Monday, December 22, 2008

Aimless Reading: The A's, Part 23

Ashbery, John
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

I have no recollection of the purchase of this book, but I have a memory of having read it forward and back. I once wrote a series of three sonnets composed by collaging together the first line of each poem in this book. Remarkably, it still read like a John Ashbery poem. I think I spent a lot of time putting that poem together, because reading the first lines of the poems now, I recall them all as my own! I can't believe John Ashbery stole all them from me. Geez.

Reaching the Ashbery section of my bookshelf, I realize they I don't actually own any of the Ashbery books that were most important to me -- The Double Dream of Spring, Rivers and Mountains, The Tennis Court Oath, Three Poems. At the time I was reading all of his books I lived in NYC, had almost no money, and borrowed most of my books from libraries.

I remember the library cover of The Double Dream of Spring and that a friend of mine showed me the painting by Di Chirico after which the book was titled and told me that that painting was the key into Ashbery's work -- i.e., the painting within the painting within the painting as a mode of composition for his poetry. It made a lot of sense at the time and did provide one way into the rich world of these poems.

Having had the chance to meet and spend some time with the man himself, I think it is equally true that his poems are accurate representations of a curious, gentle mind that is part trivia encyclopedia (he was on a children's quiz show as a lad and can still answer every question on Jeopardy), part visual aesthete, part pop-culture maven, and part bon vivant.

Just trying to describe the work reminds me of how rich it is.

Speaking of first lines, and of poems within poems, the title of the first poem in the book, "As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat" is also the first line of the poem. It is also the first line of a poem by Andrew Marvell called "Tom May's Death."

The Marvell begins:

As one put drunk into the Packet-boat,
Tom May was hurry'd hence and did not know't.
But was amaz'd on the Elysian side,
And with an Eye uncertain, gazing wide,
Could not determine in what place he was,
For whence in Stevens ally Trees or Grass.

The Ashbery begins:

As One Put Drunk Into the Packet-Boat

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the Sun yellows the green of the maple tree...

"Only some were immortal and free" is one of the most ambiguous phrases I have ever read. End stop.

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