Driving by the Lake With John Ashbery

Douglas Crase Remembers Precious Time Spent with a Great Poet

It was convenient for John Ashbery, and dumb luck for me, that I was living in Rochester and could pick him up at the airport whenever he arrived from New York to visit his mother. Sometimes, because he didn’t like to fly, he’d arrive at the bus station instead; but I could meet him there too. It was an arrangement from which we both might profit, he explained, not profit in the American sense but in a way best expressed if you said it in French, profiter de. And thus we began my unexpected education, a kind of improvised fellowship with visiting tutor and bonus bits of wisdom delivered in French.

John, as most anyone who follows poetry will know by now, was born in Rochester and raised on his father’s fruit farm in the next county to the east; though he spent a lot of time, as much as he could, at the home of his maternal grandparents at 69 Dartmouth Street. His grandfather was no farmer but a cultivated professor of physics, and the young John had let his preference show. Perhaps it was auspicious that we were only four blocks from that Dartmouth Street house the night we met. The director of the Rochester Oratorio Society was hosting a dinner party, which included among its guests a handsome assistant to Aaron Copland who drove up from New York. John had hitched a ride, crashed the party, and was slouched in the doorway of the dining room when he caught my eye.

He was, to get this on record, sexy. He seemed intent on it. He was 45 that autumn night (I was 28) and he looked as he does in the now-famous photograph taken a year earlier by Gerard Malanga on Eighth Street—full mustache, unruly hair, and a practiced slouch that was part boredom and part come-hither-if-you-dare. Of course I hadn’t seen the photograph, didn’t recognize him, and would hardly have known a reason why I should. A friend identified him as a poet and supplied his name. With the instinctive opportunism you have when you’re young—apparently I had it, anyway—I detached myself from the friend, approached the mustache, and inquired if he was the John Ashbery.

It was a cheap gambit, no sooner spoken than I realized from his expression of disarmed surprise how cruel the young opportunist can be. “Have you read my work?” he asked, while the light in his eyes darkened from split-second joy to caution. “No,” I said, trying weakly to undo the damage. “But I will now.”

Lucky for me that John, as many a young poet can since attest, was by nature generous. He smiled, if just enough to signal his satisfaction, and forgave me the slight. There would be further generosities ahead, although in this first instance I suspect he was already calculating, in the sense of profiter de, the ride he would request from the dinner party to his mother’s house in Pultneyville, 28 miles east of Rochester on the shore of Lake Ontario. It was late as we left the party, had been dark for hours, and I couldn’t see much of the narrow Federal-style house (it’s at 4188 Lake Road, known locally as Washington Street) where I dropped him off. He was swallowed by the night and I never expected to hear from him again. He called the next day.

If poetry should be as well written as prose then here was proof that the secret was to write it as if it were prose.

A week later, after John had returned to the city, a copy of Three Poems arrived in the mail. Reading it, I must have held my breath from the first sentence to the last. If poetry should be as well written as prose then here was proof that the secret was to write it as if it were prose. Here was language in the shape of a quest, language that had detached utility from the great quests of the 1960s and employed it as a means to continue in the wake of their defeat. It was a way to go on without hope, but without losing the feeling of hope. In 1972, with the war still unended and Nixon’s re-election all but assured, the ambiguous resolve of Three Poems was the exact resolution a stalled intellect needed to hear.

I wish I’d told him that. Instead, when he asked how I liked the book I answered—and what imp of aesthetic cowardice prompted me?—that perhaps his previous book, written in lines that actually looked like poetry, was even better.

