a kind of fence-sitting/ Raised to the level of an aesthetic ideal


John Ashbery died. Aged 90,which is a fine innings, and in the arms of his husband – so all-in-all from the outside, not tragic.

And if I’m honest it’s been an age since I read any of his poems. I listened to a great podcast where he reflects in extraordinary detail on parties and fancy-dress events from New York City in the 1950s where his good friend Frank O’Hara read or was present. That’s more than 60 years in the past at the time of recording the talk. Where I can barely recall what I was doing last month.

It makes me feel that some people have more crystalline memories and indeed more crystalline lives.

He was part of the New York School of poets – along with O’Hara and Kenneth Koch and they turned against the prissy, high-minded, oracular pronouncements of Robert Lowell and scattered their poems with pop references and swirls of surreal colour drawn from the life around them.

Ashbery went to live in Paris for many years and drank deep on the vivid and crazy wisdom of Rimbaud and the like. And although I didn’t love, love, love his poems, he was always rather talismanic for sort of lucid, dreamlike brilliance that didn’t much care if people “understood”.

One of my favourites is a poem from the 70s called ‘Soonest Mended’ and there’s one passage that I love:

…Thoughts in a mind

With room enough and to spare for our little problems (so they began to seem),

Our  daily quandary about food and the rent and bills to be paid?

To reduce all this to a small variant,

To step free at last, minuscule on the gigantic plateau –

This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free.

Alas, the summer’s energy wanes quickly.

A moment and it is gone. And no longer

May we make the necessary arrangements, simple as they are.

Our star was brighter perhaps when it had water in it.

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