashbery tonight.

Last commentary: “There was a language there.”

You deserve expensive chocolate.

–David, Lindsay, and Daniel

 

Don Share

Your words hold too much meaning once
they’re released. Save an epigram
for the jar. Once it is lapsed
you’ll wear it like an endorsement,
jewel that goes nowhere.

–“But Seriously,” Commotion of the Birds (2016)

Words hold too much meaning “once / they’re released”—a paradox, comic and serious (“But seriously”), arising from the very inclination to communicate. Saying something is a form of release; but we can never take back a thing we say. What we put into words is liable to become memorable, quotable. “Save an epigram / for the jar”—that slyly monumental jar in Tennessee? The family swear jar? Poetry is jarring. Our lapsed epigrams become ornamental; the prelapsarian survives in them. Poetry can therefore be endorsed, blurbed, worn as a “jewel that goes nowhere.” Where can, or should, jewels—and poems—go? Wherever encountered, they seem bright, durable, valuable. They don’t move, but they can move us. Ashbery’s poetry is filled with gems mined from imagination’s bedrock, whose language, once released, holds, and will always hold, meaning.

 

Richard Sieburth

“The fruits are ripe, dipped in fire, cooked
and tested here on earth.”
–Hölderlin, translated by Richard Sieburth

–“Obsidian House,” Chinese Whispers (2002)

The line I like is the poem’s epigraph. No greater narcissistic pleasure for a reader than to stumble across something he has written at the head of someone else’s poem. It is the experience of having become citable. Citation in John’s work is among the many courtesies he pays to the world and fellow writers. It is his form of hospitality. Happy Birthday from a grateful guest.

 

Michael Silverblatt

The name of the castle is you, El Rey.

–“Valentine,” Houseboat Days (1977)

“Valentine,”  one of my favorite John Ashbery poems, is in the crazy-funny manner of “Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox.” Before I had any idea of how to read John’s poetry, I knew I loved these hilarious poems. “It is most beautiful and nocturnal by daylight,” “Valentine” continues. Nocturnal by daylight! Sort of like Magritte’s “L’Empire des Lumieres.” Some of Ashbery’s best and most characteristic effects are crammed together in the first stanza. Read it. Smart, funny, snide, sweet and featuring a castle named after its owner, The King.

 

Charles Simic

blinking like an incredulous ocean/with its garters down

–“Holderlin Marginalia,” Where Shall I Wander (2005)

And so do I blink, Dear John, thumbing your many books of poems on my shelves and discovering hundreds of lines underlined in them. Every one which I had fallen in love with instantly after reading them.

 

Emily Skillings

“The lake a lilac cube”

–“They Dream Only of America,” The Tennis Court Oath (1962)

Solid, liquid, or gas? Color, place, or sensation? I learn so much and feel simultaneously emptied of clutter, refreshed, each time I read this short, immersive line. The way each word in the sequence both further estranges and solidifies the image, the way you could almost sketch it (but how could you, really?) the way it seems to oscillate in and out of knowability with the progression of each word, the way the landscape of the line is transmogrified, poured from container to container, into another geometry of itself. The poem it glows from is nightmarish and violent. When I first read it, the cool mystery of this phrase lodged, like a perfect chunk, into my memory and poetics. This poem ends with a line that my friend Adam and I, many nights on the phone, have claimed is the ultimate ending, (one that you could almost airlift into any other poem to rescue it, yet it belongs here with the lake, the cube, the slip of color, the pillars of grass, the honey burning in the throat, in this exact context): “… And I am lost without you.” John, I would have been completely lost as a poet and person without you. We all would be. Happy birthday to a gorgeous person and mind.

 

Mark So

We are trying with mortal hands to paint a landscape which would be a faithful reproduction of the exquisite and terrible scene that stretches around us.

