- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

John Ashbery on Writing, Poetry, and More

Happy birthday, John Ashbery! Here are some quotes from his writing:


“I too often feel like a person I know nothing about.”


“I don’t think very much about myself; I don’t have a strong sense of myself as an individual.”


“I’m always looking for something new to do.”


“The form is always there, menacing you.”


“Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibilities that they are founded on nothing.”


“Today, a day that makes very little sense,
like America,
in clear disarray
everything’s getting worse.”


“All beauty, resonance, integrity,
Exist by deprivation or logic
Of strange position.”


“Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted.”


“For as change is horror,
Virtue is really stubbornness

And only in the light of lost words
Can we imagine our rewards.”


“We have to live out our precise experimentation.
Otherwise there’s no dying for anybody,
no crisp rewards.”


“It is the lumps and trials
That tell us whether we shall be known
And whether our fate can be exemplary, like a star.”


“Say no to nothing is my credo
And pocket veto.”


“The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot be.”


“Anything can change as fast as it wants to, and in doing so may pass through a more or less terrible phase, but the true terror is in the swiftness of changing, forward or backward, slipping just beyond our control.”


“Every once in a while I will pick up a page and it has something, but what is it? It seems so unlike what poetry ‘as we know it’ is. But at other moments I feel very much at home with it. It’s a question of a sudden feeling of unsureness at what I am doing, wondering why I am writing the way I am, and also not feeling the urge to write in another way.”


“My intention is to present the reader with a pleasant surprise, not an unpleasant one, not a nonsurprise. I think this is the way pleasure happens when you are reading poetry.”


“There is the view that poetry should improve your life. I think people confuse it with the Salvation Army.”


“Things are in a continual state of motion and evolution, and if we come to a point where we say, with certitude, right here, this is the end of the universe, then of course we must deal with everything that goes on after that, whereas ambiguity seems to take further developments into account. We might realize that the present moment may be one of an eternal or sempiternal series of moments, all of which will resemble it because, in some ways, they are the present, and won’t in other ways, because the present will be the past by that time.”


“I don’t think people ever read things the way they are supposed to. I myself will skip ahead several chapters, or read a little bit of this page and a little bit of that page, and I assume that is what everybody does. I just wanted the whole thing to be, as I have said, presentable; it’s not a form that has a cohesive structure, so it could be read just as one pleases. I think I consider the poem as a sort of environment, and one is not obliged to take notice of every aspect of one’s environment—one can’t, in fact. That is why it came out the way it did.”


“Every writer faces the problem of the person that he is writing for, and I think nobody has ever been able to imagine satisfactorily who this ‘homme moyen sensuel’ will be. I try to aim at as wide an audience as I can so that as many people as possible will read my poetry. Therefore I depersonalize it, but in the same way personalize it, so that a person who is going to be different from me but is also going to resemble me just because he is different from me, since we are all different from each other, can see something in it. You know—I shot an arrow into the air but I could only aim it.”


“I don’t know what the voice of my poetry is. I suppose it’s mine but it is a part of me that I’m only in touch with while I’m writing. I don’t see it as like my conversational voice or like anybody else’s voice that I know. It is a voice that occasionally intrudes in my ordinary thinking. Suddenly a line of what appears to be poetry will pop into my mind and I will have no idea where it came from.”


“I don’t think my poetry is very bound to a literary tradition. But it is, somewhat more so than some critics maintain. A lot of people throw up their hands and say that I am writing poetry that isn’t poetry at all. I don’t think of myself as being a destroyer of poetry and I think I am continuing, in my own way, from a body of poetic tradition.”


“I think you really have to imitate in order to find out what your voice is. You have to speak in the voice of the poets that are important to you even though you may not be aware of doing it.”


“[A]n influence’s way of operating while one is writing is very oblique. One is being influenced all the time by so many other things-not just poetry but also climatic conditions, the room one is in, whatever—and these other things are important, too.”


“I don’t really know what kind of voice my poetry has because it’s always changing, or at least I hope it is. But it cannot change much because it is always me or some form of me.”


“I don’t think I write about my emotional experiences although they certainly condition the writing that comes out of me. You can see from reading my work that I don’t talk about my life, which never seems very interesting to me. Therefore, I would not want to bore anyone else with it.”


“Confessional poetry does run the risk of turning off the reader. It’s like telling someone about your operation. My reaction is always that I have suffered too, like everybody else, so why don’t we forget about it and get down to business? The poetry seems to lie elsewhere. You see I am trying to discover things that I am not already conscious of. Rather than deal with experiences from my past which are already familiar to me, the excitement of writing poetry for me is to explore places that I have not already found. Heidegger says that to write a poem is to make a voyage of discovery. In the same way, I am always interested in my future poems rather than the ones which I’ve already written. The old ones really don’t do anything for me.”


“I don’t think of my poetry as being private in the sense that it is only related to me and I don’t want other people to share in it. I mean it to be about the privacy that each of us feels. We are all private people. There is nothing we can do about that. In this way, I think my poetry is actually more public than private. What I want to do is illuminate the ways in which we are private individuals who are, perhaps, capable of breaking through that. It would be nice if we were part of a community that consisted of private but public individuals.”


“I think one of the things that one picks up on after a certain amount of time is the ability to distinguish what seems to be blemishes and what are necessary distortions and irregularities.”


“It is sort of like a high when I write. It’s kind of painful and pleasurable at the same time to be so attentive. It’s nice when it’s over, too.”


“I really don’t know where the poems come from. It is very mysterious to me.”


“I feel almost as if I am taking dictation. I don’t want to make it seem as if I write in a trance or anything like that. It’s not that. It’s a matter of feeling very much more awake than usual.”


“Poets have been known to be monsters, and are permitted to be if their poetry is good enough.”


“If you are determined to write no matter what, then you’ll write. You’ve always had to do it no matter what anyway—it has just become a little more dramatic.”


“I don’t think poetry should be inaccessible, but I also don’t think it should be easy of access either, because much of the fun comes from struggling with it, or at least it should. Of course, it’s also not necessarily true that difficulty is something one should automatically aspire to.”


“I usually read for a while before I sit down to write poetry. One has to be reminded all over again what poetry is and how it works. So I read then. And I read quite a lot of novels and mainly I guess I think that will somehow affect my writing in a good way.”


“Reading is a pleasure, but to finish reading, to come to the blank space at the end, is also a pleasure.”


  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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