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John Ashbery’s Music Library:
A Playlist

 

Karin Roffman

 

During the more than thirty years that the American poet John Ashbery (1927-2017) served as an art critic for New York Herald Tribune, Art News, Newsweek, New York and other publications, the highest compliment he gave to a work of art was that it achieved “the condition of music.” He borrowed the phrase from Walter Pater’s The Renaissance (1873) and invoked it to pinpoint qualities existing in art beyond language. Early in his career, the critic David Kalstone described Ashbery’s The Double Dream of Spring (1970) as a kind of music: “one can’t ignore the difficulty of these poems, deliberately forcing the reader to learn something like a new musical scale.” For Ashbery, prose could never achieve what great poetry occasionally might, a “condition of music” to which his works aspired.

Ashbery first used the phrase in a review of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation (July 1957 Poetry magazine) as a synonym for a kind of pleasure. The twenty-nine year old Ashbery (writing his very first review) described the “beautiful and meaningful” experience produced as “one perseveres in this difficult poem.” Stein’s one-hundred-and-fifty-page work was akin to “the late novels of James…which seem to strain with a superhuman force toward ‘the condition of music,’ of poetry.” From this review on, “the condition of music” served as a shorthand for enjoyment as a value distinct from (and more significant than) critical analysis. This idea was always connected to music and “[t]he way music passes, emblematic / Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it / And say it is good or bad” (“Syringa,” Houseboat Days, 1977).

Ashbery was not a trained musician, but he had a musician’s ear, which he developed further by listening. He first heard songs on Sundays, accompanying his grandparents to the famous St. Paul’s Church in Rochester (which had a great organ) or the more modest St. John’s in nearby Sodus where the Ashbery family lived on a fruit farm. His first exposure to classical music was through movies. The first composer he became obsessed with was Felix Mendelssohn after hearing a compilation of his music in Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) at the age of eight. Music and poetry were inextricably linked in his mind from that day forward, and he wrote his first poem immediately after seeing the film. Soon after, he asked for piano lessons and learned to read music with a local piano teacher he saw intermittently during elementary school.

Ashbery’s listening widened and deepened at the age of fourteen. The prize for winning a local Quiz Show competition was a high-quality radio, and he was suddenly able to get the New York City stations from his bedroom. During this first year of constant listening, everything he heard was for the first time and felt revelatory. Years later, he wrote to his friend Frank O’Hara that “it irks me to claim something is greater than another thing which I love.” Listening to whatever played on the radio for a year, he developed catholic tastes, thinking a Tchaikovsky Symphony the greatest piece ever in one moment and a Rameau Suite the next. The implicit argument in Ashbery’s descriptions (and an explicit one in his life and letters) was enthusiasm as a productive mode of learning.

His parents gave him his first record player for his fifteenth birthday, and he started a record collection that would grow for the rest of his life. During college, he sometimes even sold his clothes to buy new records when he was short on money, and he spent an entire weekend of his senior year in his dorm room creating a card catalog for his collection. He was never quite as meticulous again, but he knew what he had, to whom he had lent things and what he wanted to buy next. Distinctions between composers and periods mattered to him, so much so that the wry punchline of plenty of jokes in A Nest of Ninnies, the hilarious 1969 novel he co-wrote with the poet James Schuyler, depend on knowing that the pieces being mixed up sound nothing alike. (“Alice looked away, humming to herself. Mr. Turpin’s ears rose like a rabbit’s. ‘The Elgar cello concerto, surely,’ he said. ‘No, Boccherini’s. Are you fond of music?’”)

When he died on September 3, 2017, he had a collection of over two-thousand recordings. (In 2018, independent scholar Alisa Goz spent a year creating an Excel spreadsheet containing all of them.) About one-hundred of these were of American popular music: Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the B-52s, to name a few. The rest were Western classical music, though an eclectic and varied collection within that frame, representing all periods and all instruments.

 
 

Listening was Ashbery’s primary activity, but he shaped and strengthened this listening through reading about composers and pieces. With his near-photographic memory, each record’s liner notes—an extremely high-quality, and now lost, art of writing about music by musicologists and composers—placed at his fingertips an enormous number of facts about each piece, which he dropped seamlessly into notes that were otherwise primarily descriptive and appreciative. While a student at Harvard College, he began to attend live Boston Symphony concerts, and their program notes became equally important to his musical self-education.

