Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
On Monday, November 5th, I attended the John Ashbery reading at the Folger Library in Washington DC. I found out about it at the last minute and assumed that it would be sold out (like a Ferlinghetti reading years before) but tickets were still available on Friday afternoon. I was surprised, but apparently a lot of people have never heard of the man considered by many to be “the greatest living American poet.” And of those who have, quite a few have not read his work. Ashbery is like Pynchon, a name to be thrown around and discussed at a certain kind of dinner party to demonstrate your wide reading even if you have not done the heavy lifting of actually turning the pages. In the case of Pynchon’s Against the Day that is a lot of pages.
As I have written in the Bunker, Ashbery’s and Burroughs’ literary concerns and personal lives seem to circle around each other without actually meeting. Paris in the 1950s, New York in the mid-1960s, the use of the cut-up technique at roughly the same time (Tennis Court Oath in 1962 overlaps chronologically with Burroughs’ cut-up trilogy). In addition, both writers made a much anticipated return to the United States after long exile. Their arrival in New York City occurred at roughly the same time. On their returns, both writers exerted a tremendous influence on the New York scene, particularly the Lower East Side, right before the Summer of Love. Ted Berrigan, for example, courted both Ashbery and Burroughs in 1964-1965. Burroughs and Ashbery appeared in some of the same little mags and, more interesting to me, Ashbery included Burroughs in the mags he had a hand in creating: Locus Solus and Art and Literature. Clearly, Ashbery recognized that Burroughs, unlike most of the Beats, had a tie to the European avant garde back to Dada and Surrealism. These ties went forward as well to the post-abstract expressionist concerns that circulated on the Continent in the early 1960s.
Anyway I see a lot of connections between the two, but when I ask around about this most people want to maintain the personal and creative distance between them. I think it has to do with the level of respectability and acceptance that Ashbery has achieved despite his radical beginnings. By those beginnings, I am thinking of the general reception for Tennis Court Oath. It was a stink bomb in the ivory tower, like the cut-up novels. Nobody knew what to do with Burroughs and Ashbery at the time, but with the success of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Ashbery’s radical past has been covered up.
Burroughs’ reputation has come a long way, but as much as it pains me to say it, he is still a cult figure in the mind of the mainstream (read: New York-based publishing houses that control the more established awards and fill the bulk of what passes for literary reviews with content and advertising). At present, Ashbery has left the literary scene represented by Locus Solus and Art and Literature behind. Ashbery described those publications to me as “fringe.” In a way, Ashbery is still fringe as is all poetry in this day and age, but he is one of the big fish in the small pond. A peculiarly and particularly exotic one that in the past three decades has been reclassified and reexamined into something more mundane and common. A rare koi in a ornate Japanese rock pool dressed down into a goldfish in a Ziploc bag.
Marjorie Perloff wrote about this transformation in an article entitled “Normalizing John Ashbery” in 1998. Ron Silliman has been talking about it in his blog since 2002. Poetically, conservative critics ignore the fact that Ashbery came out of the New American Poetry Anthology of 1960 and that he was and is a participant and influence on all the more radical aspects of New American poetry since that point. Instead, Ashbery is placed more comfortably in the tradition of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. He becomes a lyric poet. The interest in this co-opting and transformation go back to 1976 when Ashbery won the poetic equivalent of the Triple Crown for Self Portrait (the Pulitzer, the Book Circle Award and the National Book Award). He became simply too important a poet to ignore.
So the Folger Reading is part and parcel of a process that has been going on for years. The reading was co-sponsored by The Poetry Society of America. Moderators included Michael Collier, the director at Breadloaf, and Alice Quinn, the director of the Society and editor at the New Yorker. You had some idea of the type of Ashbery that was going to be presented at the Folger when he was introduced as one of the finest practitioners of the lyric. I think Ashbery sized up his audience during the various introductions and did an about face as a result. He seemed a little flustered at the beginning of his reading searching for what to read. He stated he was going to scrap his planned reading and choose some poems on the spot. He basically called an audible. So what did he choose? He read four poems but two of them stand out. He read the double sestina derived from Swinburne from Flow Chart and the title poem of Hotel Lautréamont, another complex poetic form in this case a pantoum. Interesting choices. The more poetically conservative elements in the literary world, called the School of Quietude by Ron Silliman, have been grasping onto poems like these from Ashbery’s career to place him within their ranks. Surely the presence of closed forms (and obscure ones at that) make Ashbery a poet of a traditional nature and not one of Whitman’s Wild Children, like the Black Mountaineers or the Beats. Clearly, these forms translate into a stable, recognizable meaning. But not so fast. Ashbery stressed at the reading that he found incredible freedom in such restrictive forms. In addition, Ashbery’s comments and answers at the reading highlighted his continued support for innovation, fluidity of meaning, difficulty, complexity, obscurity, and freedom in poetry.