–“The Recital,” Three Poems (1972)

(dusk began to invade my room.)(a Bridge of Sighs)(A vast wetness)(in the course of a single day,)(anonymous matrix without surface or depth)(black-and-white situations)(a wave of melancholy)(The day ends)(No,)(a certain subtle change)(jabbering around)(traces)(neither beginning nor end.)(another world)(parodies of reasonable human beings.)(our real and imaginary lives coincided,)

 

David Spittle

You smile at your friend’s joke, but only later, through tears

–“The Ecclesiast,” Rivers and Mountains (1966)

One of the very first poems I came to truly love. I was amazed at its endless scope; collecting up and celebrating a luminous strangeness in the palm of ordinary experience, at once changing, changeable and familiar. This particular line seems so quietly poignant, immediately understandable but renewably vague. I feel as though a whole lifetime could be wrestling in that ‘smile,’ an expression that exists only in reflection and ‘through tears.’

 

Susan Stewart 

… All we know
Is that we are a little early, that
Today has that special, lapidary
Todayness that the sunlight reproduces
Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe
Sidewalks…

–“Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)

These lines yank us back into the present, the waking refrain of JA’s plunging thoughts on surface, time, the existence of the soul. Clouding light, whirling leaves, motions in reverse, sudden stops and starts-these are some effects, anamorphic, of the poem unfolding. And then the exacting clarity of the twig shadows in “faithful” reproduction—each phenomenon we see as a picture sent to us by the sun, a presence etched like stone. Everything in the heavens is older than we are: we still are “a little early.”

 

Bianca Stone

But how can I be in this bar and also be a recluse?

–“Your Name Here,” Your Name Here (2000)

How many nights in New York City did I sit in a dazzling tavern of disrepute with this line rummaging in my head? There is a wry tenderness I find so reassuring in this line. I love John for his direct honesty with the human contradiction; he keeps us radically authentic.

 

Helen Vendler

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.

–“As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat,” Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror

Ten words, but a life-story; who wouldn’t choose it as epitaph? A winning memory: “I tried each thing”—hyperbole, but what else is youth? “Only some”: The gold that survived being tested by two touchstones. Unmentioned, the dross. The daring of “immortal!” The naiveté of “free!”

 

Anne Waldman

If you knew that snow was a still toboggan in space

–“The Recent Past,” Rivers and Mountains (1966) 

Beauty/mystery of line hit me, time/heart stopping, reading Rivers and Mountains first time, 33 St. Marks Place, hot off press, 1966. Zen-like condensation recalled triad “heaven,” “earth,” “man,” structure of haiku. And loved impact he gets at in a line this elegant way (see later “37 Haiku” ) “space” = “heaven,” “snow” = “earth” because it falls to us, and “man-made” = “toboggan,” visceral Algonquian (Mi’kmaq) word. Look skyward: a “still” synchronous moment.

 

Rosanne Wasserman

Ages passed slowly, like a load of hay.

–“Vetiver,” April Galleons (1987)

But my favorite lines are unpublished: “Call me every twenty minutes” (when I reminded Eugene to phone), “back in 19-never-mind” (talking with Jimmy Schuyler), “—if you were quoting” (from Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton, read aloud with glee), “stepped foot in it” (a favorite Aladar Marberger solecism), “I’m just wild about Harry!” (sung whenever Harry Mathews called), “She’s a great goer” (quoting his father, about his mother), and “That’s just Kenneth being Kenneth” (quoting Jane Freilicher, about Koch).

 

Marjorie Welish

Their own eyes. A digest of their correct impressions of
their self-analytical attitudes overlaid by your
Ghostly transparent face.

–“Wet Casements,” Houseboat Days (1977)

Sequential disambiguation attaining to a sentence, this, from “Wet Casements” uses the sentence to advantage in putting the self under scrutiny and finding it to be other than self-similar identity.

 

Susan Wheeler

…you,
In your deliberate distinctness, whom I love and gladly
Agree to walk blindly into the night with,
Your realness is real to me though I would never take any of it
Just to see how it grows. A knowledge that people live close by is,
I think, enough. And even if only first names are ever exchanged
The people who own them seem rock-true and marvelously self-sufficient.

