“The Gifts of Women Poets”: Reflections On Barbara Guest and Bernadette Mayer

Over at the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet, Amy King has curated a great two-part feature called “Call and Response: The Gifts of Women Poets,” which consists of brief pieces by a long series of writers, each paired with “an older or no longer living poet who had a personal influence on them”: you can find, for example, John Gallaher on Rae Armantrout, Stephen Burt on Louise Bogan, Patricia Smith on Gwendolyn Brooks, Armantrout herself on Emily Dickinson, Maxine Chernoff on Ann Lauterbach, Lynn Melnick on Diane Wakoski, and many, many more.

Two entries caught my eye for the purposes of this blog.  The first is a tribute to Barbara Guest by the poet and editor James Meetze (who also co-edited the recent gathering of James Schuyler’s unpublished work, Other Flowers).  Meetze writes:

When Andrew Joron introduced me to Barbara Guest’s work in the late-90s — her books Fair Realism, Defensive Rapture, and Selected Poems — it instantly inhabited me like a path I was obligated to follow into unknown territories. I learned her writing, as we all often do, working backward through it in reverse chronology. When I later got to know Barbara, just five years before her passing, she was the sharpest wit and most incisive thinker I had yet encountered. Her penultimate book of poems, Miniatures (2002), which she sent me via post, demonstrated her version of the closed-captioned poem, attentive always to the translation of image into language. Her book of essays, Forces of Imagination arrived shortly thereafter, and when, in her essay “Wounded Joy,” Guest writes, “What we are setting out to do is to delimit the work of art, so that it appears to have no beginning and no end, so that it overruns the boundaries of the poem on the page” it echoes, for me, the necessity of commune, of voices coming into the poem that are never only the poet’s. For my own poetic practice, this idea of the ongoing and interconnectivity of the poem with the life of the poet—the life lived, imagined, and overheard—is paramount; it is what Robin Blaser calls the “flowing boundary.” Guest’s work is always observant of other voices speaking; it is always flexing and advancing the limitations of form at the boundary of her art. As a graduate student at Mills College, I had the opportunity to print a broadside of a new poem—“Nostalgia of the Infinite, 1913: After Giorgio di Chirico,” later published in The Red Gaze, titled simply “Nostalgia”—in honor of her 2002 reading. In it, she writes, “You began the departure. Leaves restrain. You attempted the departure … Waving farewell.” Then 82, Guest was still at the height of her powers even if her physical body had dramatically slowed. Reading this poem now, it arrives as a conversation between the here and the hereafter, between Barbara Guest and her readers. It is an invocation and a reminder that boundaries are to be overrun, that the poem keeps on going without limit, and that the conversation never stops.

The second is John Rufo’s reflection on Bernadette Mayer, who he calls the “the High Priestess of everyday strangeness”:

My first experience with Bernadette Mayer’s work runs like this: I read Midwinter Day in a tiny hotel room in Calcutta while red and blue fireworks blasted outside, hailing the arrival of holidays. Mayer told me her truths for a week while Mother Teresa’s tomb bustled with nuns several blocks down the street. Maybe this surreal Catholic carnival arrived appropriately: what I love about Mayer are her domestic confessions that knock like jokes and appear like sonnets, prose blocks, free verse columns, translations from Catullus. In an interview with Adam Fitzgerald, she mentions her dying mother’s last request: “Join the convent, Bernadette! They’ll take care of your teeth for free.”

Bernadette is the High Priestess of everyday strangeness. She is the poet who reminds you that even when you’re facing the hereafter / you should still come equipped with Listerine. As she writes in The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters: “How am I supposed to fit in to this life where children eat so much expensive fruit?” Who else but Bernadette would seek out all of the women named Helen living in Troy, NY? She is the sun of the twenty-second of December weaving “the random cloth of life together.” She lists, she journals, she tapes up, she makes an index. She asks you to write a perfect poem. She asks you to look into mirrors and write without using the pronoun “I.” She goes after an attempt to write a poem that will change the world. And one of the words she uses most often is “dream.”

