Ben Lerner (John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
“I find the moments of beauty and possibility opening up in John Ashbery’s work inexhaustibly beautiful,” the fiction writer and poet Ben Lerner recently said in an interview. This is certainly not surprising – Ashbery is a fixture in virtually all of Lerner’s writing and thinking. After Ashbery passed away in 2017, Lerner wrote a brief, affecting tribute in the New Yorker about the poet and their relationship (“I’m dizzied by my luck at having overlapped with John Ashbery, one of the good things about being born when I was”).
Not only are Lerner’s first three books – volumes of poetry — clearly indebted to Ashbery’s work, but when he turned to fiction with his 2011 debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station, he borrowed the book’s title from an Ashbery poem. The story centers on Lerner’s barely fictionalized alter-ego, Adam Gordon, a young poet whose life bears a striking similarity to Lerner’s own, stumbling through a fellowship year in Madrid and ruminating at times on his favorite poet, John Ashbery. On the novel’s very first page, the main character says that each day “I’d find my bag, which contained a bilingual edition of Lorca’s Collected Poems, my two notebooks, a pocket dictionary, John Ashbery’s Selected Poems, drugs, and leave for the Prado.” Lerner even weaves into the novel parts of an essay on Ashbery that he had published in the scholarly journal Boundary 2.
Lerner’s most recent book, his celebrated third novel The Topeka School, continues to evince his deep ties to Ashbery and the New York School of poetry. For this novel – a portrait of the artist as an even younger man – Lerner goes back to his high school years, to his experiences as a star debater and fledgling poet in Topeka, Kansas in the 1990s, in order to trace the “genealogy of his speech.” By excavating his past, Lerner aims to explore the nature of the “school” that formed him and to map out the influences that shaped the adult Adam/Ben, who narrates the book’s final section in the present moment.
One of the key sources in that pre-history seems to be Ashbery, along with the movement he was so closely associated with. Indeed, one of the novel’s sections, which recounts some disparate experiences all set in New York City (including a scene involving Ashbery himself) is called “The New York School.” Furthermore, even though the book chronicles teenage Adam’s growing interest in poetry, refers to him studying poetry in college, and presents current-day Adam as a poet himself, Ashbery is one of the only poets mentioned by name.
Then there’s the novel’s title — as pieces in the New York Times and the Guardian have noted, it too seems to nod to the important role these poets played in Lerner’s own development: “Lerner wanted to be a lawyer until he discovered poetry in his midteens. The so-called New York School of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara was especially formative (a debt acknowledged in the new book’s title ). The playful, suggestive incoherence of such writers offered a kind of antidote to the zero-sum hostility of debate.”
The title might also be a winking reference to “the soi-disant Tulsa School,” the tongue-in-cheek name Ashbery gave to a group of his own younger disciples, the remarkable group of writers and artists to emerge from Oklahoma in the early 1960s, which included Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, and Joe Brainard. By titling his novel The Topeka School, Lerner may be hinting that Topeka is just as unlikely a site of origin for adventurous New York School-influenced art and literature, but also just as possible.
Throughout the novel, Lerner explores how our selves, our voices, and our view of the world are all fashioned out of disparate, clashing languages, vocabularies, and grammars – from the white, male, tough guy, rap-influenced teenage lingo of Topeka in the 1990s to the highbrow psychoanalytic patois of Adam’s intellectual parents, from the rapid-fire barrage used in competitive debate (known as “the spread”) to the non sequiturs and linguistic play of experimental poetry. So it’s no accident that phrases from Ashbery’s poetry seep almost imperceptibly into the text, often unmarked and seamlessly blended into the consciousness which seems to be composing the novel we’re reading – that of the grown-up Adam/Ben, writing in Brooklyn in the Trump years.
For instance, in one passage where the narrative voice begins to break down into a jumble of fragments, lines from Ashbery’s long litany of rivers, “Into the Dusk-Charged Air,” enter the text unannounced (“Experts agree that the Yukon is choked with ice. The Japurá is a pack of ice. The Loing is choked with fragments of ice. The Dnieper is still ice-bound”). In another passage, set in a museum, Adam’s mother (or is it Adam ventriloquizing his mother?) mentions that she “kept catching glimpses” of an elusive painting “out of the corner of my eye,” adding the phrase “whispers out of time” — which directly echoes the final words of Ashbery’s great long poem about an elusive painting, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (“in cold pockets / Of remembrance, whispers out of time”). At another point, Adam’s father (or is it Adam ventriloquizing his father?) seems to quote the first line of Ashbery’s “At North Farm” when he says “I was traveling furiously toward him in the dark”; he also refers to New York as “a logarithm of other cities,” just as Ashbery does in a striking moment in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”
But it’s not just bits and pieces of Ashbery’s language, nor his characteristic preoccupations with the nature of time, language, art, or consciousness, that pop up throughout the novel – Ashbery himself makes a brief, important cameo. Adam’s father recalls a pivotal moment in his son’s college years: while spending a semester at Columbia University, Adam is devastated to find out via email that his girlfriend has broken up with him while studying abroad in Spain. “And later that night, [Adam] explained, he was supposed to attend a big poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y; his professor, a poet named Stoke, or maybe Coke, was going to read, and so was John Ashbery, Adam’s hero. There was some chance he might get invited to the dinner after; this was the kind of thing he’d dreamed about when he’d opted for New York.”
