Poet spends an evening at Penn

John Ashbery visited a class studying his work and read for a packed crowd yesterday at the Kelly Writers House.

The Daily Pennsylvanian
March 26, 2002

John Ashbery

John Ashbery visited a class studying his work and read for a packed crowd yesterday at the Kelly Writers House.

The Daily Pennsylvanian

Closing their eyes to increase their attentiveness, sighing at the inspirational lines and laughing at the humorous ones, over 100 students and faculty members got a taste of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Ashbery's work last night. After spending three hours with the Writers House Fellows seminar class yesterday afternoon, the famed American poet read his work to a packed reservations-only crowd at the Kelly Writers House.

Known for his modernist approach, the influence of surrealism on his work and his association with the poets and painters of New York City, Ashbery read poems like "This Room," "Merrily We Live" and "As Umbrellas Follow Rain," which is also the title of his most recently published collection.

Ashbery read from his two most recent books and explained the context and titles of some of his poems.

While he is a professor at Bard College in New York City and often interacts with students, Ashbery said after the reading that he enjoyed coming to Penn to participate in the Fellows program.

"I've been here many times, and I've always had a real good time and a real great audience here," Ashbery said. "It's a place where I have a real great comfort level."

Ashbery also said that he likes to read his work "when I think the people are enjoying it," and added that he was impressed by how knowledgeable the Fellows class was about his work.

Ashbery said he also appreciated the uniqueness of working in the classroom without actually having to play the role of professor.

"When I'm a professor, all the students are intimidated by me because I have to give them a grade," Ashbery said. He said that the informality of the classroom conversation allowed for the topics to flow easily.

English Professor and Writers House Faculty Master Al Filreis, who teaches the Fellows seminar class, said he was impressed by Ashbery's willingness to express his thoughts and feelings on his work and poetry in general, especially during the class.

"This is a poet who is usually somewhat shy or reticent, and yet, here at the Writers House this afternoon, he was forthright and open and passionate," Filreis said. "The students were much moved."

Students in the Fellows class said they felt privileged to have had the opportunity to talk to Ashbery about his work and then to listen to him read it.

"He's brilliant," said College sophomore Jacob Cytryn, who is also the chairman of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education. "He's hilarious. I think, for him, if you want to get a lot out of his poetry, you have to read it, but hearing him read it just makes me appreciate how beautiful his words sound and how immersed in language his poetry is."

Cytryn said while introducing Ashbery at last night's reading that he has been reading Ashbery's work for years and he was excited "to listen to the lyrical sounds of non-lyrical poetry... our own Ashbery moment is near."

While Cytryn said that many more than the 100-plus people who were able to make reservations for the event may have wanted to attend, he appreciated the intimate setting at the Writers House.

"I am a huge fan of this institution," Cytryn said, commenting on the Writers House. "The intimacy and the avant-garde nature of the building and what goes on here really helps to keep Ashbery and people like him in context.

"Even though he's so famous now that we could fit hundreds more people into his reading, it is important to remember that this is much more comfortable and much more real for both the readers of his poetry and him, the writer of it," Cytryn added.

English Professor Bob Perelman commented on Ashbery's stature and esteem in the literary world.

"His work is eloquent, ambitious, unpredictable and often very comic," Perelman said. "He's written some of the major poems of the last half of the century."

Perelman added that unlike some other notable poets, Ashbery has continued to write a great deal, despite having spent so long in the field.

"He's one of the most interestingly productive writers," he said.

Ashbery's visit to Penn will continue this morning, when a select group of students will have brunch with the poet at the Writers House. In addition, Filreis will moderate an interview with Ashbery that will be broadcast over the Internet.

To view video from last night's reading and for information on this morning's interview, students can visit www.writing.upenn.edu/~wh/webcasts.