John and Elizabeth’s Excellent Adventure: Bishop and Ashbery


It’s well-known that Elizabeth Bishop was a major influence on John Ashbery and that he adored her work.  The two poets even got to know each other as well, before Bishop’s death in 1979.

But who knew that their mutual admiration for each other’s work extended this far? Andy Webster’s brief review in the New York Times of a new documentary on the life of Elizabeth Bishop called “Welcome to This House” includes a detail that caught my eye:

“The poet John Ashbery mentions her asking him over to roll a joint, on the eve of her receiving a Neustadt Prize.”

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for that visit to Elizabeth’s!

Posted in Elizabeth BIshop, Film, Influences on the NY School, John Ashbery

Dan Chiasson on John Ashbery’s Breezeway (and William James)

John Ashbery’s new book, Breezeway, has just been published, and Dan Chiasson has written one of the first substantial reviews of the book for the New Yorker.  With the clever title “American Snipper,” the characteristically perceptive, beautifully written review stresses that Ashbery’s poetry is “composed partly of language foraged from everyday American speech. The effect is sometimes unnerving, as though somebody had given you your own garbage back as a gift, cheerfully wrapped. Ashbery is nearly eighty-eight; more than ever, his style is a net for the weirdest linguistic flotsam … His game is to make an intentionally frivolous style express the full range of human feeling, and he remains funnier and better at it, a game he invented, than his many imitators.”

I was happy to see Chiasson connect Ashbery to the philosopher William James, who he calls “a profound influence on Ashbery” — and a bit surprised, as well, as I sometimes felt a bit lonely arguing that Ashbery has deep ties to James and pragmatism in my book Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry.  Chiasson writes:

Ashbery’s style prizes such mistakes and misapprehensions, as though looking for the word on the tip of the tongue. William James described consciousness as the “alternation of flights and perchings,” suggesting that we tend to overvalue the “perchings,” the nouns or the primary verbs in a sentence that steal the spotlight from the little words, like “in,” “and,” “but,” “or,” and “of.” It was James, a profound influence on Ashbery, who coined the term “stream of consciousness,” and who insisted on what he called a “reinstatement of the vague and inarticulate to its proper place in our mental life.” James’s “flights” and in-between zones find, in “Breezeway,” a breezeway: a structure between structures, a place to rest that is not a resting place, a “long Q & A period” before the big event is adjourned—a period marked, as in the title of one poem, by deliberate “Andante and Filibuster.”

As Chiasson notes, the poems in Breezeway are “late poems, working alertly within the uncommon genre of poems written in extreme old age, a genre they in turn significantly expand. The poems anticipate death but hold it off—they filibuster—by transfiguring it into comic forms.”

Asserting that “the finest lyrics in this book rank with Ashbery’s best short poems,” Chiasson discusses Breezeway‘s final poem, “A Sweet Disorder” (which I also discussed briefly here), and concludes:

“From his current vantage point, monitoring the past with a gift as big as any American poet has ever controlled, keeping an ear alert for the invigorating ironies of the present, Ashbery must know he is one for the ages.”

Posted in Book Review, John Ashbery, pragmatism, William James

James Schuyler, “May 24th or So”

“James Schuyler,” by Fairfield Porter (1955)

Here, because it’s May 24th or so, is a poem by James Schuyler:

Schuyler May 24th



Posted in James Schuyler, Poems

The Finale of Mad Men and Frank O’Hara: A Theory

Yesterday, I pondered whether there might have been a sly nod to Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You” in the final moments of the Mad Men finale.  Now, on further reflection, I think there may have been even more of an O’Hara connection than that.  (Warning: spoilers ahead).

Last night, Matthew Weiner, the creator, producer, and director of the show, appeared at the New York Public Library for a conversation with the novelist A. M. Holmes, in what he has announced will be his only public discussion of the show after the finale.  When Holmes asked about Frank O’Hara, Weiner explained again that he had never encountered O’Hara’s work until working on the show, but that it “changed my life.”

