On Ashes’s Birthday — Frank O’Hara Writes “To John Ashbery”

 

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Today is John Ashbery’s 89th birthday, and for the occasion, here are two poems Ashbery’s close friend Frank O’Hara wrote for him over 60 years ago.

Over the nearly twenty years of their friendship, O’Hara wrote many poems dedicated to and about Ashbery, whom he affectionately called “Ashes.”  First, here is “Ashes on Saturday Afternoon,” which O’Hara wrote in 1952 (with the original title “Poet to Poet”). In it, he begs his friend and fellow poet to provide him with some inspiration — “you, dear poet,” he says, “must save me from the void’s external noise.”

Ashes on Saturday Afternoon

The banal machines are exposing themselves
on nearby hillocks of arrested color: why
if we are the anthropologist’s canapé
should this upset the autumn afternoon?

It is because you are silent. Speak, if
speech is not embarrassed by your attention
to the scenery!  in languages more livid than
vomit on Sunday after wafer and prayer.

What is the poet for, if not to scream
himself into a hernia of admiration for all
paradoxical integuments: the kiss, the
bomb, cathedrals and the zeppelin anchored

to the hill of dreams?  Oh be not silent
on this distressing holiday whose week
has been a chute of sand down which no
factories or castles tumbled: only my

petulant two-fisted heart.  You, dear poet,
who addressed yourself to flowers, Electra,
and photographs on less painful occasions,
must save me from the void’s external noise.

And here is the tender 1954 poem “To John Ashbery,” in which O’Hara imagines himself and Ashbery reading their “new poems to each other / high on a mountain in the wind,” like a pair of ancient Chinese poets.

To John Ashbery

I can’t believe there’s not
another world where we will sit
and read new poems to each other
high on a mountain in the wind.
You can be Tu Fu, I’ll be Po Chü-i
and the Monkey Lady’ll be in the moon,
smiling at our ill-fitting heads
as we watch snow settle on a twig.
Or shall we be really gone? this
is not the grass I saw in my youth!
and if the moon, when it rises
tonight, is empty —a bad sign,
meaning “You go, like the blossoms.”

If you’re interested, I discuss both of these poems, and what they suggest about Ashbery’s friendship with O’Hara, in my book Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry.

Happy 89th birthday to John Ashbery, who has been saving so many of us from the void’s external noise for many decades now!

 

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