My luck held, not least because I had the car; and John, who in those days didn’t drive, did like to go for rides in the country. In this he claimed to resemble his mother and quoted fondly her declaration, heard frequently when he was a child, that she was “a great go-er.” We became go-ers, too. We must have driven all over western New York State, stopping at antique shops, used book stores, fruit stands and general stores (where John insisted, to the consternation of the owners, on washing the apples he bought), parks, historical sites. Waterfalls. If these were pleasure trips for him they counted as field trips for me, made instructive by the exemplary way he indulged his interests and wasn’t ashamed of them. He could spend hours looking through old postcards at the used book store in Springwater, a favorite; or, if not hours exactly, then certainly time enough to make us late in getting him back to Pultneyville.

Our rides were exhilarating, not only for the miles we covered but because his conversation, so habitually casual and good natured, was also fearless. Each ride was a rolling preceptorial. We were headed west down a long hill in remote Wyoming County the first time he quizzed me on what I’d been reading lately. I was deep into local history before we met, had spent days in the Rundel Memorial Library absorbing histories of the New York frontier, its penetration, the displacement of the Iroquois. I was anxious to know how you transform the local into something mythic. No surprise, then, that what I’d been reading was Charles Olson. To test my memory, or because he didn’t remember any lines by Olson himself, John demanded an example. With my hands on the wheel and eyes on the road ahead, I retrieved a memory of “The Kingfishers” and began to recite. “When the attentions change/the jungle / leaps in / even the stones are split.”

Immediately from the passenger side of the car came an explosion of triumphant scorn. “I always thought he had a tin ear!” exclaimed John.

Olson’s was not the last of the established reputations to be trimmed for my benefit. Now that he’d liberated my interests, I could confess to John that I once attended a poetry reading at the University of Rochester. Friends in the English Department had said it would be a big event. So who was the reader? he asked impatiently. When I told him it was James Merrill he responded with a delighted sneer. “Oh, you mean the Fabergé of modern American poetry?”

Our rides were exhilarating, not only for the miles we covered but because his conversation, so habitually casual and good natured, was also fearless.

John never insisted on being the sole poet you were allowed to admire. Not long after he sent Three Poems he embarked on a mission clearly designed to improve my library. Freely Espousing arrived, by James Schuyler, followed by the recently published Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. To these he soon added Hebdomeros, Hesiod, and Raymond Queneau. If you hadn’t majored in literature, as I hadn’t, John’s erudition was thrilling and his eagerness to share it, a revelation.

Gradually I discovered he did not know everything. He was rather a snob about classic American literature—he once admitted this—which must qualify as a blind spot when you think of it, since the man who could write “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” was enthralled by American comics, old movies, and popular culture. But when I ventured to say how cool it was that he actually grew up by blue Ontario’s shore he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I had to explain that this was the title of the grand poem in which Walt Whitman summons the poets of the American future; so his being born and raised on that very shore made it seem Whitman had John in mind. At this he didn’t sneer, but said nothing. Years later he took to reading Whitman and claimed that perhaps he’d been influenced after all.

But Whitman or no, there are numerous lakes and shorelines to be found in John’s poems, and a persuasive list of examples to demonstrate how Rochester and its environs once lent their climate to his work. His poem “The Chateau Hardware” is in effect a greeting card from the place that formed him. Anyone who has lived beneath the gray skies of Rochester can acknowledge the truth of the opening line, “It was always November there.” I loved this poem the moment I read it, a feeling that was intensified when John pointed out from the car the location on Monroe Avenue of the mundane hardware store that provided the allusive title. In the rush of time, both the store and its sign—Chateau Hardware—were gone.

As our own days rushed by, I was the lucky witness to additional scenes newly transfigured in his poems: the weigela that does its dusty thing in “Grand Galop,” the cool downtown shadow of the bus station in “The One Thing That Can Save America.” In the gap between the occasions and the poems I had a measure of the abiding concentration it would take to transform the local; and do it without the oracular pretension which, as I was discovering in the work of formerly favorite poets, might not age so well.

