Today is the 90th birthday of John Ashbery, who was born on July 27, 1928. At LitHub, Adam Fitzgerald and Emily Skillings have “invited 90 of his dearest friends, collaborators, and admirers to pick a favorite line from his vast published corpus…and write about it in 90 words or fewer.”
It’s a wonderful selection of meditations, reminiscences, and commentary on many of Ashbery’s most enduring, moving, funny, and beautiful lines, with illuminating remarks by quite the roster of Ashbery fans and readers, including Rae Armantrout, Susan Howe, Jim Jarmusch, Paul Muldoon, Alice Notley, Don Share, and Helen Vendler.
Here, to celebrate this monumental and happy occasion, is “The Task,” which was the first poem in Ashbery’s 1967 volume The Double Dream of Spring. It’s an old favorite of mine and one of Ashbery’s many poems about “preparing to begin again,” about the need to keep moving onward, especially when there is “so much in the night to come” and “reaches to be attained.”
They are preparing to begin again:
Problems, new pennant up the flagpole
In a predicated romance.
About the time the sun begins to cut laterally across
The western hemisphere with its shadows, its carnival echoes,
The fugitive lands crowd under separate names.
It is the blankness that follows gaiety, and Everyman must depart
Out there into stranded night, for his destiny
Is to return unfruitful out of the lightness
That passing time evokes. It was only
Cloud-castles, adept to seize the past
And possess it, through hurting. And the way is clear
Now for linear acting into that time
In whose corrosive mass he first discovered how to breathe.
Just look at the filth you’ve made,
See what you’ve done.
Yet if these are regrets they stir only lightly
The children playing after supper,
Promise of the pillow and so much in the night to come.
I plan to stay here a little while
For these are moments only, moments of insight,
And there are reaches to be attained,
A last level of anxiety that melts
In becoming, like miles under the pilgrim’s feet.
Happy 90th birthday to John Ashbery!