John Ashbery and the Movies

I recently noted that the Los Angeles Review of Book‘s new series on “Poets at the Movies” borrows its title (“But What About the Soul?”) and raison d’etre from the movie-obsessed poetry of Frank O’Hara.

Everyone knows about O’Hara’s passionate devotion to movies (“I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies”), but only recently has there been much attention to the importance of film to John Ashbery’s work.

In a 2008 piece in Rain Taxi titled “John Ashbery’s Cinema Paradiso: Domestic Environments as Poetry,” David Kermani observes that

Film has been one of Ashbery’s deepest lifelong interests, ever since he saw his first movie (Disney’s The Three Little Pigs) in 1933, at the age of five, with his grandmother (as described in his poem “The Lonedale Operator.” Understandably then, film has also been one of the most pervasive influences on his work, in ways ranging from the literal use of movie subject matter and references to the appropriation of technical processes. Memory is a key ingredient in this mix: film in memory, film and memory, film as memory. And because film may be the art form that can come closest to mirroring the way the human mind works, which itself is one of the primary concerns of Ashbery’s work, an understanding of Ashbery’s relationship with cinema is likely to be productive.

There’s a great deal more in the piece about Ashbery’s complex relationship to film (and how his love for cinema relates to the striking physical spaces of the poet’s homes in Manhattan and upstate New York).  The subject is pretty ripe for the picking: Kermani is right when he suggests that “grad students looking for dissertation topics” might find this to be very fertile ground for further research.

For some of the recent activity related to Ashbery and film, check out the set of programs presented by Harvard Film Archive in 2009, titled “John Ashbery at the Movies.”  Also, Daniel Kane discusses Ashbery and avant-garde film in his 2009 book We Saw the Light: Conversations between New American Cinema and Poetry.

One of my favorite Ashbery “film” moments comes in the wonderful conclusion to “The System,” the last long prose poem in Three Poems.

And it is here that I am quite ready to admit that I am alone, that the film I have been watching all this time may only be a mirror, with all the characters including that of the old aunt played by me in different disguises … I have been watching this film, therefore, and now I have seen enough; as I leave the theater I am surprised to find that it is still daylight outside (the darkness of the film as well as its specks of light were so intense); I am forced to squint; in this way I gradually get an idea of where I am.  Only this world is not as light as the other one; it is made gray with shadows like cobwebs that deepen as the memory of the film begins to fade.  This is the way all movies are meant to end, but how is it possible to go on living just now except by plunging into the middle of some other one that you have doubtless seen before?

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