2. Light Glyphs: John Ashbery
‘… Movies show us ourselves as we had not yet learned to recognize us—something in the nature of daily being or happening that quickly gets folded over into ancient history like yesterday’s newspaper’
Ashbery, ‘The System’ (Three Poems, 1972)
The American poet John Ashbery has accumulated a vast and unique body of work: with over twenty volumes of poetry; several plays; a collaborative novel (A Nest of Ninnies, written with James Schuyler); collected prose and art criticism; two collections of French translations (in addition to translating Rimbaud’s Illuminations, Pierre Reveredy’s Haunted House, much of Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros and Pierre Martory’s The Landscapist); and, most recently, re-imagining a ‘lost film’ screenplay for Canadian director Guy Maddin. Widely translated, influential and bedecked with almost every award (including a Pulitzer and, more recently, the National Medal of Arts awarded by Barack Obama in 2011), Ashbery’s poetry continues to beguile, enchant and confuse with its amorphous ventriloquism of American life.
In the spring of 2009, the Harvard Film Archive organised ‘John Ashbery at the Movies’, a series of films curated in celebration of his passion for cinema. This included filmmakers who have acknowledged Ashbery as an influence (Abigail Child, Nathaniel Dorsky, Phil Solomon) and films chosen by Ashbery himself. In addition to the active role of film in his poetry, one of the other (many) reasons that this programme came into being was Ashbery’s illuminating prose on cinema. His essays, on Jacques Rivette, the phenomenon of Fantômas, Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim, and Edgar G Ulmer’s Detour, are all insightful, clearly wrought and downright infectious in their palpable enthusiasm. This conversational impulse between mediums can be traced back to early collaborations with the filmmaker and photographer Rudy Burckhardt, to the close friendship with Frank O’Hara (who in turn often collaborated with filmmaker Alfred Leslie), the invigorating artistic circles gathering around the Tibor de Nagy gallery in 1950s and 60s New York, and, in Ashbery’s formative and frequent cinema trips during his time living in Paris.
However, it is not simply as a point of superficial reference that cinema emerges but in the shifts of attention that a reading of his poems can induce. For instance, the syntactic disjunction of The Tennis Court Oath (Ashbery’s boldly experimental second collection, 1962) has been discussed by critic Daniel Kane as a poetic equivalence of the editing techniques of surrealist film. The productive instability of both ‘surrealism’ and ‘film’, as concepts and experiences, generates a mobile ambiguity that Ashbery’s poetry has long embraced. Rather than simply referring to film, it is instead in the ability of his poems to enact and inspire experiences that, moving between understanding and its sensation or a moment and its expression, poetry and cinema can both be brought into permeable awareness. The crossing of artistic boundaries and contexts, gleefully tickled or blurred, is also clearly at work in Ashbery’s interest in collage – which is where this discussion begins…
Do you feel your engagement with visual collages (having now had four exhibitions to date) has changed at all since the summers spent with Joe Brainard, and even earlier experiments throughout college?
I suppose my engagement with collages has expanded now that I am able to show them at a gallery. I’ve been working on them quite a bit this summer and hoping there will be another show.
Could you possibly say a bit about the collaged play, The Inn of the Guardian Angel (using New York Times obituaries and Hollywood fanzines) that you apparently lent to Guy Maddin during his Seances project?
He and I were fans of each other's work before we ever met and conversed. His recent Seances is beautiful, and of course I love Archangel, My Winnipeg and The Saddest Music in the World, one of my all-time movie favorites. Yes, The Inn of the Guardian Angel is an abandoned project. The title taken from a children’s book by the 19thcentury French (or Russian) children's author Contesse de Ségur. I abandoned it and sent it to Guy telling him he could “strip mine” it for his next movie. I don’t think I wrote anything but the “How to Take a Bath” section in his last film. The actor in that film [Louis Negin] who tells an off-color joke (one that I heard in grade school many a year ago) is a sort-of objet trouvé of Guy's, whom he, Guy, has used in a bunch of films.
Let’s talk more about film ...
I've always been a fan of movies, and, even more than that, I think the idea of them has somehow informed my work. Do you know my poem ‘The Lonedale Operator’ in my book A Wave? I realized one day that nobody had ever written a poem on the all-important subject of the first movie they ever saw, so I proceeded to do so. It sort of wobbles away from that subject towards the end as my poems tend to do!
Could you say a bit about ‘John Ashbery at the Movies’, the programme of films coordinated by Haden Guest and Scott Macdonald at the Harvard Film Archive?
First off, ‘John Ashbery at the Movies’ was quite interesting to me, as I had forgotten some of the films and not seen others. The younger filmmakers who were apparently influenced by me were particularly appealing, notably Abigail Child, who is famous but whom I didn't know before then, and I especially liked Phil Solomon’s film The Exquisite Hour. Also the Busby Berkeley and Daffy Duck films were just as I remembered them. I was a little disappointed in a French film called Adieu Léonard, which I had seen many years ago in Paris and remembered as a bizarre and delightful comedy. It was just OK. It was made during the Occupation and has some of the creepy brilliance of many of the films of that time. (One I particularly recommend is Called Douce by Claude Autant-Lara, a 19th Century romantic tear-jerker that features the famous character actress Marguerite Moréno as an obnoxious old rich lady).