Mad Men is of course famously laden with hidden clues and signs and allusions that keep a whole army of bloggers and recappers busy, so perhaps it’s reasonable to think further about whether Weiner may have deliberately left some O’Hara breadcrumbs in the final episode.  Consider the following:

1) The finale was titled “Person to Person,” and it focused on the possibility of interpersonal communication and connection, especially through the conduit of the telephone call.  Frank O’Hara’s most famous piece of prose is titled “Personism,” and it focused on the possibility of interpersonal communication and connection, especially through the conduit of the telephone call.

As Weiner explained in his appearance last night, “The final episode’s title refers to the three phone calls Don has with the three women in his life — Sally, Betty and Peggy — but Weiner said it’s also about the phone itself. ‘A lot of the most important things in my life have happened to me over the phone,’ he said, remember that before texting and voicemails, ‘It’s a dramatic situation almost every time when you answer the phone ­— if you answer the phone.'”

What is “Personism”?  Well, as O’Hara explains in his mock manifesto, “one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself)” so that “the poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.”  He also famously, half-jokingly proclaims that the movement began with a revelation about the telephone: the new movement “was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born.”  Person to person, indeed.

2) As Matthew Sitman pointed out on Twitter, the title of the O’Hara book that Don reads in season 2 — Meditations in an Emergency — surely resonates with the unusual (some might say contrived) plot of the finale, in which we find the normally buttoned-up Don Draper doing yoga and meditating at an Esalen-like retreat in the midst of a near-suicidal, existential panic attack. In other words, the final scenes depict a man literally meditating in an emergency.  Get it?

3) As I mentioned before, the climactic, series-ending jump from Don’s hilltop meditation to a famous commercial about the fun of sharing a Coke with the world brings to mind O’Hara’s charming poem “Having a Coke with You.”

So there you have it: a unified theory proclaiming that the Mad Men finale was loaded with allusions to Frank O’Hara, the poet who changed Matthew Weiner’s life.  It’s a very exciting theory which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents.  

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Mad Men, NY School Influence, Television

Having a Coke with Don Draper and Frank O’Hara


The breathlessly-awaited series finale of the television show Mad Men aired this week, and the web has been teeming with recaps and commentary, especially on the significance of the show’s enigmatic final moments. (Warning: spoilers ahead).

The endlessly dissected conclusion of the show depicted the protagonist Don Draper reaching the culmination of his Kerouac-like journey across America on a cliff above Big Sur, sitting in the lotus position.  Just at the moment that he begins to smile, seemingly having caught a glimpse of nirvana, the screen suddenly fills with one of the most famous ads of the 1970s, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”

There are many ways to read this rather brilliant and ambiguous moment — is it a sign that Don has truly found some inner peace, or that he has at last “found a way to accept love and managed to channel it into his work”?  Or is it dark confirmation that he is, and always has been, an ad man through and through?  Is it a cynical condemnation of advertising itself, and by extension, capitalism?  Does it signal the true death of the 1960s, the final absorption and co-opting of its hippie idealism, and the ominous beginning of the “Me Decade” of the 1970s?

Although it’s probably unlikely, I’d like to think the conclusion may also have been the show’s final, playful nod to Frank O’Hara, whose work Don was captivated by in some much-discussed scenes in season 2, and who served as an important influence on the show’s sensibility.  (I’ve discussed the Mad Men-Frank O’Hara connection before on a number of occasions, including here and here).

What does Frank O’Hara have to do with Coke?  Well, quite a bit, actually.  Known for his radical embrace of pop culture in all its forms, O’Hara stands out from his contemporaries by referring to Coke by name in numerous poems, as in his famous poem “A Step Away From Them,” when he observes that “laborers feed their dirty / glistening torsos sandwiches / and Coca-Cola,” or in “Early Sunday” when he speaks of “washing the world down with rye and Coca-Cola.”

