Interview with John Ashbery conducted by Daniel Kane
DK: In "What Is Poetry" you write, "Trying to avoid / Ideas, as in this poem ." Is it possible to avoid ideas in poetry?
JA: Come on, Lieutenant, let's get out of here. Young man, run along and play.
DK: This makes me think about some student poetry I've read, in which students decide before they have put pens to paper that they will absolutely write poems about, say, their fathers hitting them on the head. The results are often rather predictable narrative poems that describe what happened and petition the reader to feel a certain emotion. I like your idea of beginning a poem without really knowing what's going to come out of it.
JA: No illusion. Lieutenant is dead. Kirk to Enterprise. Come in. Lieutenant, can you be prevailed upon to bring them the news? All my senior officers turning against me? Even a starship captain appreciates a compliment like that, Lieutenant.
DK: Can you tell us a little bit about the writing process behind "What Is Poetry"? For example, we've got a "frieze of boy scouts from Nagoya." There is also a mysterious "they" in the lines "Now they / Will have to believe it / As we believed it."
JA: Not really. He seems he's overcoming his resentment. Kirk to Enterprise. Lieutenant?
DK: I'm glad you told us about the medieval town with the frieze of boy scouts from Nagoya, because learning that you basically made this image up out of a variety of events lets people know that they can make things up in poetry. This way, one knows one doesn't have to rely on fact all the time.
JA: Coronation?. You did what you could. And the great misery which you now face.
DK: I'm not so sure a lot of students do think that way. I remember having writing teachers insist, "Write what you know!"
JA: How many? We didn't do anything like that.
DK: Yes, that is the problem. I think orders like "Write what you know" get interpreted to mean "Write only what you've actually experienced in real life in real time." It's nice to know from you that we can pick and choose among time, history, and imagination so that we can write a poem that sounds good and feels good.
JA: Why shouldn't they answer our questions? They don't think we can do anything to stop them.. Quite an enigma, isn't it? Try another channel, Lieutenant. Yes it is good.
DK: If a teacher stopped you on the street one day and said, "Mr. Ashbery, whether you like it or not, I'm going to assign 'What Is Poetry' to my high school students and tell them to write variations on it-help me find a way to do this," what would you say?
JA: What happened to him? I did, Gorgan. My beast is gone. It lost its power in the light of reality. I command again, and I ordered you here.
DK: Can people still write about flowers without sounding flowery about it?
JA: I place you in the hands of our chess master.
DK: I read "the thin vertical path" as representing predictable poetry. I thought you were making a funny kind of editorial comment on poetry that gives us the obvious-the "flowers" of conventional poetry.
JA: What was your impression? No, what are the ingredients?
DK: Are there such things as wrong interpretations, or do you distinguish more along the lines of imaginative interpretations versus dull, unenthusiastic interpretations?
JA: Yes. They may walk into a trap.
DK: You ended "What Is Poetry" with a question mark. Are there any virtues in ending a poem with a question mark or some other sign of indeterminacy?
JA: Lieutenant, if I'm to be the Captain, I've got to act like one. Yes. They may walk into a trap.
DK: Is there anything you want to add to our discussion of "What Is Poetry"?
JA: Yes. My ship.
- Phillip A. Ellis 2014