Selected Prose


"By the end of the book, Ashbery has laid out not only a course in contemporary poetics but a portrait of the artist teaching himself to become a thoroughly Modernist poet---in small bites, easy to savor, easy to digest."
---Los Angeles Times Book Review

"This is a marvelous book by one of our greatest poets. Reading John Ashbery's Selected Prose is like listening to a brilliant talker who not only keeps us entertained and laughing, but who ...

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"By the end of the book, Ashbery has laid out not only a course in contemporary poetics but a portrait of the artist teaching himself to become a thoroughly Modernist poet---in small bites, easy to savor, easy to digest."
---Los Angeles Times Book Review

"This is a marvelous book by one of our greatest poets. Reading John Ashbery's Selected Prose is like listening to a brilliant talker who not only keeps us entertained and laughing, but who also has wise things to say about all sorts of interesting subjects."
---Charles Simic

"At last! Many of the fugitive pieces collected in this volume---on Gertude Stein, on Frank O'Hara, on Marianne Moore or Adrienne Rich---published as many of them were in out-of-the way places, have already become collectors' items, providing fascinating---and often startling--- assessments of their subjects as well as new insight into Ashbery himself. Now here they are between two covers, along with many hitherto unknown pieces on subjects ranging from Michel Butor to Mary Butts, Jane Freilicher to Mark Ford. For anyone who cares about the contemporary poetry/art scene, this is an indispensable collection."
---Marjorie Perloff, Stanford University

Selected Prose contains a broad selection of texts by internationally acclaimed poet and critic John Ashbery. This third collection of Ashbery's critical writings dramatically expands the terrain covered by the first two, Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987 and Other Traditions (first presented as the Norton Lectures at Harvard). These essays on writers, artists, filmmakers and the life of a poet provide insight into Ashbery's evolution as one of the major poets in English. Ashbery's criticism is as essential to the cultural history of the twentieth century as was that of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. His unique sensibility has had a profound impact on the literature and arts of our time, and his influence is certain to be felt for decades to come. Editor Eugene Richie's introduction provides a meaningful context for fifty years' worth of critical and creative prose by one of America's finest poets.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472031399
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 11/30/2005
  • Series: Poets on Poetry Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.12 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Table of Contents

The impossible : Gertrude Stein 11
Review of Michel Butor's La modification 15
A note on Pierre Reverdy 19
Antonin Artaud : poet, actor, director, playwright 24
On Raymond Roussel 33
Introduction to Raymond Roussel's "In Havana" 46
A conversation with Kenneth Koch 55
Brooms and prisms : Jasper Johns 68
Tradition and talent : Philip Booth, Stanley Moss, and Adrienne Rich 73
Frank O'Hara, 1926-1966 78
Writers and issues : Frank O'Hara's question 80
Jerboas, pelicans, and Peewee Reese : Marianne Moore 83
The decline of the verbs : Giorgio de Chirico 88
Introduction to a reading by Robert Duncan 92
Up from the underground : Jane Bowles 94
Alfred Chester's sweet freaks 97
A game with shifting mirrors : Jorge Luis Borges 100
Ecrivain Maudit : Witold Gombrowicz 104
Straight lines over rough terrain : Marianne Moore 108
The New York School of Poets 113
Comment on Lee Harwood's The white room 116
Review of Ted Berrigan's The sonnets 117
Throughout is this quality of thingness : Elizabeth Bishop 120
Further adventures of Qfwfq, et al. : Italo Calvino 124
Introduction to The collected poems of Frank O'Hara 128
North light : Louisa Matthiasdottir 134
In the American grain : A. R. Ammons and John Wheelwright 137
Jacques Rivette : Rivette masterpiece(s?) 148
Introduction to E. V. Lucas and George Morrow's What a life! 153
The figure in the carport : Kenward Elmslie 159
Second presentation of Elizabeth Bishop 164
A reminiscence : Frank O'Hara 171
Schubert's unfinished : David Schubert 176
On the poetry of F. T. Prince 178
Introduction to Fairfield Porter's The collected poems with selected drawings 181
Introduction to Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre's Fantomas 183
Featured poet : Nicholas Moore 191
An unpublished note : Raymond Roussel 197
A note on "Variation on a noel" 198
Foreword to The third rose : Gertrude Stein and her world 200
Introduction to The best American poetry 202
Introduction to a reading by James Schuyler 208
Poetical space 210
Introduction to a reading by Michael Palmer and James Tate 216
Introduction to Raymond Roussel's Documents to serve as an outline 219
Introduction to Gerrit Henry's The mirrored clubs of hell 223
Preface to Mary Butts's From altar to chimney-piece 225
Review of Mark Ford's Landlocked 231
Introduction to Pierre Martory's The landscape is behind the door 237
Introduction to a reading by Robert Creeley and Charles Tomlinson 241
Robert Frost medal address 243
Introduction to Robert Mapplethorpe's Pistils 252
Introduction to Joe Brainard : retrospective 257
Introduction to Trevor Winkfield's pageant 259
Frederic Church at Olana : an artist's fantasy on the Hudson River 261
Introduction to a reading by Charles North 267
Obituary for Pierre Martory 268
Foreword to Mark Ford's Raymond Roussel and the republic of dreams 272
Introduction to exhibition catalogue : Lynn Davis 276
On Jane Freilicher's View Over Mecox (yellow wall) 278
Introduction to James Schuyler's Alfred and Guinevere 279
Introduction to a reading by Tony Towle 285
Larry Rivers was dying : he asked to see friends 286
New York? Mais Oui! : Rudy Burckhardt 290
Foreword to Mark Ford's Soft sift 291
Preface to Paul Killebrew's Forget Rita 294
On the poetry of Joan Murray 296
On Val Lewton's The seventh victim 299
On F. T. Prince's "The moonflower" 304
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First Chapter

