PRINT November 1984

More Pleasant Adventures

More Pleasant Adventures
The first year was like icing.
Then the cake started to show through.
Which was fine, too, except you forget the direction you’re taking.
Suddenly you are interested in some new thing
And can’t tell how you got here. Then there is confusion
Even out of happiness, like a smoke—
The words get heavy, some topple over, you break others.
And outlines disappear once again.

Heck, it’s anybody’s story,
A sentimental journey—“gonna take a sentimental journey,”
And we do, but you wake up under the table of a dream:
You are that dream, and it is the seventh layer of you.
We haven’t moved an inch, and everything has changed.
We are somewhere near a tennis court at night.
We get lost in life, but life knows where we are.
We can always be found with our associates.
Haven’t you always wanted to curl up like a dog and go to sleep like a dog?
In the rash of partings and dyings (the new twist),
There’s also room for breaking out of living.
Whatever happens will be quite ingenious.
No acre but will resume being disputed now,
And paintings are one thing we never seem to run out of.

John Ashbery

THE FACT IS, I WANTED to be an artist when I was a child. I took art classes from around the age of 11 through high school. I started writing poetry when I was 15. By then I was painting and drawing from the model. W.H. Auden was the first modern poet I read. I discovered Salvador Dali and René Magritte when I was 10. There was an article in Life on a big show at the Museum of Modern Art, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism [1936–37]. I seized on that like a shrike, and began looking for more information on the whole phenomenon. I was living in a small town in upstate New York, but I did manage to find Julien Levy’s Surrealism [1936] in the local library. I was the only Surrealist in Wayne County.

I did write a poem when I was 8, which I decided was so perfect that I couldn’t surpass it, and so I laid aside my pen. What blew me away was that the poem was read on Christmas day in the Fifth Avenue apartment of Mary Roberts Rinehart, who was related to my mother’s family by marriage. Rinehart was a best-selling author at the time and her work often appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, which I read every week. At that time my favorite poet was Kipling.

When I went to Harvard I gave up painting. It was easier to write poems in your little cubbyhole. I wrote “Some Trees” and “The Painter,” a sestina, when I was 20. Kenneth Koch, Donald Hall, Gerrit Lansing, Kenward Elmslie, Robert Creeley, Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, and Frank O’Hara were some of the people at Harvard during that time. I didn’t really think about painting again until I came to New York after graduating. Although I used to go to galleries and MoMA, it wasn’t until after Frank arrived a couple of years later that the importance of what I was looking at really began to sink in.

I think O’Hara was passionately interested in everything, particularly art. In 1951 he started working at the Museum of Modern Art, selling Christmas cards, and worked his way up slowly. He thought we couldn’t just be poets, that we had to write art criticism. It was something he believed in deeply. He certainly didn’t do it for the money or prestige. In 1952 we met Edwin Denby. In 1955 I went to France on a Fulbright and mostly lived there until 1965.

I was back in New York in the winter of 1957–58. O’Hara had just moved out of a sixth-floor walkup he had shared with Jimmy Schuyler, who was on the staff of Art News. I needed a place to live, so I moved in. Art News wanted an article on Bradley Walker Tomlin’s retrospective at the Whitney [1957]. This was the first piece of criticism I wrote. Then I wrote some reviews. After returning to Paris I did a piece, “Jean Helion Paints a Series of Portraits.” In 1960 I began writing reviews for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. As with Art News, I got the job more or less by accident. The regular art critic was moving back to America, and someone asked me if I knew anyone who could write about art. I submitted what I had written for Art News and got the job. I stayed on until 1965, when Tom Hess, the editor, asked me to join the staff of Art News. One of my jobs was to inoculate unsuspecting young poets with the art criticism virus. Among the poets and writers I recruited to write for Art News were Gerrit Henry, John Perreault, Carter Ratcliff, Kenward Elmslie, and Ted Castle. Laurie Anderson started writing around then, too. Lots of poets came up to me and said they had no money, and what could they do?

One important person to remember is Tom Hess. He liked poets and wanted them to write for him at Art News. And certainly there was a tradition of it in New York. Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford had run magazines such as View and VVV in the ’40s. They knew the Surrealists who came here during the war, and they wrote about their work. Tyler wrote film criticism as well, and worked for Art News for quite a few years.

There was a lot going in the art world in the ’50s and ’60s. Poets not only formed a cheap supply of manpower to write about it, but I’ve always felt that they seem to note what is going on around them. They make it their business to do so. At Art News Tom had Barbara Guest, Frank O’Hara, and Jimmy Schuyler on the staff. He didn’t impose restrictions on the way we wrote. Instead, he just tossed us into the lion’s den. Back then art criticism was a kind of free-form thing. No one knew exactly how to do it, so everyone had the same chance.

I think painting has influenced my poems, but I’m not sure how. In fact, it surprises me because I think of myself as more of an audio person than a visual one. The poems in which I use Giorgio de Chirico’s titles are influenced by his writings. The Double Dream of Spring [1915] is not a very good painting, let’s face it. His novel, Hebdomeros [1929], and his meditations on artists such as Courbet, however, are as good as any of his masterpieces. Those writings are what I had in mind when I used his titles. That, and the fact that I liked the titles very much. I think when poets begin writing art criticism, they try to describe everything—“the yellow zigzag beside the black stripe beneath the blue dot,“ that sort of thing. And what a poet learns from writing criticism is how much can be left out. Another thing they learn is that poems can be written at any time under any conditions, just like criticism. The biggest pitfall in all this is that poets often get carried away by the artist’s personality and forget about looking at his work. Certainly, there is a hyperventilated style of criticism going on right now. When I read other people’s criticism I look for ”quality," as Clement Greenberg puts it. It’s one of those slippery concepts we all ought to adhere to.

Frank believed we should all be permanently excited about art, and write about it, but I was never sure why. However, if I had the same things to do over, I’d probably make the same mistakes twice.

John Ashbery, interviewed by John Yau.