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Friday, July 28, 2017

POET BORN | July 28 – John Ashbery

Ashbery Receives National Humanities
Medal from President Barack Obama in 2011.
This day in Rochester, NY in 1927 was born John Ashbery. He is a time traveler in the way people thought of it before Einstein's followers started to think of it in scientific terms.

Ashbery grew up on his family's fruit farm near Lake Ontario. He went to a small, rural school, where they read some poetry, all of it classical.

Then he won, as a prize in a contest, Louis Untermeyer's anthology, Modern American and British Poetry. He said he didn't understand many of these contemporary poems, but he was fascinated by them – poems by Auden and Eliot and Wallace Stevens.

Ashbery attended Deerfield for his last two years of high school, from which he went to Harvard. He started writing poetry seriously and published his first book, Some Trees, in 1956, when he was 29.

I first met John Ashbery in the early 1970s, when I became a neighbor in Chelsea, NYC. His newest book was Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975). Subsequently he published A Wave (1984), Where Shall I Wander (2005), and Planisphere (2009).

Garrison Keillor describes Ashbery as having been helped by a generous neighbor. As neighbors in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, John Ashbery and David Kerman  have themselves been generous.

An article in the NY Observer says that when Ashbery grew up on a farm, he didn't like it. He preferred living with his grandparents in the city to attend school. His grandfather was a professor at the University of Rochester. When he was 12, Ashbery's younger brother died of leukemia. Ashbery spent most of his time by himself until a wealthy friend of his mother (the "generous neighbor") put up the money for him to finish high school at Deerfield. Ashbery explains:
By that time I had already discovered modern poetry. High schools used to have current events contests sponsored by Time, if the class subscribed to the magazine. They were quite easy. I won the prize of a book. Of the four that they offered, the only one I was vaguely interested in was an anthology of modern American and British poetry by Louis Untermeyer.
Garrison Keillor in a bio of Ashbery in 2014 gives us two quotes from Ashbery. One is about the fact that Ashbery's poetry is not easy. People say they don't understand it. Especially freshman students in college or high school who have to read it for their English courses. 
I don't quite understand about understanding poetry. I experience poems with pleasure: whether I understand them or not I'm not quite sure. I don't want to read something I already know or which is going to slide down easily: there has to be some crunch, a certain amount of resilience. [Italics added.]
Dorothy Parker once said: "Millay did a great deal of harm making poetry seem so easy that we could all do it but, of course, we couldn’t." Ashbery tries not to make poetry too easy because he believes it should stop you in your tracks – he wants his poems to stop you and make you spend some time. Keillor cites Ashbery's poem "At North Farm", which follows. It has a time-travel aspect. 
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you? 
Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?
The basic problem with the science of time travel is that in order to travel in time, we would need to travel "at incredible speed" – incredible because weight is a function of speed. We would need to be very light, preferably weightless. The only way that science knows how to time-travel so far is in the mind. But that gives us an important degree of freedom.

Physicists have been driven by unexplained phenomena to come up with a hypothetical fifth dimension that could unite the dimensions of space and time. Until they tie up the loose ends, we will have to rely on time-travel in the mind. We will have to rely on poetry.