You can check out the whole two-part feature here and here.

Posted in Barbara Guest, Bernadette Mayer

“To the Memory of Joe Brainard”: Kent Johnson’s I Once Met

“To the memory of Joe Brainard” reads the dedication to Kent Johnson‘s new book, I Once Met: A Partial Memoir of the Poetry Field.  A revised and expanded version of a limited-edition chapbook of the same title that Johnson published in 2007, the book is an unusual homage to the form and tone of Brainard’s great book I Remember.  Instead of Brainard’s device of gathering a long litany of memories each prompted by the phrase “I remember,” Johnson offers a series of anecdotes detailing his encounters with other poets that each begin “I once met.”  (Johnson has paid homage to the New York School poets in a number of earlier works as well).  In addition to Brainard, Johnson’s project also recalls the “I Metseries created by the conceptual artist On Kawara, which obsessively documented the names of every person he encountered each day.

I Once Met, published by Longhouse, a small press in Vermont, is a beautiful-looking book that mixes surprising and unusual photographs with prose passages in a handsome and elegant format.  Each passage relates a tale involving a different poet that Johnson (supposedly) encountered at some point — a long roster that includes Allen Ginsberg, David Shapiro, Gary Snyder, Robert Hass, Diane Wakoski, Robert Duncan, Joan Retallack, Amiri Baraka, Ben Lerner, and Vanessa Place — along with meditations on several poets he has never met, including John Ashbery, Philip Whalen, and David Antin.

By turns gossipy, cutting, ironic, and self-deprecating, the book eventually becomes a kind of mosaic autobiography of a literary gadfly, one who has hovered, bemused, enraged, and inspired, on the margins of the poetry world for many years.  It circles around a number of central themes, including the nature of literary community and friendship, rivalry, envy, disappointment, and the strangeness and absurdity of our lives and relationships.

Given his other work, it is not surprising that Johnson is especially interested in poetry as a cultural field that is filled with competition, posturing, back-stabbing, hypocrisy, and venality, along with occasional flashes of generosity and creative spark.  It is also charming and funny, much like Brainard’s I Remember, unsettling and discomforting, and altogether sui generis.

I should add that I Once Met is playful and slippery, like all of Johnson’s work, and there is no way of knowing for certain whether the anecdotes in the book — some of which are sure to annoy those who are “implicated” in them — are “true” or “really happened.”  But examining the fictive and constructed nature of both our memories and the social dynamics of the poetic field seem to be part of the book’s point to begin with.  In an “Author’s Comment” at the start of the book, Johnson does add a disclaimer:

I have tried my best to be true to the experiences represented here.  In a few instances, where my memory has flagged, or where the poetic license seemed to proffer — in spirit of Picasso’s famous maxim about art, lies, and truth — a deepening of the genuine, I have, in the venerable traditions of that non-existent genre called “non-fiction,” not-so-secretly embellished.  Anyone I have here implicated is free, of course, to amend or deny the renderings of my reminiscences.  I stand by every word.

In any event, here are a few sample passages from the book:

I once met the amazing poet C.D. Wright. This was in Disney World. We’d gone there on vacation with her and Forrest Gander and their son, we being me, my wife Deb, and our two boys. The three kids were eleven, nine, and thirteen, and they were each a loaded automatic pistol looking for trouble. It was horribly hot and this was the third day. We sat down for coolness in the shade of a plastic tree near the Giant Spinning Cups of Tea, or whatever they are called. Oh, please someone just goddamn shoot me, said C.D., in her Appalachian drawl … I have a photo of her right after she said this, and she doesn’t appear to be kidding. Minnie Mouse and Goofy are standing behind her, waving.

I’ve never met the great poet John Ashbery, but I feel like I have.  Automobiles go by in the night.  And somewhere, huge wooden machines stand at attention in a gentle, foggy field, on the hidden side of a mountain, in a cheap velvet painting, it all akimbo and askew, yet somehow still hanging there, on half a wall, in some bombed out slum, on the outskirts of Beirut.