I once read somewhere that you recommended The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (Michael Weldon), do you still have this? I have a copy (as a result of that recommendation), it’s an absolute treasure-trove of trash! I love it. Do you have any other books about or on film that have been important to you?
I hope I do still have a copy of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, though I haven’t seen it around lately. I can’t think of other books on film that have been important, except for the Hallowell guides and Leonard Maltin’s guides for catching films on TV. That book was useful when I wrote a poem, “They Knew What They Wanted,” where every line was a movie title that began with “they.”
Are there any other poets that share your particular taste in movies? Or poets whose work flirts with film in ways that interest you?
Frank O’Hara and I both were on the same wavelength with regard to movies. Also John Yau has written an essay on going to the movies with me, which I haven’t read in a long time, but is quite probably very informative. Robert Polito writes interestingly about film in his poetry.
Two of your favourite films, On Approval (1944 and Dead of Night (1945), showcase the charms of British actress “Googie” Withers (Georgette Lizette Withers) …
By coincidence I saw On Approval and Dead of Night just a few weeks ago on TV. The marvelous channel Turner Classic Movies had a sort of mini Googie festival, which also included It Always Rains On Sunday, which as its title would suggest is rather dreary. I first saw Dead of Night sometime in the late forties, at a time when I used to view movies serially. I probably saw it around 20 times along with such other faves as René Clair's Le Million and Clive Brook’s On Approval, maybe my all-time favorite. Bea Lillie was magnificent as the wealthy spinster Maria Wislack and Googie Withers perhaps even greater as the nice person in the movie. It’s funny about Dead of Night. When I first saw it in Boston in the 40s the golf links sequence wasn’t shown, I had to wait until my 16th or 17th viewing in order to see it. Googie again gives her all, especially when she is about to be strangled by her husband and looks in the antique mirror to discover a strange interior and manages to break the mirror just before her husband, whose name momentarily eludes me, almost does her in. I forgot to mention Cocteau’s Orphée, which was also part of my compulsive cinema-going.
Having written with affection on Val Lewton’s films (produced for RKO pictures), specifically The Seventh Victim (1943), I was wondering if films from the 40s seem to retain a certain resonance or significance for you, and if so, why?
I suppose 40s films have a certain “resonance or significance” for me, perhaps because that was the period of my adolescence when I was starting to go out and see things on my own and draw my own conclusions about them. The Seventh Victim is one of my all-time favorite movies, not just for its dark and forbidding atmosphere but for the sort of endearing clunky-ness it was made with. The totally obscure actress Jean Brooks exerts a mysterious magnetism.
There seems to be a certain way of appreciating a film that relates a sense of Surrealism to interpretive reception and not the film’s design, often a more potent experience than watching any self-declared ‘Surrealist’ film. In prioritising our own attentions as viewers, as opposed to a film’s original intentionality, certain details become lyrical: you describe the portrayal of New York in The Seventh Victim in this way, and the background décor and genius loci of Feuillade’s Fantômas films. Can you think of any other films that have struck you in this way…arguably all film, in the right moment or frame of mind!?
Offhand, a film I saw last night for the first time, again on TCM, a 1946 film noir titled The Dark Corner, starring Mark Stevens, Lucille Ball (in her pre-Lucy days--she was quite good in a straight role) as well as reliable villains Clifton Webb and Kurt Kreuger. Actually, the boundary between surrealist films and just any films is sort of undefinable. That's what draws us to movies I guess. I'll try to remember some partially surreal films for you. There is a very good short one called La Perle, written by the surrealist poet Georges Hugnet. More recently there are of course the wonderful films of Jacques Rivette, of which I am particularly fond, especially Out One/Spectre and Céline and Julie Go Boating. And of course Guy Maddin, whose surrealism is closely linked to his extreme nostalgia for old films.
In a 2002 interview with Mark Ford, you made a very interesting observation in which you related the ‘disintegration’ of Language poetry to that of Surrealism – suggesting ‘there’s a certain hard kernel that can stand the pressure for only so long, and then it starts to decay, giving off beneficial fumes.’ Are there any poets who particularly stand out for you, in their reaction to, or incorporation of, this fruitful ‘disintegration’ of Surrealism?
I've always felt that most surrealist poetry is disappointing when compared to the vague feelings that the word surrealism conjures up, even in daily, TV man-on-the-street interviews— “Hurricane Sandy was really surreal.” This admittedly inchoate concept is curiously more useful than the glacial surfaces of Breton and Éluard. I do love the poetry of Jacob and Reverdy, but they weren't “officially” surrealists, as far as I know. Perhaps they would be “poets who particularly stand out in their reaction to, or incorporation with this fruitful disintegration,” though they seem much less decadent than that would imply.
‘to communicate only through this celluloid vehicle that has immortalized and given a definitive shape to our formless gestures; we can live as though we had caught up with time and avoid the sickness of the present, a shapeless blur as meaningless as a carelessly exposed roll of film.’
Ashbery, ‘The System’ (Three Poems, 1972)