Tomorrow, July 28, marks John Ashbery’s 80th birthday. As most readers of poetry know, John Ashbery is the author of about two-dozen collections of poetry, which have been translated into more than 20 languages. His most recent book of poetry, A Worldly Country, was published in February by Ecco Press. In addition, Ashbery has been an art critic and executive editor for Art News, and he served as the art critic for New York magazine. He has won almost every award possible for an American poet, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He also has been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. For further information, I recommend a more lengthy and informative biography of Ashbery compiled by the Poetry Foundation.
This seems a perfect occasion for revisiting Ashbery’s “My Philosophy of Life,” a poem that begins with the following stanzas:
Just when I thought there wasn't room enoughThe entire text of the poem and an audio of John Ashbery reading “My Philosophy of Life” can be found at an Academy of American Poets web page. John Ashbery was a chancellor in the Academy of American Poets from 1988 to 1999.
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea—
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?
That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude. I wouldn't be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I'd sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I'd stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him—not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle's Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It's enough
to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something William James
wrote in some book of his you never read—it was fine, it had the fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone.
The audio of an interview with John Ashbery—broadcast on May 17, 2007, by KCRW— is available online. Also, readers are invited to examine a recent commentary (July 19, 2007) in “One Poet’s Notes” concerning John Ashbery and his most celebrated poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”
The image of John Ashbery accompanying today’s post comes from a Jane Freilicher portrait composed about 1950. Unfortunately, the painting has since been lost.