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.
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)