Selected Prose

By John Ashbery


Copyright © 2004 John Ashbery
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-472-11439-5


In the late eighties, when I was preparing John Ashbery's archives to be sent to the Houghton Library at Harvard, I first saw many of his early manuscripts and a newspaper clipping of his 1967 New York Times review of The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. Shortly after we sent these papers to Harvard, I began to wonder how many other people who admired his poetry knew as little about his reviews, essays, introductions, and presentations as I did at that time.

With the help of David Kermani's wonderful annotated bibliography of Ashbery's early literary activity, I soon learned how much I'd been missing. The problem, of course, was that most of this work was simply not available in one place, and some pieces were still in manuscript in Ashbery's own archives. In fact, during the years from 1984 to 1994, when I worked as Ashbery's secretary, other pieces were being produced before my eyes. So, in the early nineties, when David Lehman wrote to me with the idea that I collect and edit a volume of Ashbery's prose work for the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series, I gladly accepted his invitation.

In the works collected in this volume, a reader can trace the development of Ashbery's literary career as well as his sensibility, based on his reading and thinking about some of the authors, artists, and filmmakers whose creations have been of particular interest to him. These pieces comprise a half-century's worth of critical perceptions and judgments, but it is important to note that Ashbery's approach to criticism has always been to spend time writing about work that he considers important. To best exhibit parallels between his poetry and prose, the texts have been arranged chronologically by date of presentation or first publication, with all successive publication dates noted.

In the publication note at the end of each piece, full bibliographical references give the publication history and other vital information for interested readers. For works that were published before their appearance in this volume, I have selected the most recent or most complete of sometimes quite a few published versions, since Ashbery has occasionally made minor changes of phrasing in subsequent publications or even added notes or postscripts. I have retained whatever titles appeared in the latest published versions. Some of these were Ashbery's original titles, while others were supplied by the editors of the publications. If a piece was an untitled review, comment, preface, foreword, introduction, or address, I have myself provided a brief descriptive title, such as "Introduction to a Reading." I have also given descriptive titles to two untitled, published essays on poets: "On the Poetry of F. T. Prince" and "On the Poetry of Joan Murray." Seven pieces in the hook are published here for the first time. I have supplied descriptive titles for six of these. Four are introductions to readings and are noted as such. The fifth is an unpublished review of Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets. "The sixth is the "Robert Frost Medal Address." The seventh, a panel presentation, was originally titled "The New York School of Poets."

Like most writers, Ashbery has always written about ether writers. The early poetry of W. H. Auden was the topic of his undergraduate English honors thesis at Harvard. Henry Green was the focus of his master's thesis in English at Columbia University. Gertrude Stein and Michel Butor are the subjects of this collection's earliest pieces, which date from 1957. Ashbery has also written several pieces on the work of Raymond Roussel: his most recent work on Roussel (the foreword to Mark Ford's Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams) is reprinted here along with his groundbreaking 1962 essay, initially titled "Re-establishing Raymond Roussel" and retitled "On Raymond Roussel." Of the original title Ashbery notes, "This title wasn't mine and I tried unsuccessfully to get ART news to change it, arguing that it was incorrect because Raymond Roussel had never been established."