Although Adam’s father garbles the name, Adam’s teacher is obviously Kenneth Koch, the longtime Columbia professor. Despite Adam’s excitement about seeing Ashbery read, everything goes wrong: just as Ashbery moves to the podium to introduce the evening’s program, Adam, seated in the front row and filled with despair about his breakup, has a panic attack and bolts from the room, but not before Ashbery spots him leaving and quips “That bad, eh? Wait till you hear our poems?” while “everyone in the auditorium laughs.”
When I read this passage, I immediately thought: was this an actual event, a real poetry reading given by two famous poets, discoverable in the annals of history? More importantly, was I there? Like Adam (and presumably Lerner), I too happened to be living in New York and studying at Columbia in 1999, although I was nearly a decade older, a graduate student and instructor, rather than an undergraduate at the time. At the same moment that Lerner apparently had Koch as a teacher, I too was working with Koch, though in my case I was helping him run a poetry series as his now-former assistant and all-around mentee.
One of the things that make Lerner’s novels so much fun is the way he deliberately creates a constant flickering between fact and fiction. It’s impossible to read his books without pondering what is real and what is made up, what is autobiographical and what is not. If you’re like me, you may even find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time googling things like the Menninger Foundation (the real-life version of the “Topeka school” Foundation where Lerner’s parents were psychologists), reading up on Harriet Lerner (the author’s famous psychologist mother and model for Jane in the book), or searching in vain for a photograph of the young Ben Lerner alongside Senator Bob Dole on the front page of an ancient edition of The Topeka Capital-Journal, to find out where the novel leaves off and real life begins. This is of course the point of his work, which intensely probes what he calls “the unstable mixture of fact and fiction.”
So given my own obsessions and personal history, a passage about an Ashbery-Koch reading in New York in 1999 seems almost tailor-made to send me scurrying down various rabbit holes, trying to figure out whether it really happened as the book presents it. The first thing I discovered is that, according to the detailed archives of the 92nd Street Y, Ashbery and Koch do not seem to have given a joint reading there in 1999, or at any other point. Of course it is possible that Lerner has just invented the reading, or shifted the location, or the year. However, Ashbery and Koch did appear together at that venue in 1999, just not as the two featured readers, at a reading that took place at the same moment as the event in the book, “a few weeks before the end of the term, before the end of the millennium,” so perhaps Lerner has just changed the details slightly.
On December 6, 1999, Barbara Guest and Kenneth Koch read together at the 92nd Street Y, and Ashbery himself also took part, though it’s not clear in what capacity; the archive only lists him as one of the performers. (He may well have given an introduction for Koch, as the novel mentions: “His professor, Coke, is slated to read first; Ashbery will introduce him; then Coke will introduce Ashbery”).
My next thought was that surely I must have been there that night too! It’s very unlikely that I would have missed the opportunity to see Koch and Guest and Ashbery read in New York in 1999, and I do recall seeing Ashbery and Koch read together on a number of occasions. Maybe somewhere, deep in the coils of my brain, I might even be able to locate a memory of a young guy in the front row awkwardly getting up to leave in a rush as the evening was getting started, prompting a teasing remark from Ashbery, just as it happens to Adam/Ben in the novel.
But it was not to be: I dug out a datebook I kept during that year, and lo and behold, on the page for December 6, 1999, there’s a note about the coming event, along with the disappointing words, written (presumably later, with disappointment) in different color pen: “SOLD OUT.”
So, apparently I was not there, not present in the audience alongside the real Ben or the fictional Adam. Nevertheless, I’d like to think that maybe — on some some forking path, or within some flickering, alternate, possible version of reality (like those one finds everywhere in Lerner’s fiction and Ashbery’s poetry) — in a way I was.
In any event, Lerner’s brilliant novel is many things – a moving family saga, an unusual Künstlerroman, a sharp prehistory of the Trump era and its toxic masculinity – but it is also a chance for Lerner to compose another moving elegy for one of his heroes, John Ashbery, an oblique tribute to Ashbery’s outsized role in the “genealogy of his” – and our – “speech, its theaters and extremes.”