A few days ago, the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog posted a piece by its relatively new president, the poet and critic Robert Polito. The post reproduced the remarks Polito gave in May at the awarding of the National Arts Club’s Medal of Honor for Literary Achievement to John Ashbery — the same event which featured a surprise performance in Ashbery’s honor by the musician and poet Patti Smith (which I wrote about and posted a clip of a few weeks ago).
Polito’s warm tribute hails Ashbery as a poet of “freshness, curiosity, vitality, and rejuvenation” and singles out the 86-year-old Ashbery’s most recent work for high praise: “a number of my favorite John Ashbery poems have been written since Quick Question [his most recent volume of new poems], and are just starting to appear in magazines.”
“George Herbert once remarked on his desire always to ‘be new, tender, quick.’ His aspiration might constitute the closest 17th-century approximation of Frank O’Hara’s otherwise unsurpassable ‘Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible,’ from ‘In Memory of My Feelings.’
Both statements are, I suppose, prayers. Although I don’t ordinarily approach John Ashbery as a ‘religious’ poet in the tradition of Herbert, and Ashbery himself steadily resists the notion of any readymade aesthetic overlap among the different poets popularly subsumed into the ‘New York School,’ I can’t think of any other writer—any other man, really—who as vividly incarnates the virtues of freshness, curiosity, vitality, and rejuvenation sought by Herbert’s and O’Hara’s words.
I suspect I speak for every poet in this room when I say that for all of us, he is the epitome and model for how you keep your own art alive across the abrasions and joys of a lifetime. There is the surprising way, for instance, that whenever you encounter John, whether at a reading, party, or gallery opening, he has invariably just discovered a thrilling new film, novel, poet, song, or sly bit of news; and there’s the still more surprising and sublime way he manages to reinvent his poetry, poem by fresh poem, book by new book.”
You can read the rest of Polito’s piece here.