It wasn’t until he met the poet Frank O’Hara, a pianist and former music major, at the end of his senior year at Harvard, however, that he finally began to write down what he heard, discovering first in O’Hara and then in Schuyler and the painter Jane Freilicher friends as open to and excited by all music as he was. Nearly every letter he wrote to O’Hara for the next eighteen years mentions some new enthusiasm for a composer or a piece. Almost all of the latter half of Ashbery’s 1950s letters from Paris, in fact, are devoted to his discovery of and obsession with the Second Viennese School composers: Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and especially Anton Webern. The composer and conductor Pierre Boulez’s enthusiasm for this music was crucial to Ashbery’s, whose excitement, in turn, inspired Schuyler and O’Hara. To listen to atonal music the way he heard it—moving, emotional, beautiful—was to hear it anew.

Unusual for a non-musician, Ashbery talked about pieces of music from the inside out, as though he had also played them. Listening to Sviatoslav Richter play Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5: “Do you know the Concerto? It’s sublime and very complicated and glacial. One interesting thing about it is that it’s in five movements, of which the third is more or less a repeat of the first only played faster with things left out—as though someone were giving you a rapid, condensed rundown of something you had just heard but were obviously too dumb to take in.” In another period of enthusiasm, this time for Scriabin Piano Sonatas, particularly the ninth: “one of the summits of piano writing—there are no themes, just a lot of insane banging—I can hardly wait to put it on loud for you.” His analyses were always at the service of sharing a performance or a piece he liked with others and encouraging, but never insisting, that they like it too.

His enthusiasm for listening was more than just a pastime since it directly affected what he wrote. He made this point wryly in a note to a friend in the early 1980s: “I always think the record has an effect on what I write when I use one as a writing desk. In this case the record is Offenbach’s Les Bavards.” The witty remark sounded nonchalant, but it nonetheless demonstrated most of all that he knew each piece of music in his collection well enough to hear it in his head and imagine its particular effect on the written word. This seepage from music to poetry was something he also wrote about in poems. In “Märchenbilder” (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1975)—a title that invoked Robert Schumann’s Fairy Tale Pictures (circa 1851) for viola and piano—music reshaped a moment: “Sometimes a musical phrase would perfectly sum up / The mood of a moment.” In “A Wave” (A Wave, 1984), music redirected a life: “perhaps a few moments of music of such tact and weariness / That one awakens with a new sense of purpose.”

 
 

In other poems, music was all-encompassing. In “Clepsydra,” the question which opens the poem, “Hasn’t the sky?” is echoed in a second question that links space and sound: “Why shouldn’t all climate and all music be equal / Without growing?” (Rivers and Mountains, 1966). In “Syringa,” Orpheus—his song “engulfed in…blackness,” unable to endure “the evil burthen of the words”—cannot bear how “music passes” him by, especially knowing that he created it. He wants to be able to stop time not to save Eurydice as the myth suggests, but so that, in Ashbery’s telling, he can exist inside music. To be able to be in the middle of sound—something akin to, but more than, being surrounded by it—is to know it completely and produce it at the same time, which is the only thing Orpheus truly desires, something the musical poem manages to describe while simultaneously showing its impossibility. Orpheus’s despair, which is also poetry’s, emerges from his realization that music is the language that words aspire to but can never achieve. Ashbery’s poetry is gently, darkly humorous about the fact of poetry’s total failure; it has to make do with its musical aspirations because that’s all there is.

In 1978, when Ashbery purchased a big Victorian house in Hudson, New York, his music library expanded once again. Technologies were shifting rapidly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and he not only bought many of the same records again so he could have copies in Hudson, but he also kept multiple copies in new formats: cassette tapes and then CDs.

In the interest of the Webernian concision that Ashbery sometimes aspired to, here is a listening playlist (below) of what I consider the ten crucial pieces from Ashbery’s expansive music library:

 
 

1. John Cage, Music of Changes (1951)

(45 minutes)

Listening to this piece in a live concert attended by John Cage (1912-1992) and performed for the first time by the pianist David Tudor on January 1, 1952, Ashbery found a way out of a long period of writer’s block. The music unfolded so gradually, with no break between any of the movements. Listening, Ashbery suddenly had access to his spirit and his thoughts for the first time in a year. He went home afterwards and began to write poems again.