I’ve nevet met the famed poet Ron Padgett, but I almost did.  I raised my fist before his door and paused.  There were cicadas screaming to death in the rich summer trees. Why ruin it, I said, and walked away.

I once met the genius poet John Beer.  This was in Chicago, at Danny’s Bar.  He had a t-shirt with the John Deere design that said ‘John Beer.’  I laughed and he laughed, too.  What a delightful fellow.  Ha, ha, I said.  Excuse me, John, while visit the john. Ha, ha, said John.  You go, boy.  Mark Yakich was funny that night, but I think I got the most response.  Then again, shortly after I’d finished reading, I noticed that my fly was undone.

I once met Eliot Weinberger. We walked around Iowa City, talking. I liked him, he was well structured and constructed. I think we talked about China and Pound and also about James Laughlin and Samuel Beckett and things like that. A woman approached… Quick, get the fuck behind the car, said Eliot. We did and hid there, crouching. It was Jorie Graham, followed by a train of forty students.

I’ve never met the sublime poet Philip Whalen. I never will, of course, not in the body, in any case.  After he died, I’ve heard, his robed corpse was laid out in the meditation hall for three days, as is the tradition when a roshi dies.  And because it was summer and it was very hot, they put bags of frozen raspberries under his back and buttocks and legs.  I always thought that was a beautiful touch, and so had my mother, for I told her about it, once, when we were walking by a river … Anyway, to get to my story, for life is strange, I did once call him on the phone to ask that he write an essay for a book I was editing.  This was many years ago. No, No, No, he growled, The last thing I’m going to do is write an essay on the relationship between Zen and poetry. I mean, what makes you think either one even exists?  I mean, give me a break. Goodbye. Click.

For more on Johnson’s book, see here for some praising commentary by John Phillips and here for ordering information.

Posted in Books, Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, Kent Johnson, NY School Influence, Philip Whalen, Ron Padgett

Resurrecting Raymond Roussel, the “Proust of Dreams”

In the New York Times, Holland Cotter reviews the debut exhibit at the new Galerie Buchholz in New York which is “giving us something wonderful that we haven’t had before: a retrospective of the French writer Raymond Roussel (1877-1933).”  The brilliant and bizarre Roussel, of course, served as a pivotal influence on the poets of the New York School.

As David Lehman recounts the story in his book The Last Avant-Garde:

In Paris in 1950 Kenneth Koch had gone to a famous Paris bookshop — the librarie José Corti on the rue de Médicis across from the Luxembourg Gardens — and asked the owner to recommend an unusual French writer, the stranger the better.  ‘What’s really exciting and crazy?’ he asked.  ‘I’ve read Surrealism.’  ‘Have you read Roussel?’ The man handed him a faded yellow book containing Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1928), a long poem in four cantos, each of which consists of a single sentence expanded to fantastic length by an accordion system of parentheses within parentheses.  Koch brought the book back to America and lent it to Ashbery, who felt an immediate rapport with the eccentric whom Jean Cocteau had dubbed ‘the Proust of dreams.'”

Ashbery was so taken with Roussel that several years later he embarked on researching a possible doctoral dissertation on the writer.  Although he never completed the dissertation, Ashbery did publish several important pieces on Roussel’s work that (as Lehman points out) “contributed mightily to the revitalization of Roussel’s reputation in France (where he was neglected) and in the United States (where he was unknown).”  By the early 1960s, Ashbery and Harry Mathews had even borrowed the name Locus Solus (the title of Roussel’s novel) for the little magazine they founded, which would become the house journal for the New York School of poetry.  Koch, Ashbery, Mathews, and other New York School poets translated Roussel’s work and spread the word about its charms and mysteries.

