Not an Elegy – A Tribute to John Ashbery (1927-2017)

American Poet John Ashbery. Photo Credit: The New Yorker

What Is Poetry

The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow

That came when we wanted it to snow?
Beautiful images? Trying to avoid

Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving

The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it

As we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:

What was left was like a field.
Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.

Now open them on a thin vertical path.
It might give us–what?–some flowers soon?

John Ashbery from Selected Poems, Viking, 1985

In a clip of American poet John Ashbery reading a poem about Newfoundland! at the Griffin Poetry Awards in Toronto in  2008 he is described as ungraspable, inexplicable and as mysterious as the Delphic oracle! None of this stopped him from winning the  international Griffin poetry prize that year which added to his collection of prestigious awards including the three major U.S. poetry prizes in 1975. I am sure the description of his work was meant as a complement but not a usual one!

Ashbery, one of the major poetic figures of our time died yesterday aged 90. I was never a close reader of Ashbery so i have included two obituary reviews of his life and work that establish clearly his importance. For  the New York times obituary click here. And for the Guardian’s click here. To hear his Griffin reading please  click here.

I picked his poem above because it does so well illustrate his surprising leaps and startling imagery. And also because it does point toward the mysterious nature of poetry. Where do the words come from? Ashbery gave an interview on this poem which is a worthwhile read.



  1. Posted September 5, 2017 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I generally don’t like poems about writing, but this one says so much about how a poem feels, not what it does. And his scathing comment on schooling. Wow.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I so agree. So much in this poem. The isness of poetry, the leaps her takes and then after trashing ideas he trashes the idea of what education is doing to our kids! Yes he gets the feel of a poem so right. And it also puzzles the brain now and again! Ideas and feelings! Thank you for the comment!

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