Faculty, students and staff gathered in the Memorial Chapel on Wednesday evening to hear renowned American poet John Ashbery read from his most recent book of poems, “Planisphere,” published last year by Ecco. John Ashbery is this year’s Millet Fellow at Wesleyan University and one is one of the most lauded living literary figures of our time. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle award, and is the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships, and a MacArthur genius grant. Ashbery translated French poetry during his 10-year stint in Paris in the 1950s and 1960s and has published more than 20 books of poetry in his lifetime.
Sitting in a pew surrounded by enraptured students, I hardly had the feeling I was sitting in front of a larger-than-life poet: Ashbery’s tweed jacket and shuffling gait made him seem more like a retired professor. A stooped old man with neatly combed white hair who walked with the aid of a cane, Mr. Ashbery personified age itself. He fumbled for his glasses for a good 30 seconds before beginning the reading; meanwhile, the reverential silence quickly faded into a tense anticipatory pause. His voice was low, forcing me to concentrate to make out what he was saying. Twice Mr. Ashbery admitted, eliciting awkward giggles from the crowd, to not knowing what a word in his book meant, such as “Zymurgy,” the title of the last poem in the book. The poems in this new edition are arranged alphabetically, beginning with the poem “Alcove.”
Ashbery’s poetic form in “Planisphere” is casual, if not conversational, and uses idiomatic turns of phrase filled with references to pop culture—one of his poems even mentions the band They Might Be Giants—as well as tongue-in-cheek commentary on American traditions. The last line from the poem “River of the Canoefish” reads, “Shall we gather at the river? On second thought, let’s not.” Ashbery’s poems in “Planisphere” reminded me of the emotive and insistent lyrics of the songs of an up-and-coming indie rock band. I was expecting John Ashbery’s poems to be esoteric and borderline pretentious; it was hard for me to believe that a book of poems that struck a literary chord with English professors would also be accessible to a roomful of college students, employing wry references to pop culture without appearing to pander to a younger audience. I have never met a person over the age of 40 who was able to so effortlessly bridge the generational gap in the space of a few short lines.
Ashbery agreed to stay after the reading to sign volumes of his poetry. Having no book of my own, I asked to merely shake his hand. He obliged, looking at me with a steady, clear-eyed gaze of subtle quizzical amusement. It was almost as if he didn’t know he was an internationally famed poet, and I was merely a stranger offering to shake his hand for no other reason other than to say hello.