When he describes the experience of living in “The New Spirit” (Three Poems, 1972), he offers what he heard in Cage’s piece: “Which is why the intervening space now came to advance toward us separately, a wave of music which we were, unable to grasp it as it unfolded but living it.”

When he describes the experience of writing in “Late Echo” (As We Know, 1979), he offers what he heard in this piece: “it is necessary to write about the same old things / In the same way, repeating the same things over and over / For love to continue and be gradually different.”

Ashbery heard Music of Changes repeatedly in concerts over the next half century. In his Norton Lectures (1989-90), he described the particular kinds of freedoms and permissions to communicate that he heard in Cage’s music: “[o]ne can’t help recalling Cage’s remark, ‘I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is / poetry / as I need it’” (Other Traditions, 2000).

 
 

2. Anton Webern’s Symphony Op. 21. (1927-28)

(9 minutes)

Ashbery loved the music of Anton Webern (1883-1945), a composer who, like Ashbery, has been misheard as purely intellectual rather than primarily emotional.

In 1950, shortly after Ashbery first heard Webern’s music, he decided to rewrite a long poem. Inspired by the composer’s concision (Webern’s “3 cello pieces,” for example, lasts only eleven measures), he lopped off most of the poem and renamed its 10 brief lines “The Hero” (Some Trees, 1956).

When Ashbery lived in Paris during the spring of 1956, he attended Pierre Boulez’s La Dumaine Musicale concerts nearly every weekend; in fact, he responded to friends’ queries about why he hadn’t sent them any new poems lately with a question: “What with Webern concerts at 11 A.M. and the like, is it any wonder I haven’t written anything?” (The Saturday night La Dumaine Musicale concerts repeated on Sunday morning at 11:00am.)

Both the quality and intensity of Ashbery’s listening to Webern grew as a result of these concerts. He heard Webern’s Symphony Op. 21 in a live performance for the first time in 1956, conducted by Boulez, and he became transfixed by it. Webern’s remarkable nine-minute piece was a full symphonic work, but condensed in two primary ways: in two rather than four movements; and in nine instruments (2 clarinets, 2 horns, one harp, and one string quartet) rather than a full orchestra, like the Mahler or Beethoven symphonies that Webern loved most.

Ashbery naturally had a terrific ear, but even those with years of ear training have trouble understanding exactly what Webern is doing, especially in the first movement of this complicated 12-tone piece. Ashbery always wanted to know more, and he not only bought the recording of what he had just heard (released by La Domaine Musicale also in 1956) but listened to it obsessively over the next few months while writing “Idaho” (The Tennis Court Oath, 1962). The record’s program notes were helpful, for they described how Webern created the piece from a “rigorous construction” of the 12-tone row. Beginning the piece with 25 bars in which no note from the row exists anywhere else but the exact register in which it is first introduced, Webern nonetheless creates a double canon and other remarkable and complicated symmetries throughout the movement.

Like Op. 21, “Idaho” adhered to a rigorous process of creation. “Idaho” took a four-part structure (a 1925 melodramatic novel—A. Hamilton Gibbs’ Soundings—that his parents owned and which he found in his childhood home) and condensed it into a two-part poem. Ashbery began the poem using two prose paragraphs of his own invention written in the highly ordinary language and style of the novel. Ashbery’s inventiveness is most apparent, however, in the small changes he makes to the ordinary structure he confines himself to, changing the entire idea of what something is – and by relation what it means – by altering as little as possible, for example, by cutting off the “m” in “telegram” to end a line.

I think of “Idaho” as Ashbery’s first 12-tone piece. Webern’s sound—and, by relation, the sound of “Idaho”—is described by Michael L. Friedmann in his book Ear Training for Twentieth-Century Music (Yale University Press, 1990): “The main radical tenet of twentieth-century harmonic language is that any collection of pitch classes can be structural, and that no sound is consigned a priori to dissonant status.” In tonal music, stability and instability have to do with the ear’s desire for resolution, which is treated as a “structurally superior entity.” In the Second Viennese School composers that Ashbery became most passionate about, particularly Webern, no chord has “a greater harmonic ‘value’ or self-sufficiency” than another one, so none can act as “a characteristic and central sonority for a piece.”