Cotter fills in some background on Roussel:

Born into the Parisian beau monde, as a child Roussel had Marcel Proust for a neighbor; as an adult, he befriended Jean Cocteau when the two were patients in drug rehab. Rich, gay, habitually solitary, Roussel developed a literary mode in poetry, fiction and drama based on linguistic ingenuity and the use of super-realism to lift off into fantasy. Although his work was met with public scorn at the time — Roussel was crushed and died by suicide — it has been hugely influential to artists and writers since. Marcel Duchamp and Michel Foucault claimed him as a liberating hero. Max Ernst and Joseph Cornell revered him. The poet John Ashbery has written brilliantly about him.

This show — organized by Mr. Buchholz, the art historian Christopher Müller and the Roussel scholar François Piron — an archival exercise in literary and art-world ephemera. It pieces together Roussel’s elusive private life from rare surviving images (photographs of his adored mother; a unisex childhood portrait of the writer) and personal effects (treasured editions of Jules Verne novels; a cookie that he saved from a landmark literary lunch and enshrined like a relic). It traces the path of his writing career through often self-financed publications and calamitous stage presentations. And it concludes with a section demonstrating his continuing influence, on Mr. Ashbery’s poetry and collages, and on artists like Zoe Beloff, Lucy McKenzie and Henrik Olesen.

The selection is scrupulously annotated, and every scrap of information is worth reading. (Although a contemporary art specialist, Mr. Buchholz comes from a background in antiquarian book selling.) If this show were at the Museum of Modern Art, you’d pay to see it and still feel rewarded.

The show will be up until the end of August.  For more on Roussel and his afterlife, including a recent “remix” of Locus Solus by the writer Mark Amerika, see here.

Posted in Art Exhibit, French poetry, Harry Mathews, Influences on the NY School, John Ashbery, Locus Solus, Raymond Roussel

Resurrecting Mayakovsky

In the TLS, Clare Cavanagh has an excellent and informative review of the new biography of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky by Bengt Jangfeldt (which I also wrote about a few months ago).  Mayakovsky, of course, is one of the towering avant-garde heroes in the New York School’s pantheon, and Cavanagh’s review, along with Jangfeldt’s biography, provide a welcome opportunity to learn more about the fascinating story of Mayakovsky’s life and times.

In her review of this “revisionary, passionately researched biography,” Cavanagh chronicles the poet’s stormy life and complicated legacy, especially the fate he suffered by being posthumously turned into the state poet of Stalin’s totalitarian Soviet Union: a cruel turn of events that Boris Pasternak called Mayakovsky’s “second death.”

Even while “generations of Soviet citizens, laypeople and writers alike, had the official Mayakovsky crammed down their throats from childhood on,” dissidents demurred: “émigré aversion to the self-proclaimed Poet of the Revolution was pronounced from the start.”  Outside of Soviet Russia the story was different: “His impact on international writing continued unabated. The list of experimental poets under his sway spans decades and nations: it includes everyone from Louis Aragon and André Breton to Władysław Broniewski, Pablo Neruda, Nicolas Guillen, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and beyond.”

The ideologically-charged struggle over Mayakovsky’s work and reputation has raged for decades.  However, as Cavanagh notes, Jangfeldt’s book “the first ‘post-Soviet’ biography. First published in his native Swedish in 2007, it effectively supplants the extant biographies in both Russian and English: this will become the standard source.”

Cavanagh praises the book for illuminating not only Mayakovsky’s life but his poetry as well:

Jangfeldt sees his task primarily as resurrecting the life in something close to its lived complexity. And this in turn illuminates the poet’s writing, which was self-consciously intertwined with the life much like Byron’s or Whitman’s here, to name two of Mayakovsky’s foreign favourites, whom he read in Russian translation. Hence his own transcontinental influence, decades later, on the “personalism” or “confessionalism” of poets such as Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg.

(Just a sidenote: although it’s great to see this acknowledgment of Mayakovsky’s influence on postwar American poets like O’Hara and Ginsberg, O’Hara quite deliberately called his famous mock-poetry movement “Personism,” not “personalism“).

