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.

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