The questions and answers regarding W.H. Auden show Ashbery staining against the normalizing process. The moderator opened his questions by asking about the influence of Auden on Ashbery. This is a fairly standard question given the fact that Auden was responsible for the publication of Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees, in the Yale Younger Poets Series in 1956. O’Hara came in second. Commonly the link to Auden highlights a view of Ashbery as part of the tradition of Eliot and Stevens. Again the key is what Auden you are linking to. Ashbery took great pains to associate himself with the early Auden whom Ashbery described as a “gnarly” and difficult poet. Ashbery stated that when he first approached Auden’s work it confused and startled him unlike other work (like Robinson or Frost) in the Louis Untermeyer Anthology that indoctrinated many a poet of Ashbery’s generation. Ashbery stressed complexity, difficulty, obscurity. Ashbery also expressed his regret that Auden edited and distanced himself from his early work in his later life. As Auden got older, he attempted to tailor his work to fit his more conservative and mainstream poetic position. Ashbery saw this as unfortunate just as the same process was for T.S. Eliot and Wordsworth. Ashbery linked himself with early Auden, early Eliot, and early Wordsworth. Likewise, critic Marjorie Perloff sees early Auden and the more radical early Eliot as key influences on Ashbery.
For me an entirely different Auden came to mind when his name was brought up at the Folger. I immediate thought of his underground poem “The Platonic Blow” published by Ed Sanders’ Fuck You Press in 1965. Rumors of the poem had been in circulation for years, and Sanders basically stole the poem from a library and pirated it on his mimeo. It throws into the forefront the gay Auden. Similarly, critics have attempted to out Ashbery. I am thinking of the study On the Outside Looking Out by John Shoptaw that reads a gay subtext into Ashbery’s work. I think Auden was also an influence on Ashbery because he provided a model of how to be a gay poet in his art and in public. Like Auden, Ashbery played his sexuality close to the vest and never became a public figure as a sexual being like Ginsberg or O’Hara. Possibly, Auden chose Ashbery over O’Hara for the Yale Younger Poets Series because he saw more of himself in Ashbery on a literary and personal level. As person and as poet, Ashbery was more reserved and private, while O’Hara was more flamboyant and public.
I also thought that Robert Frost hovered over the reading, but I did not know why. Ever since I read The Tennis Court Oath I have felt that the title poem and the book was a response to Frost’s statement that “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the nets down.” I cannot get other people to see a connection, but Frost was much on the New York School’s mind in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Frost was the granddaddy of American poets, the definition of the establishment. Not surprisingly, the younger New York Schoolers were interested in Frost as poet and public figure. Kenneth Koch wrote Mending Sump as a parody on Mending Wall. In The Last Avant Garde, David Lehman suggests that one of the reasons O’Hara does not like Lionel Trilling in Personal Poem (written in 1959) was because of a talk Trilling gave on Frost at the time. At the Folger, Ashbery mentioned that Frost was one of the poets he encountered and confronted while reading the Untermeyer Anthology.
Yet that did not explain why I was thinking of Frost. After a little research, I discovered why. In 1995, Ashbery won the Robert Frost Poetry Award, a lifetime achievement award given by the Poetry Society. His acceptance speech, published in Ashbery’s Selected Prose, touches on many of the archetypal moments and anecdotes that came up at the Folger. Ashbery’s reaction to the 1936 issue of Time featuring the Surrealists or Ashbery’s decision to become a poet and not a painter because, like William Carlos Williams, he felt poems were easier to carry are two examples. The Frost Award, like the Folger reading, is an example of the conservative elements in poetry trying to claim Ashbery for their camp. Not surprisingly, Ashbery presented himself in a similar manner in these two instances. But as I have suggested, Ashbery not only played to his audience, but also subverted these attempts by remaining true to his avant nature.