John wasn’t the only member of his family with insight into his work habits and raw material. On Elmwood Avenue we drove by the vast Rochester State Hospital, an asylum for the mentally ill. One afternoon we saw patients assembled on the grounds, apparently for their exercise, which led him to recount how he and his mother had passed this same asylum and likewise seen patients brought outside for exercise. “Look, John,” said his mother. “Isn’t that sad? I suppose you’ll go home and write a poem about it.”

His mother’s prediction was later re-purposed and passed to me, as in a kind of inheritance. I had acquired a passion for the orchestral suite Three Places in New England by Charles Ives, in particular its haunting third piece “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.” Because that piece is short, I made a tape on which it repeated continuously so I could listen while writing. John was aware of this fixation. One day we took the northern route to Pultneyville and at the town of Sea Breeze came to a bridge across the mouth of Irondequoit Bay. He turned to me and said, “I suppose you’ll go home and write a poem called ‘Irondequoit Bay at Sea Breeze.’”

Art isn’t a doting grandpa, as John may have painfully learned, but a lover whose escalating demands cannot be satisfied.

His erudition was not always noble. We were invited to dinner by my friend, Robert Sobieszek, curator of photography at George Eastman House and finally at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Bob was the expert who would be brought in to testify at the obscenity trial in Cincinnati that the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe were art; but at this point his eminent career was still ahead. John posed a question about our favorite composers, to which Bob replied with enthusiasm that he’d been listening to some music that was really terrific, the Brandenburg concertos by Johann—he pronounced the full name—Sebastian Bach. John let out a punishing sigh. “That’s like saying you discovered the Sistine Chapel!

My friend’s face went slack and I was furious. Imagine if his beloved grandfather had greeted John’s childhood enthusiasms with derision. But we were not children and that, perhaps, was the point. Art isn’t a doting grandpa, as John may have painfully learned, but a lover whose escalating demands cannot be satisfied.

There would be other lessons that art was a jealous mistress, but none more memorable than on the morning I arrived in Pultneyville to pick him up for our first ride farther east along the lake. It was October, bright and chilly, and his mother, then seventy-nine, was raking leaves in the front yard. She was not making much progress. She had a scarf wrapped around her head and her nose was dripping. As John came out of the house she said to him—and she had a voice that could rise in a nasal whine to match his own—“John, if you were any kind of a son at all you’d help your mother with these leaves.”

John, his hand already on the car door, turned briefly back and replied in exasperation, as though she should have known better, “Mother, I’m a poet!”

No doubt he was right; though the example was stern, perhaps suspect, and hard to emulate. Sometimes there is nothing there, he once remarked, but you have to proceed on the assumption that something is, or you write no poetry at all. I got to see that proposition in action, following yet another tour on blue Ontario’s shore, when he sat down with pen and a pad of yellow paper to write the poem “On Autumn Lake.” It isn’t his greatest and it has an opening line that has always made me cringe. Yet there are certain moments as well expressed as if they were in French. By this time I’d written some new poems of my own that surely profited, in the sense of profiter de, from his suggestive taunt at Sea Breeze on Irondequoit Bay. He never said he liked these poems, only that they marked a breakthrough. So it privately took my breath away when he offered the yellow pad for inspection and I came to the freshly written lines:

Turns out you didn’t need all that training
To do art—that it was even better not to have it.

In his last email to me, John recalled the longest trip we made together in the car. Then, early the Sunday morning of September 3, 2017, it was too late to reply. I’m glad he had the last word. I loved the man; and could be ready at a moment’s notice to resume our rolling curriculum on autumn lake.

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The Revisionist and the Astropastorals: Collected Poems

The Revisionist and the Astropastorals: Collected Poems by Douglas Crase is available in paperback now via Nightboat Books. Featured photo Gerard Malanga.

Douglas Crase
Douglas Crase
Douglas Crase is an American poet, essayist and critic. His poetry collection, The Revisionist, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and an American Book Award. He is the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Grant and a Whiting Award. Born in 1944 in Battle Creek, Michigan, he lives in New York and Carley Brook, Pennsylvania.





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