“Idaho” seems disjunctive because it has no “central sonority,” but its structure can be comprehended because, like Op. 21, it has a rigorously organized “collection of pitch classes.” In post-tonal music enharmonic equivalents such as A# and Bb, for example, are treated the same and renamed pitch class 10. There is no separate spelling for that note, regardless of what note you played immediately before or after. In “Idaho,” words must be understood as functioning within this post-tonal system. The most obvious example of this structure comes in Section 2 in the comparison of two lines: “Carol lowered the” and “thoughts and low red voices.” These two phrases use the very same sound, “low(e)red” (a word from the novel), to create two seemingly different phrases, which should be, in fact, understood as the same. In this example, Ashbery is suggesting an enharmonic equivalence between these two: they are the same pitches spelled differently. In this post-tonal poem, a sense of coherence emerges because of (not in spite of) the equivalence of the sound.

 
 

3. Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 (1927)

(26 minutes)

Of the Second Viennese School composers that Ashbery appreciated so much, he preferred Webern and Berg to Schoenberg. Nonetheless, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1975), emerged during a period when Ashbery was listening to Schoenberg’s atonal 3rd and 4th String Quartets. This fact may be surprising since of all Ashbery’s poems, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is one of the most overtly narrative, structured in large part around moments of seeing and thinking about one painting, Parmigianino’s early 16th century work, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

The conversation between the 16th and the 20th centuries, however, was a crucial part of Ashbery’s thinking, and he found affinities between the rigorous way that these two periods used complicated structures as provocations for invention (see Orlandus Lassus as well). Ashbery started listening to late Schoenberg in earnest at La Domaine Musicale concerts in the mid-fifties. By the late fifties, however, he was listening to early Schoenberg, telling O’Hara that Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie Op. 9 is “pre-atonal, I should imagine, but daffily original all the same.”

Fifteen years later, while writing about Parmigianino’s 16th century painting, he preferred the atonal Schoenberg, particularly the 3rd quartet, which is a big and loud piece (written the year of Ashbery’s birth and also just before Webern’s Op. 21). The rules governing the use of pitches in the quartet, rules which Schoenberg had created and adhered to, were akin to what the use of the convex mirror created for Parmigianino, a challenge: how to create something so humane as a self-portrait from a set of nearly impossible limitations?

Ashbery’s poem recognizes the fact of these limitations as central to the yearning to be free embedded in both painting and music: “The soul has to stay where it is, / Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane, / The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind, / Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay / Posing in this place.”

 
 
 

4. Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) Amadis Suite (1684)

(just the Prologue, about 3 minutes)

Johann Casper Fischer (1656-1746) Orchestra Suite in G Overture (1695)

(3 minutes)

These two pieces together create the score of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), music which Ashbery liked so much he searched widely for it (never finding the Fischer, in fact, since both pieces are listed in the film as by Lully). He kept seeing the film in part to hear the music. He wrote to O’Hara about both: “It is very grand and moving and so ascetic that it almost comes out on the far side of ascetism near the Elysian fields of hedonism. The very discreetly employed background music is by Lully, and there is an absolutely beautiful montage of many pockets being picked to the accompaniment of a stately Lully tune. It’s in black and white for wide screen viewed through tears.”

Lully, though born in Italy, became the central figure of the French Baroque and ruled over the robust music and theatre scene in Louis XIV’s “lavish” court (1643-1715). Ashbery’s large collection of French Baroque records included Music at the Court of Louis XIV (1967). Its extensive program notes not only describe how Lully “presided over French opera, tyrannically yet with genius,” but how he trained the next generation of composers, including Marin Marais (1656-1728) and François Couperin (1668-1733), whose music Ashbery also collected. The theatre of Corneille, Racine and Moliere—the group of playwrights whom Ashbery referred to as his favorites of all modern French “poets”—emerged during this period.

