Friday, July 28, 2017

John Ashberry on some words worth pondering

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of poet John Ashbery (books by this author), born in Rochester, New York (1927). He grew up on his family's fruit farm near Lake Ontario. He went to a small, rural school, and although they read some poetry, all of it was old. Then he won a contest, and the prize was Louis Untermeyer's anthology Modern American and British Poetry. He didn't understand many of these contemporary poems, but he was fascinated by them - poems by W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. A generous neighbor, seeing how bright Ashbery was, paid to send him to a good academy for his last two years of high school, and he started writing poetry more seriously. He went on to Harvard, and he published his first book, Some Trees (1956), when he was 29. He has been publishing ever since. His books include Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), A Wave (1984), Where Shall I Wander (2005), and Planisphere (2009).

He said: "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."

And there is this personal postscript:

Ashberry's words about reading, understanding, and experiencing poetry, words about resilience and crunch worth remembering, are among the most sensible and helpful that I've ever encountered. 

What say you?


  1. I couldn't agree more, Tim. The point (to me, at any rate) of poetry is to wrap layers of meaning and suggestion together. I like unwrapping my poetry rather than having the contents handed to me, if I can put it that way.

  2. i admire and trust people who claim not to understand something, being in the same boat most of the time myself...

  3. Margot and Mudpuddle, the way Ashberry says it makes a lot of sense but poetry that works for me, to my mind, must achieve the delicate balance between clear and opaque; when one or the other dominates, I lose interest. Does that make sense?

    1. yes, of course: we like what we know and understand; at my age i have no desire to go out and dig another gold mine... not that i ever did in the first place... just dabbled in the mud....