I think the figure of Frost, like Auden, is interesting in light of Ashbery for another reason on view at the Folger. At 80 years old, Ashbery is the celebrated poet in old age — a role both Frost and Auden played as Ashbery became established as a poet. Unlike Auden, Ashbery has refused to edit out his early poetry from the canon even if conservative critics are trying to do it for him. Yet he seems like Auden and Frost in his aloofness to the poetry scene around him. At the Folger, Ashbery was asked about his role as poet laureate of MTV. He was quite funny on this topic. He thought it was great as long as he and MTV did not have to do anything. Ashbery wondered when he was getting paid. During the audience Q & A, the question arose on Ashbery’s impressions of slam and performance poetry. Ashbery admitted he knew little about it stating that he preferred poetry on the page and in solitude. This ties Ashbery back to the more conservative elements in poetry. When asked about readings, Ashbery said they were nice as they got him out of his apartment. This is speculation but I got the sense that he has little contact with the larger poetry community and liked it that way. I got the sense that Ashbery’s apartment was not a Mecca for young poets. In these ways, Ashbery differs from William Carlos Williams and Pound in their old age. Despite their isolation, Williams and Pound remained in close contact with the poetry scene of the times. Williams mentored a young Allen Ginsberg from Rutherford as well as Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and Lew Welch in his late readings. Pound provided advice from afar to writers like Creeley and Ginsberg. Despite his silence late in life, poets sought to sit at the feet of Pound at various poetry festivals in Italy deep into the 1960s. Poets fed off Pound’s mere presence. Does Ashbery serve a similar function or is he impersonal and unapproachable like late Auden and Frost? I do not know. It would be interesting to know the makeup of the audience of the Folger. Who comprised the majority of the audience? Young poets, grad students, professors, or wealthy patrons of the Folger and the DC Arts scene?
As I drove home to Baltimore after the reading, my mind went back to another Ashbery reading almost 45 years earlier. I do not know if this is fair but it provides some interesting contrasts. In September of 1963, Ashbery read at the Living Theatre. The contrast of the Living Theatre with the Elizabethan Theatre of the Folger is very interesting to me. The home of The Connection or The Brig versus As You Like It. In 1963, Ashbery read in the physical and geographical center of the New York avant garde. In exile in Paris for close to a decade, Ashbery came home to a particular New York: the city at the dawn of the creative boom of the Sixties. By 2007, Ashbery was celebrated in a shrine to Shakespeare and not be treated as an invader or an outsider. Emily Dickinson is receiving similar treatment this year. Interestingly, there are competing views of Dickinson’s legacy with various poetic camps claiming her legacy. In addition, the reading in Washington DC highlights how Ashbery has been used to further a political and cultural program in the Arts. The more conservative elements in poetry are tied to the mainstream publishing industry and the government. Take the Poetry Society with their big push in support of the conservative tradition. This year their Robert Frost Award went to John Hollander. This has caused some degree of controversy and highlights the Society’s poetic and political conservatism. It should be remembered that Hollander slammed Howl in Partisan Review which resulted in an important response by Ginsberg in 1958 that crystallized Ginsberg’s firm grasp of an alternative poetic tradition and politics. Hollander later published a retraction.
I am unaware of who attended the Folger reading, but Ted Berrigan, Frank O’Hara, Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga, and Ron Padgett attended the Living Theatre reading. Ashbery’s presence energized the poetry and art community. It was an event. As Reva Wolf has shown in her book on Warhol, the Living Theatre reading forged relationships between Ashbery and Warhol as well as second generation New Yorkers like Berrigan. I felt the Folger reading lacked that energy. I could be wrong, but it is not a mere question of Ashbery’s age. Williams’ reading at Reed in 1950 at Reed College launched the careers of Whalen, Snyder, and Welch. Williams was close to 70 and in failing health since 1948. Does a reading at the Folger have such creative potential? Possibly, as there were a number of young people at the reading. But I think the answer lies in whether the audience viewed Ashbery as a tool to build something new or a tool to protect something established.