–“The Ongoing Story,” A Wave (1984) [contributor’s italics]

The line that has haunted me for years is from “The Ongoing Story” (A Wave). The modulation of the poem before it—the context—is everything, casting the line, in my mind, as a snapshot of living in New York City. So I’m including a few lines before it, and the italics of the line I’ve chosen, then, are my own. Beloved John: 90 and still a wizard of line breaks.

 

Dara Wier

Today, a day that makes very little sense,
like America,
in clear disarray
everything’s getting worse. 

–“Like America,” Wakefulness (1998)

When sometime before the turn of the 21st century Jim and I saw how Wakefulness bears a dedication we could barely bear, how sweet it was, how sweet it’s stayed, how sweet it is, we allowed as how we felt shy about it, and so glad, and so we took it home and took turns reading it page by page to one another, once, and then I read it to him and then he read it to me, we had three days in a row to enjoy it, and then we kept it close for as long as we could, and felt that good feeling one feels when another’s generosity and love comes unbidden or at least unbegged, thank you, John, for every single word you’ve written, twice over, from both of us; in the back of one copy (yes, there are several) of the book there’s a picture of John standing by a trunkload of typewriters he’s just picked up following a day of tune-ups at Amherst Typewriter Shop. Love from North Amherst.

 

Enrique Winter

And is happening in lacy shadows of shore-trees, now, day after day.

–“Syringa,” Houseboat Days (1977)

In an Ashberian poem penned 900 years ago by William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, he states he’ll write a verse about nothing. He boasts it came to him while sleeping on a horse. This verse from Ashbery is thought by that horse, and is meant to happen forever each time it is read due to the unsettling use of the deictic “now.” One hears lazy where lacy hides what “is happening,” behind Paula Modersohn-Becker’s or Peter Doig’s trees, and “shadows of shore” as a hush.

 

Rebecca Wolff

Night after night this message returns, repeated
In the flickering bulbs of the sky, raised past us, taken away from us,
Yet ours over and over until the end that is past truth,
The being of our sentences, in the climate that fostered them,
Not ours to own, like a book, but to be with, and sometimes
To be without, alone and desperate.
But the fantasy makes it ours, a kind of fence-sitting
Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.

–“Soonest Mended,” The Double Dream of Spring (1970)

Will it seem unenviable if I admit that I took the final two lines, out of context, as a credo, for Fence, the magazine—as well as for my own personal problems with which I founded Fence—without ever truly seeking any kind of attachment to their meaning, in context of the poem? This really does stand as a credo, this whole little matrix. Happy birthday!

 

Monica Youn

the little shift in tone came

–“Hölderlin Marginalia,” Where Shall I Wander (2005)

So this little line is relatively unintimidating—it’s not the most shapeshifting or timewarping or spoonbending or heartrending. But it reminds us that it’s not about picking out one line—as toothsome or bejeweled or poignant as that line might be. It’s about surfing the shifts, the tectonic slippages, feeling unidentified muscles flexing in the abdominal mind, auricular canals burrowing into our skulls, rods and cones line-dancing, antennae and barbels sprouting all over our skins. We are all more evolved now, almost adapted to the polydimensional universe Ashbery has made.

 

Matthew Zapruder

Is anything central?

–“The One Thing That Can Save America,” Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)

When I first read this poem, the question of its first line changed my life. The way I didn’t understand, yet utterly did. I instantly knew I would follow that feeling, by means of poetry, regardless of what radical life alterations it required. This was terrifying and right. Everything good that has happened to me has happened because of poetry. Maybe I would have found poetry without this poem, but that’s not how it happened. I’m glad to owe a debt that can never be paid, even through endless gratitude.

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Photo Credit: Peter Hujar











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The Mad Ones:
On the Road at 60
"...the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything...