Als hij drieëntwintig is, schrijft de Amerikaanse dichter-kunstenaar John Ashbery (1927-2017) aan de schilder Jane Freilicher : “I have a natural horror of letting people see how my mind works.”
Dat is een soort wantrouwen dat meestal niet aangeboren is, en als je de kinder- en tienerjaren van Ashbery bestudeert begin je te merken waarom.

‘The appearance of Karin Roffman’s The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life, the first biography of Ashbery, thus comes as a slight surprise. In a brief preface Roffman makes clear that Ashbery participated fully in the project, granting her numerous interviews over the course of nearly a decade and making available private documents, including diaries he kept between the ages of 13 and 16. The book’s scope is limited, covering only the first 27 years of Ashbery’s life, up to 1955, when his first collection Some Trees was published and he departed for France on a Fulbright. But it is by far the most thorough and reliable account of a formative period in the biography of one of our greatest and most mysterious writers.’ (Evan Kindey in The New Republic July 2017)


Op het platteland in Rochester, New York geboren brengt hij zijn kindertijd door tussen de fruit-farm van zijn vader in Sodus en het nog kleinere dorpje waar zijn grootouders langs moeders kant woonden, Pultneyville.
Al heel jong voelt hij zich in die landelijke omgeving een outsider en trekt hij zich in dromen, boeken en filmen terug.
‘His sexuality contributed to his sense of isolation. Ashbery was attracted to boys from the time he was in kindergarten, and anxieties about his homosexuality and its possible discovery were a constant feature of his childhood and adolescence. He made only careful, coded references to homosexuality in his journals and letters, which Roffman has patiently deciphered with the help of the author himself. ‘ (ibidem)

‘After an early sexual experience in 1941, when he ejaculated for the first time after fooling around with a male friend during a sleepover, Ashbery jotted a “poem-note” in his diary “made up of phrases from their conversations that he did not want to forget”:


Merkwaardig, schrijft de biografe, hoe een veertienjarige met deze ‘unsyntactical text’ zijn avant-garde experimenten met de verbale collage in The Tennis Court Oath benadert.


Roffman argues, plausibly, that Ashbery’s practical need to disguise his homosexuality led him to cultivate his taste for ambiguity and indirection, and she analyzes many of his early poems along these lines. This way of understanding Ashbery’s cryptic aesthetic isn’t new—it’s been around since at least 1994, when John Shoptaw’s On the Outside Looking Out argued for a “homotextual” interpretation of his work—but Roffman opens up a whole new archive of powerful biographical evidence supporting it. (ibidem)


Ik gebruik zijn wonderlijke collages niet alleen als illustratie maar duidelijk als dubbel-beelden die verder spreken als de letters hun onmacht bekennen.
Daarover schrijft Jos Schneidermann in Art in America:

‘The deeper relationship between Ashbery’s collages and poems, then, is not in a shared method but in the way they play with context. What new meanings emerge when you unmoor a sentence from its contextual anchors? What happens when you put a familiar thing in an unfamiliar context, or an unfamiliar thing in a familiar context? This play of de- and recontextualization is a facet of many collages, but it was a central concern for Ashbery because of his fine appreciation of the poetic qualities inherent in everyday words and images.’


Dus vul ik aan met een mooi gedicht:

And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name
By John Ashbery

You can’t say it that way any more.
Bothered about beauty you have to
Come out into the open, into a clearing,
And rest. Certainly whatever funny happens to you
Is OK. To demand more than this would be strange
Of you, you who have so many lovers,
People who look up to you and are willing
To do things for you, but you think
It’s not right, that if they really knew you . . .
So much for self-analysis. Now,
About what to put in your poem-painting:
Flowers are always nice, particularly delphinium.
Names of boys you once knew and their sleds,
Skyrockets are good—do they still exist?
There are a lot of other things of the same quality
As those I’ve mentioned. Now one must
Find a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed,
Dull-sounding ones. She approached me
About buying her desk. Suddenly the street was
Bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments.
Humdrum testaments were scattered around. His head
Locked into mine. We were a seesaw. Something
Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone.

John Ashbery, “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name” from Houseboat Days.


Langdon Hammer, chairman of the English Department at Yale University, wrote in 2008, “No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery” and “No American poet has had a larger, more diverse vocabulary, not Whitman, not Pound.”[5] Stephanie Burt, a poet and Harvard professor of English, has compared Ashbery to T. S. Eliot, calling Ashbery “the last figure whom half the English-language poets alive thought a great model, and the other half thought incomprehensible” (Wikipedia)

Niet zo onbegrijpelijk, maar je moet je toeleggen op het leven en de vroege ervaringen.
Zoals in dit gedicht uit 2000:

“History of My Life” (2000)

Once upon a time there were two brothers.
Then there was only one: myself.

I grew up very fast, before learning to drive,
even. There was I: a stinking adult.

I thought of developing interests
someone might take an interest in. No soap.

I became very weepy for what had seemed
like the pleasant early years. As I aged

increasingly, I also grew more charitable
with regard to my thoughts and ideas,

thinking them at least as good as the next man’s.
Then a great devouring cloud

came and loitered on the horizon, drinking
it up, for what seemed like months or years.

From “Your Name Here”;


Met de wetenschap dat hij in zijn vroege jaren (1940) de plotse dood van zijn jonger broertje Richard meemaakt die aan leukemie zal sterven zonder dat de ouders hem bij het ziekteproces hebben betrokken. Het broertje negen, en hij dertien.

‘The note Ashbery strikes is not one of grief, but of bafflement: The suddenness of Richard’s death is linked to the suddenness of adulthood; both are examples of the way things can change irrevocably. (The mock-poetical inversion “There was I,” a typically goofy touch, contributes to the sense of passivity, by making “there,” as opposed to “I,” the subject of the sentence.)’

‘The narrators of Ashbery’s poems typically present themselves as more or less average people living more or less average lives (with “thoughts and ideas,” in this case, “at least as good as the next man’s”) who are always at the universe’s mercy: a brother can disappear without warning, or “a great devouring cloud” can come and “loiter,” obliterating the “horizon” toward which that average life had been oriented. Such images of unexpected, unexplained change—often visualized as natural forces like clouds, storms, or waves—are common in Ashbery’s poetry. His protagonists (if that’s the word for them) are never far from having their worlds transformed. (ibidem)’

(‘Evan Kindley is the author, most recently, of Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture. He teaches at Pomona College.)

Te vlug worden zijn collages gezien als uitingen van een zekere ‘state of innocence’ eigen aan de kindertijd. Wie aandachtiger de bronnen van teksten en uiteraard van beelden bestudeert ziet dat het eerder sleutels zijn tot een wereld die nooit nog helemaal kan geopend worden en dus in ‘fratsen’ en ‘wonderlijke combinaties’ op de geduldige kijker wacht die weet dat de voorbije tijd, zeker de kindertijd nooit kan ontraadseld worden, maar dat betreden op eigen risico ook niet onplezierig hoeft te zijn.


John Ashbery’s last poem, handwritten at his home in Hudson, New York, on August 25, 2017. Ashbery died on September 3.

So what if there was an attempt to widen
the gap. Reel in the scenery.
It’s unlike us to reel in the difference.

We got the room
in other hands, to exit like a merino ghost.
What was I telling you about?

Walks in the reeds. Be
contumely about it.
You need a chaser.

In other words, persist, but rather
a dense shadow fanned out.
Not exactly evil, but you get the point.


A writer like Ashbery is, in one way, a scholar’s dream. His work is full of cross-references to be tracked down and mysteries to be decoded, and it is in consistent dialogue with both its contemporary historical moment and with the literary canon (however eccentrically that canon is defined). On the other hand, a sense of privacy and inscrutability is intrinsic to the experience of reading him: An Ashbery whose work had been fully explicated wouldn’t be Ashbery at all. The Songs We Know Best lets us see, clearer than ever before, how the poet’s mind works, and how it developed. Still, you can’t help remaining a little nostalgic for the mystery. (ibidem)

But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror