We’ve been away and when I returned I learned that John Ashbery had died. I’ve long enjoyed his work. Aged 17, I’d decided that American poetry was my thing, and was away to University to study it. The teenage me was a little obsessed with Ashbery – initially taken in by his conversational tone, by the familiarity and homeliness of his language. But I quickly discovered that that the homeliness of the words belied their interesting discomfort, their unheimlich-ness, and the jolting weirdness of his melodic sense-making in amongst the ordinary rhythms of American speech intrigued me all the more. The more I read, the more I saw that the craft of his work was very precise, very sly, very melancholy, but often very funny, and I absolutely loved it. I met him at a reading in Manchester in the early 1990s, and talked to him about how much I enjoyed the thing-ness of his words, which I’d so often turned over and over, like pebbles in the hand. I was the gushing student, he the kindly poet-statesman, as he signed my book. I moved onto other literary interests, became more obsessed with late eighteenth-century words and things, but I continued to read Ashbery, and, with each collection, continued to enjoy him. Like my other favourite poets, I often find his lines popping into my head while I’m out walking, lines which have nothing to do with the substance of the walk itself, but which lend it an accompanying rhythm, a rooting place for thought.

HOMELESS HEART

When I think of finishing the work, when I think of the finished work, a great sadness overtakes me, a sadness paradoxically like joy. The circumstances of doing put away, the being of it takes possession, like a tenant in a rented house. Where are you now, homeless heart? Caught in a hinge, or secreted behind drywall, like your nameless predecessors now that they have been given names? Best not to dwell on our situation, but to dwell in it is deeply refreshing. Like a sideboard covered with decanters and fruit. As a box kite is to a kite. The inside of stumbling. The way to breath. The caricature on the blackboard.
John Ashbery, from Quick Question (2013)

21 thoughts on “ashbery

  1. Thank you for writing a thoughtful tribute for the passing of this poet. Ashbery was authentic, and able to change our thoughts and directions of our lives with words. Love

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  2. As well as reading his poems, I recommend reading the Guardian Obituary on this poet.
    I would suggest you read ‘ Just walking Around’ .
    Back to my knitting.

    Jennifer.

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  3. John Ashbery is one of the poets whose work routinely finds its way to my reading table – thank you for sharing this poem and your history with his writing, and him.
    Kristin

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  4. Thank you so much for being there and providing us with amazing words and things to think about. I will definitely look for John Ashbery’s writings.

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  5. You”ve made me think here is someone I should read! Thank-you. The piece quoted is so apposite about a finished piece of complex knitting – how appropriate.

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  6. Lovely post Kate, and you’ve introduced me to Ashbery with one r! I really like the poem you quoted and I will definitely look up more if his work. It seems very apt for knitters.
    Deirdre

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  7. Thank you so much for this introduction. Wondrous words indeed: my pebble of the moment is ‘The inside of stumbling.’ One of the glorious aspects of being alive, in whatever state, is that there is always something new and extraordinary to discover, to be introduced to, to lead to more research to whet the curiosity.

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        1. My computer has been very insistent and very wrong in re-spelling John Ashbery’s name too often. Kate, thank you for quoting that lovely poem and also introducing Ashbery’s work to new admirers. He will always be wonderful to read.

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