Jangfeldt centers his biography on the “vortex of political, literary, and private storms” that dominated Mayakovsky’s life, especially the juicy love triangle between Mayakovsky, Lili Brik and her husband Osip.  Cavanagh explores the fascinating, dramatic features of that vortex, including the heady climate of the diverse avant-garde circles Mayakovsky moved through, the poet’s love affairs and heartbreaks, his doomed attempt to navigate the extraordinary political pressures placed upon the poet in revolutionary Russia, his tragic and endlessly-debated suicide, and the complex story of his posthumous career.

Along the way there are some great little details, including my favorite:

Mayakovsky’s personal tastes ran to fine clothes, fancy gloves and inflatable bathtubs for his travels. These last two items were partly prophylactic: an incurable hypochondriac, he refused to shake hands, or take baths in unfamiliar bathrooms.

An inflatable bathtub!  This reminded me of the opening stanza of O’Hara’s own poem titled “Mayakovsky” (made famous by its inclusion on the TV show Mad Men, and which I discuss briefly here):

My heart’s aflutter!
I am standing in the bath tub
crying. Mother, mother
who am I? If he
will just come back once
and kiss me on the face
his coarse hair brush
my temple, it’s throbbing!

 Heaping praise on Jangfeldt’s extensive and revealing research, Cavanagh concludes “Resurrecting Mayakovsky, as it turns out, is an endless business. Bengt Jangfeldt has given him new life through his biography. I hope that Western scholars will follow his lead by generating equally revisionary readings of the art.”

“Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1924,” Alexander Rodchenko (Museum of Modern Art)

Posted in Allen Ginsberg, Book Review, Frank O'Hara, Influences on the NY School, Kenneth Koch, Vladimir Mayakovsky

“Find an event on the ground to respond to”: Wayne Koestenbaum Leads Frank O’Hara-Inspired Walk in NYC

As I’ve said before, I’m a fan of Wayne Koestenbaum’s sharp and effervescent essays on poets of the New York School and so many other topics, so I was intrigued by this piece by Jennifer Krasinski in ArtForum about an unusual walking tour Koestenbaum recently led in the East Village in homage to Frank O’Hara’s poem “Second Avenue.”

The 1953 poem is one of O’Hara’s most experimental, challenging, and even polarizing poems, but clearly Koestenbaum counts himself among its fans.  Krasinski writes:

“I revere Frank O’Hara,” Koestenbaum explained, “and this might be my favorite of his poems.” Koestenbaum himself is revered as a vigilante on behalf of the glittering intellect. If John Ashbery once described “Second Avenue” as “such a difficult pleasure,” that evening, Koestenbaum praised it as “a poem big enough to contain [O’Hara’s] consciousness and the city’s consciousness as well.”

The outing, which Koestenbaum called “Making Marks,” asked the dozen or so participants to spend an evening as notebook-wielding flâneurs, responding creatively to the city around them with heightened attention, à la O’Hara himself.

We were handed sketch pads, water-soluble markers, and pencils, and Koestenbaum explained that this evening’s walk would be punctuated by his prompts. “We will be on the lookout for events,” he said, “responding with linguistic marks or nonlinguistic marks”—meaning that our observations or ideas would be expressed within or without their sanctioned symbolic order. “Quantity, not quality,” Koestenbaum insisted. “We are working in the spirit of Frank O’Hara, who was always inspired.” Glancing at the graying sky, he added, “Let’s hope it doesn’t rain,” but thus far only the air conditioners seemed to be spitting on us.

… More prompts followed from Koestenbaum every few minutes:

“Find an event on the ground to respond to.”

“Bring to mind a shattered romance and make marks toward it.”

“Write something impermissible. Erase it, then reconstruct something from its erasure.”

The walk concluded with the group forming a circle under a lamp in Tompkins Square Park (just steps from the E. 9th St. apartment O’Hara lived in) and reading lines and fragments culled from “Second Avenue” itself:

We bowed our heads over our papers, angling them toward the glowing lamplight. In this, an unintended gratitude pose to O’Hara’s excitement, we performed a “Second Avenue” cut-up, pasting together a poem of our own.