It’s hard not to hear the grace at the end of Bresson’s film—and the similar elegance in those brief moments of revelation at the end of some Ashbery poems—in the “balance, clarity and rational line” of these pieces. Bresson titled his film using the American word “pickpocket,” but for Ashbery, who saw the film (and all Bresson’s films) repeatedly in Paris, it was a thoroughly French experience and a crucial part of his ongoing “learning process” there, a place full of clarity and contradictions brought immediately to life in hearing this music.

 
 

5. Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), Chansons Villageoises (1942)

(11 minutes)

Ashbery loved French music, especially works with a lighter, airier sound than their Germanic counterparts. Part of his early attraction to sharing this preference was that such an opinion was perceived by the Harvard intellectual establishment as totally foolish. Ashbery’s friendship with O’Hara, in fact, began not only through the discovery of their mutual “preference for Poulenc over Wagner, for Sécheresses over Tristan,” but also (and even more) because of their equal daring in saying so aloud.

This French section would include pieces by, at the very least: Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704); Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894); Henri Sauget (1901-1989); Jean Françaix (1912-1997), all of whom Ashbery collected widely.

Poulenc was always a favorite. Ashbery played the Sonata for Horn, Trumpet, and Trombone loudly on a visit home, delighting in his father’s apt complaint that the music “sound[ed] like the Pultneyville fireman’s band rehearsing.”

Ashbery especially loved Poulenc’s songs. At his memorial at the 92nd Street Y (December 13, 2017), the remarkable baritone Dashon Burton performed the first song (“Bonne journée”) in Poulenc’s setting of Paul Éluard’s “Tel jour, telle nuit.”

 
 

6. William Byrd (circa 1540-1623), Mass in Three Voices (circa 1590s)

(17 minutes)

In 1995, Ashbery gave a rare reading of “William Byrd” (And the Stars Were Shining, 1994) at the 92nd Street Y. He introduced his poem with two insouciant comments: that it is a work which begins in prose and “devolves into verse” and that the poem has nothing to do with the English High Renaissance composer named in its title.

Both points were playfully misleading. In fact, Ashbery had been listening to Byrd’s music for twenty-five years by the time he wrote this poem, buying many records, then cassettes and collecting multiple performances of the Mass for Three Voices especially.

“William Byrd” opens with a prose description of music as thought, happening within a space both limitless and complete: “With the precision of one who fights, slowly, the shadow of the battering ram of absolute knowledge behind him, in a barrel-vaulted, hallowed space…” The ellipses are the poem’s as the effort to explain an experience of knowing things that may have no verbal equivalent trails off.

The poem picks up this subject again towards the end, this time in verse: “Suddenly, shambling / she comes up to me, a thing partly of architecture / of how it would like to be the basis for all partaking, communicating.” Byrd’s music is behind this description of filling space the way music fills space in a church. Music is again embedded in the final four lines of the poem: “singer” heard within “stinger” and “music” in “magic,” in a cycle that repeats: “Hold my stinger as a stranger and I will be presently. / I haven’t filled out the forms. / I can see heaths and coasts; / in them we become magic and empty again.”

 
 

7. Orlandus Lassus [or Orlando de Lassus] (1532-1594), Missa Osculetur me (circa 1530)

(21 minutes)

In the title poem of his final published volume, Commotion of the Birds (2016), Ashbery briefly defends the late sixteenth-century composer “Lassus” as one who “paradoxically” seems more modern than many of those who came later.

Ashbery listened so often to both Byrd and Lassus, that he eventually left his cassette tape of Lassus’s Missa Osculetur me inside the box with the cover of Byrd’s 3 Masses.

Although its funny didactic style seems to suggest otherwise, “Commotion of the Birds,” is about music and its ways of communicating. The soundtrack to this marvelous poem is beautiful if also a little bit silly: Luca Marenzio, Lassus, Carissimi and Charpentier together make an odd musical quartet.

The poem doesn’t directly mention, however, what the poem’s title also invokes: the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). Messiaen had been Pierre Boulez’s teacher and a composer whose many pieces include birds and bird sounds—Catalogue d’Oiseaux, among many others—performances that were central events at La Domaine Musicale concerts and pieces Ashbery continued to hear and collect later. The first Paris concert Ashbery attended, in fact, was the premiere of Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques (1956).