This book, however, is not a complete collection of all of Ashbery's prose works, which could fill a multivolume set. His many introductions to other writers' books or to readings would alone form a single volume. The pieces we have included focus on some of the many writers whose work he admires, as do his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, collected in Other Traditions (Harvard University Press, 2000). The numerous interviews he has given would also make a book themselves, not to mention the most recent interview with Mark Ford, which is an entire book. A single volume too could be dedicated to a representative selection of the creative prose Ashbery has produced. Such pieces as Architectural Digest's "Guest Speaker: John Ashbery-The Poet's Hudson River Restoration" were not included; again, the abundant material connected with the creative environment of his house-by Ashbery, critics and journalists, the American artist Archie Rand, and the English composer Robin Holloway, for example-could easily make up another volume, compact disc, or documentary like Mel Stuart's recent film (John Ashbery-A Poet's View, Academy of American Poets, 2002). Pieces by Ashbery published only in French, such as "Reverdy en Amérique" and an article on Roussel-"Les versions sceniques d'Impressions d'Afrique et de Locus Solus"-have not been reprinted. Also awaiting some future collection are four of Ashbery's rare pieces on composers, which are, however, available in major newspaper archives or as recent program notes.

This book does include Ashbery's only two articles on film; notable pieces of art criticism on Jasper Johns and Louisa Matthiasdottir, not collected elsewhere; and key pieces on artists written after the publication of Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987 (Knopf, 1989; Harvard University Press, 1991). Also this collection contains some of the most important literary reviews, introductions, essays, and presentations that Ashbery has written thus far during his career as a poet. As editor of this volume, I have made every effort to locate critical writings that are most representative of his poetic sensibility and literary insights.

Mark Ford has aptly described the significance of the literary criticism in this collection:

This volume will form the third part of a triptych of Ashbery's critical writings, which will, I am sure, end up seeming as vital to the history of twentieth-century poetry as the critical prose of T. S. Eliot. Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987, Other Traditions, and Selected Prose will be seen to embody a critical sensibility, which, though seemingly so elusive, has in fact been as influential on the development of poetry in English over the last thirty-five years as Eliot's was during the period 1922-1965.

Ford also suggests that "this collection will not only expand the general poetry reader's understanding of Ashbery's take on literature but will offer a compelling general alternative reading of twentieth-century American and European culture."

The critical prose of a great poet necessarily reflects and impacts upon the poet's own poetry. We may read the prose to learn more about Ashbery's opinion of other writers, his guidelines for reading other writers, and his aesthetic criteria. The definitions of poetry and the poem noted in his reviews and articles on Gertrude Stein, Antonin Artaud, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and Frank O'Hara are themselves a rich poetic mine to explore. In his introduction to the Collected Poems of O'Hara (in this collection), for example, Ashbery notes, "Frank O'Hara's concept of the poem as the chronicle of the creative act that produces it was strengthened by his intimate experience of Pollock's, Kline's and de Kooning's great paintings of the late forties and early fifties, and of the imaginative realism of painters like Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers." But then Ashbery immediately gives James Schuyler's opinion that the influence of painting on O'Hara's concept of the poem has been too highly emphasized. Schuyler's response suggests that "the kindest (and it may even be true) way of seeing it would be along the lines of what Pasternak says about life creating incidents to divert our attention from it so that it can get on with the work it can only accomplish unobserved." Ashbery preserves here a controversial discussion between poets who were not only members of a vibrant and innovative artistic community, but also close friends, on the very essence of poetry and on what, for them, poetry and the artistic process are all about.

Also, what a poet reads and the prose a poet writes may inspire or be inspired by poetic work. This was certainly true, for example, of W. H. Auden and his own prose on Ashbery. Just before he chose Ashbery's Some Trees as the 1956 winner in the Yale Series of Younger Poets and wrote the foreword to it, he composed and gave his inaugural address as newly elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, England. Many of the ideas for the lecture were still in his mind, and Edward Mendelson believes that "Auden wrote a prose manifesto ... in the form of his foreword to John Ashbery's book." The foreword addressed one of the key issues Auden was concerned about in several of his own earlier poems and which Mendelson believes he avoided in his Oxford lecture: how "to solve the double problem of finding subjects worth writing about and in a language they deserve." Mendelson further suggests that in the foreword to Ashbery's book, Auden "named the many difficulties a modern poet faces that he had studiously ignored in his Oxford lecture a few weeks earlier."