Thinking about this interesting venture — part creative writing exercise, part experiment in psychogeography and the “dérive” in the Situationist vein, part tribute to O’Hara’s work and his example — I opened “Second Avenue” and came upon the ever-more-prophetic last line of the poem’s first section: “But now I have a larger following.”  Indeed, he truly does.



Posted in Frank O'Hara, New York, Situationism, Wayne Koestenbaum

James Merrill and … the New York School?

James Merrill is not often mentioned in the same breath as poets of the New York School. He is usually viewed as a consummate formalist and genteel New England poet, celebrated for his elegant style, refinement, and restraint, who operated at some distance from the avant-garde of his day.

It has therefore been easy to overlook the fact that Merrill actually spent the formative, early years of his career very much in the midst of the New York art and poetry world of the 1950s and 1960s and had significant ties to the poets and painters of the New York School.

Fortunately, the massive new biography of Merrill by Langdon Hammer called James Merrill: Life and Art — which has been receiving favorable reviews in places like the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the New York Times Book Review — chronicles this important chapter of Merrill’s career.

As Hammer notes, Merrill’s first contact with the world of New York poets and artists in the 1950s came through John Bernard Myers, the eccentric co-founder of both the Tibor de Nagy gallery (home to many of the younger New York painters) and the Artists’ Theatre, with director Herbert Machiz.  The Artists’ Theatre staged Merrill’s play The Bait in 1953 alongside plays by John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch. Hammer writes that during the summer of 1953, Merrill

took classes in Machiz’s school for actors; he played the part of John in a workshop performance of O’Hara’s Try! Try!  Myers and Machiz meanwhile were hosting the ‘best’ parties that Merrill ‘ever went to.’  Among the assembled, he especially liked Ashbery.  He soon felt the influence of the slightly younger, Harvard-educated poet’s work on his own poems, which made him uneasy, and he was shy in Ashbery’s presence.  They would remain friends and admirers of each other’s poetry for the rest of their lives, with a subtle undercurrent of rivalry.

More surprising than the Merrill-Ashbery connection, however, is the link between Merrill and the painter Larry Rivers, whose style Merrill apparently emulated:

Larry Rivers was easier to befriend, although, or perhaps because.  Merrill had much less in common with this ebullient saxophonist from an immigrant Jewish family.  In 1954, Merrill bought a big landscape by Rivers, painted in Water Mill, near Southhampton.  Robin Macgowan described it as a picture of ‘cows, grass, and clouds rendered with the freshness of an ex-jazz musician from the Bronx discovering the countryside for the first time.  In 1955, Rivers made oil portraits of both [Merrill’s lover, David] Jackson and Merrill; in his, Jimmy looks like a junior Merrill Lynch executive in his glases, button-down shirt, and striped tie.  Robin, who met Rivers through his uncle in 1956, noted that ‘Jimmy then longed to write the way Larry painted’: loosely and casually, with confident self-display and ‘colloquial exuberance.’  The big Water Mill landscape was a kind of aesthetic challenge to Merrill, daring him to loosen up.

Despite these affinities, and ample time hanging out at the San Remo cafe with the poets and painters, Merrill never became a full-fledged member of this or any other movement; Hammer argues that “he was too proud, too skeptical about claims for artistic innovation, ever to enroll in the New York School.”

Another important point of contact between the New York School and Merrill came in the form of financial support.  Merrill was, of course, famously wealthy: in his recent review of Hammer’s biography, Jay Parini writes that “some people are born with a silver spoon, but the poet James Merrill — son of a founder of Merrill Lynch — had whole place settings jammed down his throat.”  In the 1950s, Merrill also became a generous supporter of other writers and artists.  As Hammer notes,

Around this time, Merrill began to contribute money specifically to encourage artists, writers, and musicians in their work.  In 1953, he gave Rivers $2500 that enabled him to buy a house in Southhampton, where the painter set up a studio … ‘Personally,’ Merrill explained, ‘I want to give to groups or individuals whom nobody else is as yet willing to risk helping. That seems to me far more valuable than swelling by a fraction of 1 percent the annual revenue of the Metropolitan Opera (much as I love it) or the United Hospital Fund (worthy though it be), or Amherst College.’ This was the vision behind Jimmy’s establishment of the Ingram Merrill Foundation, which gained tax exempt status in 1955.