This is especially apparent in O’Hara’s 1960 poem “Having a Coke with You,” a poem that has lately become one of his most beloved and circulated poems.  The poem even seems to neatly echo, or preview, Don’s final revelation about the pleasures, even the interpersonal connection, promised by Coke, though perhaps without the ironic commentary on consumerism and advertising.

Here is O’Hara reading “Having a Coke with You” not long before his death in 1966:

And here is the poem’s opening stanza:

Having a Coke with You

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

The show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, has said that coming upon O’Hara’s work during the course of the show’s run was “a magic occurrence.”  So maybe it’s not a stretch to think that Weiner also had O’Hara, among other things, in mind when writing the show’s sure-to-be-famous final scene as well.

But then again, while we’re on the subject of O’Hara, soda, and advertising, count me as one of those who thinks Coke owes the O’Hara estate some serious royalties for its very successful recent “Share a Cokecampaign

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Mad Men, NY School Influence, Television

For Jasper Johns’ Birthday: Frank O’Hara’s “Dear Jap”

Today is the 85th birthday of the painter Jasper Johns.  In honor of that occasion, here is “Dear Jap,” poem Frank O’Hara wrote in 1963 for his friend Johns (who O’Hara called by his nickname, Jap).

Frank O'Hara Dear Jap 1

Frank O'Hara Dear Jap 2

And here is Jasper Johns’s 1963 piece, “Skin with O’Hara Poem,” which includes the text of O’Hara’s poem “[The clouds go soft]” alongside imprints of the artist’s own hands and face:

Skin with [Frank] O’Hara Poem, Jasper Johns, 1963

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Jasper Johns, Poems, Visual Art

John Ashbery Interview: Walden, Whitman, Proust, Obama, and School Lunch Menus

There’s a charming and pithy interview with John Ashbery in today’s New York Times Book Review (as an installment in their “By the Book” feature).  Among the highlights: we learn that Ashbery’s got Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater on his nightstand, as well as Thoreau’s Walden (“I always feel I’m being scolded when I read it”).  He tells us that Proust (surprise, surprise) is his all-time favorite novelist  and the author of the one book that made him who he is today (“You finish it feeling sadder and wiser, so if you’re O.K. with the sadder part, you should take it on”), and that it took him a while to learn to appreciate Whitman (“whose barbaric yawp didn’t impress me at first, but whose silken language did as I began to live with it”).

Ashbery also mentions that the novel is a genre he particularly enjoys reading.  He even wishes he could write one: “I’m no doubt a frustrated novelist.  Maybe I should try, but at barely three months shy of 88 it seems unlikely.”  (Did he forget about A Nest of Ninnies?).

When asked what book he would require the president to read, Ashbery confirms what many of us have long known about Obama — that the president is no stranger to poetry: “I met him several years ago and was surprised at his knowledge of contemporary poetry, so I think he would be best left to his own devices.”

But one of the funniest and most curious moments is when Ashbery lists the stuff on his night stand and adds: “Plus the usual array of magazines and newspapers, which I have to have, including the weekly list of school lunch menus in local papers.”

A fascination with reading school lunch menus — really?  I couldn’t help but think of some memorably “unpoetic” lines from Ashbery’s important mid-1970s poem “Grand Galop“:

And today is Monday. Today’s lunch is: Spanish omelet, lettuce and tomato salad,
Jello, milk and cookies. Tomorrow’s: sloppy joe on bun,
Scalloped corn, stewed tomatoes, rice pudding and milk.

I wonder if it occurred to Ashbery that some “aficionado of his mess,” as Frank O’Hara might put it, would recognize the self-reference here — kind of like an “Easter egg” for Ashbery heads.  Or maybe not — perhaps he just really likes reading school lunch menus, and always has!

You can check out the full interview here.

Posted in Interview, John Ashbery, Marcel Proust, Walt Whitman