In the foreword, Auden's last words come back to this issue: "Is it not surprising, then, that many modern poems, among them Mr. Ashbery's entertaining sestina 'The Painter,' are concerned with the nature of the creative process and with posing the question 'Is it now possible to write poetry?'" Shortly afterward, Mendelson explains, Auden wrote the poem "First Things First," "in an attempt to confront these issues." When Ashbery and I went to the book party for Mendelson's Later Auden (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), at the apartment of the editor Elisabeth Sifton and her husband, the historian Fritz Stern, Mendelson told us he felt confident that the foreword and the poem were interconnected because of the similar ideas and because this was, from his experience, the way Auden truly worked. Such connection between reading and writing underscores how useful an anthology of a poet's prose can be to a reader searching for a poet's thematic development.

Ashbery tells of a similar experience of influence from his own reading of Elizabeth Bishop. On January 11, 2003, he appeared on a panel for a Key West literary seminar called "Poets and Their Work: Poetry as Its Own Biography (Personal I versus Poetic Eye)." In a statement too brief to include in this collection, he discusses Bishop's "Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance." Ashbery recalls, "I wrote her a fan letter in 1948 when I first read it in Partisan Review, and was rewarded with a postcard from Maine-one of the many coastlines she cultivated, sandpiper-wise. The poem was the inspiration for a poem of mine called 'Soonest Mended,' which I have called my OSFA (i.e., 'one size fits all') confessional poem." In his 1969 review of Bishop's The Complete Poems, included here, Ashbery uses die same Bishop poem to explain an element of her method of poetic composition:

This quality which one can only call "thingness" is with her throughout, sometimes shaping a whole poem, sometimes disappearing right after the beginning, sometimes appearing only at the end to add a decisive fillip. In "Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance," which is possibly her masterpiece, she plies continually between the steel-engraved vignettes of a gazetteer and the distressingly unclassifiable events of a real voyage.

Many years later, in an essay dedicated to Jane Freilicher's painting View over Mecox (Yellow Wall), from Voices in the Gallery: Writers on Art (University of Rochester Press, 2001), Ashbery notes, "The painting sings a song of thingness, whether that of the swatch of nature sitting for its portrait or the paint that's helping it to become itself even as it casually poses for its own portrait." Over a period of more than thirty years, the notion of "thingness" in poetry and art has stayed with him, changing mediums, transforming from "the steel-engraved vignettes of a gazetteer" to "the swatch of nature sitting for its portrait." In a kind of Rilkean or Keatsian sense, this idea of "thingness" celebrates the earthly life that opens before us every day like a landscape of nature or a tapestry of worldly artifacts in dissonance or harmony. I, too, have always associated the earthly objects in the domestic tapestry and meditative landscapes of Jane Freilicher with those in the often domestic or seaside terrain of Bishop's poetry.

Though such influences and associations may not always be so obvious, it is certainly true that if we are interested in the origins of a poet's ideas, there is no better place to look than in what the poet is reading and in his own prose and poetry being written at the time. Ashbery's often affectionate, always exquisite perceptions about artists and other writers reveal his own ideas and methods. To encourage the reader to compare these works and to make such connections or associations, this collection of Ashbery's prose was arranged chronologically. However, one may read individual selections simply lot the delight of Ashbery's insights on that particular occasion. That imagination and wit which are so much part of his poetry are also very much evident in these generous performances in observation, taste, and judgment.

This book would not have been possible without the assistance of many individuals. I would like to express my gratitude first of all to John Ashbery tot making this difficult task a pleasure to accomplish, with his entertaining anecdotes and informative recollections about the genesis of these works. David Kermani has my gratitude and admiration for his invaluable bibliography on Ashbery's early work and for his steadfast dedication to Ashbery's archives. My research was greatly facilitated by Kermani's work in organizing Ashbery's archives and his recent creation of The Ashbery Resource Center (ARC), a project of The Flow Chart Foundation for Bard College (see He has also continually supported, encouraged, and advised me while I was tracing obscure pieces, negotiating contracts, and choosing and arranging materials.


Excerpted from Selected Prose by John Ashbery Copyright © 2004 by John Ashbery. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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