The Ingram Merrill Foundation would, over ensuing decades, give grants to Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Joe Brainard, along with a very long list of other writers, artists, and organizations.

Merrill was embedded in the New York School’s network of friendships and affiliations. For example, in a 1957 letter to John Ashbery, Schuyler discusses a friend being “bemused and thrilled to hear you have a mustache” and then adds “Jimmy Merrill described it as very French: otherwise he spoke very well of you, and made you sound as handsome as the dawn over Parc Buttes Chaumont or whatever it’s called.”  Frank O’Hara’s letters casually mention “Jimmy and David” coming over for drinks, and refer to Merrill visiting Schuyler after one of his psychological breakdowns and offering his generous assistance.

Literary history likes to divide writers and place them in somewhat artificial categories and movements that often obscure the complex reality of affiliations, friendships, and influences.  Fortunately, we now have Hammer’s biography to flesh out some of the details and remind us of the intriguing set of connections between Merrill and the poets of the New York School.

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Herbert Machiz, James Merrill, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, John Bernard Myers, Larry Rivers, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Visual Art

The Collages of John Ashbery and Guy Maddin


John Ashbery, “Morris” (2014)

John Ashbery has been making collages on the side, as it were, since he was in college, and in recent years, he has begun exhibiting them.  Currently, there is an exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy gallery in New York showcasing collages by Ashbery and the experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin.  As the gallery notes

Maddin and Ashbery were mutual fans from a distance until they were introduced a few years ago. Soon they were collaborating. Ashbery wrote his own adaptation of the long-lost Dwain Esper exploitation film How to Take a Bath, which Maddin then filmed. The finished film, a short, is now included in Maddin’s latest feature The Forbidden Room, which has been described as “a film treatment in collage”.

When talking about their shared love of collage-making, Maddin remarked “…I suppose this gluey and scissory medium is where the sensibilities of each other’s chosen fields come closest…where we unroll for the public the secret blueprints for the little visual collisions…”

It’s not hard to find parallels between Ashbery’s poetry — with its love of fragments, its startling juxtapositions of tone and image and language, its delight in pop culture and eccentric ephemera, its magpie sensibility — and his playful, wry, evocative collages.  (This 2008 piece by New York Times art critic Holland Cotter does a good job of tracing some of the points of contact).

In a number of the works in the show, Ashbery seems to be playfully hinting at connections between his poetry and his collages.  For example, one collage, titled “To Greet You,” seems to allude to the last line of one of Ashbery’s own poems from the 1960s, “The Chateau Hardware” (“And turning out the way I am, turning out to greet you”), and possibly the oft-quoted lines from the climax of his most famous poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: “Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand,/ Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,/ The shield of a greeting.”


John Ashbery, “To Greet You” (2014)

With “The Painter,” Ashbery seems to deliberately evoke the title of a well-known sestina that appeared in Ashbery’s first book.  The collage juxtaposes the famous self-portrait of a despairing Gustave Courbet with a very cheerful logo for Dutch Boy paint:


John Ashbery, “The Painter” (2014)

Also included in the exhibit is the beautiful collage that adorns the cover Ashbery’s new book, Breezeway:


John Ashbery, “Breezeway” (2014)

Another is titled “Bingo Beethoven”:


John Ashbery, “Bingo Beethoven” (2014) (collage on vintage bingo board)

It’s a pleasure to see that Ashbery’s collages, like Maddin’s equally enticing works, are suffused with the same charm, wit, beauty, and strangeness of his poems.  The exhibition continues through July 31.

Posted in Art Exhibit, Guy Maddin, John Ashbery, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Visual Art