The poem reinforces Ashbery’s idea—one shared by Webern and Berg, especially—that the baroque and modern periods are closer together than those that came between them. The poem makes this point parenthetically: “(The baroque has a way of tumbling out at us / when we thought it had been safely stowed away. / The classical ignores it, or doesn’t mind too much. / It has other things on its mind, of lesser import, / it turns out.)”

Viewed through its 16th and 17th soundtrack, the poem’s precise, moving, vivid image of modern aesthetic isolation has a Bresson-like grace: “It’s good to be modern if you can stand it. / It’s like being left out in the rain, and coming / to understand that you were always this way: modern / wet, abandoned, though with that special intuition / that makes you realize you weren’t meant to be somebody else.”

 
 

8. Ben Johnston (1926-2019) Quartet No. 4 “Amazing Grace” (1973)

(12 minutes)

Ashbery discovered Ben Johnston’s microtonal music—that is, the pitches are in between and the music sounds out of tune, but so consistently that the effect is freeing and beautiful—in the mid-1970s. Ashbery listened to the quartet for the rest of his life; the word “microtones,” in fact, makes a crucial cameo in Ashbery’s “A Wave” (in the 24th stanza). Waves had always been connected to sound for Ashbery, making a “hum” he associated with the music of Lake Ontario and the kind of thoughts he had while listening to that sound as a child. (His grandparents had inherited a small home on Lake Ontario in Pultneyville, six miles from the Ashbery farm, which became the place where Ashbery escaped to, during weekends and childhood summers.)

In the encounter with the long lines of “A Wave,” “microtones” serve as more than a synonym for the way these words produce the experience of living that the poem describes. It is a sound equivalent for what happens as incremental shifts reshape a landscape or a sentence over time almost invisibly. These changes are “beneficial perhaps but only after the last one / In every series has disappeared, down the road, forever, at night.”

 
 

9. John Ashbery, “Litany” (As We Know, 1979)

(85 minutes)

Recorded: John Ashbery and Ann Lauterbach, 1980

“Litany,” with its two simultaneous voices, is a piece written, in other words, in counterpoint, a technique central to music and impossible to implement in language. Its three sections—that is, movements—together create a work that is the closest Ashbery ever came to composing a concerto.

Ashbery was inspired by hearing the March 21, 1975 premiere of Elliott Carter’s “Duo” (1973) for Violin (Paul Zukovsky) and Piano (Gilbert Kalish). Unlike the way most chamber music is performed, this performance required the two players to remain far apart from one another on stage, visually highlighting the distinction between the voices in a way that Ashbery loved. He later bought recordings of the performance and listened to it at home.

While Ashbery was thrilled by the piece (beginning “Litany” shortly after), his compositional ambitions were already evident much earlier: in two works he wrote for solo piano. The first (now lost) he put on paper in grade school shortly after learning to read music; the second, a one-page work, “Op. 1, No. 1,” he gave as a gift to Frank O’Hara at the end of college. Ashbery always wanted to write more music; “Litany,” in which the two voices composed separately in their own lines are performed together, literally achieves “the condition of music.”

 
 

10. J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Goldberg Variations

(45 minutes)

Ashbery refers to Bach’s Goldberg Variations directly but obliquely. He references the piece in “The New Spirit” when he mentions the folk song “Kraut and Rüben,” translating the phrase impishly as “the daily turnips and radishes.” It is the song which Bach quotes in the 30th variation “with god-like laughter” as the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick puts it in his 1958 Archiv record liner notes, which Ashbery kept.

Bach’s transcendent masterpiece offers a musical analogy for Ashbery’s vast poetic oeuvre. The theme is played twice, exactly the same, at the beginning and the end of the piece, but because of the waves of experience produced by the 30 variations in between, the repeated theme sounds and feels totally different at the beginning and at the end.

Two crucial aspects of Ashbery’s life as a poet are embodied in this musical example: that enjoyment can be an aesthetic engine and that recurrence is a form of originality. In other words, one can build a life of art by doing the same thing again and again: asking the same questions, looking at the same sky, “repeating the same things over and over / For love to continue and be gradually different.”



Excerpts from John Ashbery’s letters and other unpublished texts quoted here are copyright @ 2021 by JA Projects, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by arrangement with Georges Borchardt, Inc.