I found it interesting that Ashbery established a relationship with Warhol and the Factory. Given such experiences, I expected Ashbery to be more receptive the question about performative and slam poetry. These “new” poetic styles come out of the happenings of the 1960s, like Warhol’s, and as Ashbery would be particularly aware, out of the performances of Dada and the Surrealists. One could go even further back to Alfred Jarry. Such recognition by Ashbery would suggest to me that he was still actively searching the creative landscape for new inspiration and material. Instead I think Ashbery has finished innovating and settled into a routine. As Ron Silliman has shown with the trajectory of Robert Creeley, this is not a negative but a fact of just what Creeley wanted to accomplish as a poet late in life. Such endeavors worked for and pleased him at that stage. Ashbery is in a similar place. As a result Ashbery at 80 is more at home at the Folger than the Living Theatre. Isn’t that true of all older artists? Was it true of Burroughs with his final trilogy and pronouncements that Love was the best painkiller? I would like to hear from readers on that. But as Ashbery insists he has not forgotten the relevance of his early work and he is not ashamed of it. In fact such work continues to express Ashbery’s concerns as a poet. He embraces complexity and difficulty. Like Auden’s early work, Ashbery’s poetry remains tough to unlock and may definitely be called “gnarly.”
At the end of the reading at the Folger, there was a reception where Ashbery was available for signing. Although I am a collector, I always dread approaching an author for a signature. Too many times I have seen somebody confront an author with a shopping bag full of a single title. I am reminded of the middle aged guy at a baseball game clamoring for a foul ball or an autograph among a crowd of kids. At the same time, such encounters can be very rewarding. Meeting with Carl Weissner in a New York bakery and having him sign my copies of My Own Mag was a great experience. He had some remarkable stories and his inscriptions are priceless to me.
I had been warned that Ashbery gets cranky at signings especially when confronted with a sack of books. As a result I decided to bring two books. But what to bring? I do not own any Ashbery hardcovers but I have several little mags with Ashbery appearances such as C Journal or Big Table. I was tempted to bring a couple issues of C Journals as I thought this rare mimeo would interest Ashbery and maybe engage him in conversation. But unlike most readers of Ashbery, I am drawn to Ashbery as an editor. I view Locus Solus and Art and Literature as major little mags of the mimeo revolution. Those mags are great insights into the influences and obsessions that resulted in Ashbery’s greatest poems, particularly of the 1960s.
So Locus Solus III-IV and the first issue of Art and Literature it was. As I suspected, there was a limit of two books for signing and the line for signatures was quite long. When I approached, Ashbery looked worriedly behind me and commented on the length of the line. I placed the two magazines before him. He picked up and spent some time leafing through the Locus Solus. He read the table of contents and signed the book. I mentioned that I was surprised that he included Burroughs in Art and Literature given the European and avant-garde nature of the magazine. He stated it was not surprising at all as both mags were fringe publications thus suggesting that Burroughs was suitably fringe as well. And then he gestured for the next in line.
Thinking back on the experience, I wonder what I would have asked Burroughs to sign if I had met him in person. On a financial level, the Digit Junkie would be the choice. Signed copies must be almost unheard of. It would also be interesting to present any of the early material like the British Journal of Addiction Letter offprint, Semina IV, or Man’s Wildcat Adventures. These are all neglected but important pieces in the Burroughs bibliography. That said I would have to choose my copies of My Own Mag. Even though collector Nelson Lyon got there first with his complete set, getting Burroughs to sign my copies would be a very personal experience. It is while reading My Own Mag that I feel that I get closest to Burroughs as an author. In addition, the contacts I have made while collecting and researching My Own Mag have been truly special. Given that Burroughs signed rather willingly, a trip to Lawrence would not have been out of the question when I was in college. I can only wonder about the conversation that might have ensued with Burroughs about the magazines. In any case, Burroughs has been speaking to me through My Own Mag for quite awhile now and he has had quite a few remarkable things to say.
Ashbery as Editor: Art and Literature
For more on Ashbery as editor, see the Locus Solus archive.