Interview with John Ashbery conducted by Daniel Kane

DK: In "What Is Poetry" you write, "Trying to avoid / Ideas, as in this
poem ." Is it possible to avoid ideas in poetry?

JA: When one goes at ideas directly, with hammer and tongs as it were,
ideas tend to elude one in a poem. I think they only come back in when
one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a cat that will
rub against your leg.

DK: This makes me think about some student poetry I've read, in which
students decide before they have put pens to paper that they will
absolutely write poems about, say, their fathers hitting them on the head.
The results are often rather predictable narrative poems that describe what
happened and petition the reader to feel a certain emotion. I like your
idea of beginning a poem without really knowing what's going to come out of

JA: Also, if you write about your father hitting you on the head, you're up
against a lot of competition with people who are writing about exactly the
same experience. I used to tell students not to use certain subjects they
seemed to gravitate to almost automatically at their age, such as the death
of their grandparents. Grandparents tend to die when you're in high school
or college. I at least want to read about something I don't already know

DK: Can you tell us a little bit about the writing process behind "What Is
Poetry"? For example, we've got a "frieze of boy scouts from Nagoya." There
is also a mysterious "they" in the lines "Now they / Will have to believe
it / As we believed it."

JA: In my free-associating, I suddenly remembered visiting the town of 
Chester, England, which has ramparts all around it. I had a very cheap
ticket that had to be used up within a few days, so my friend and I ran
around the ramparts of Chester to get back to the station. We bumped
into a lot of foreign boy scouts, who impeded our trip. About the time I
was writing this poem, I decided to go up to the top of the Empire State
Building because it was a beautiful day and I hadn't done it in I don't know
how long. The elevator was full of Japanese boy scouts with badges of the
various cities they came from, one of them being Nagoya, a very large city
in Japan. So those things got connected just because of one's automatic
temptation to connect something with something else. "They / Will have
to believe it / As we believed it"-at that point I switched to school, and
"they" were the teachers, the authority figures. The thought got combed
out at school, just as your mother used to comb your hair in the morning
when you were running to catch the school bus. The teachers tried to
make everything simple and understandable, by combing out the snarls in
one's thinking.

DK: I'm glad you told us about the medieval town with the frieze of boy
scouts from Nagoya, because learning that you basically made this image
up out of a variety of events lets people know that they can make things up
in poetry. This way, one knows one doesn't have to rely on fact all the

JA: I hope students already know that! 

DK: I'm not so sure a lot of students do think that way. I remember having
writing teachers insist, "Write what you know!"

JA: But one doesn't know anything! That's the problem.

DK: Yes, that is the problem. I think orders like "Write what you know"
get interpreted to mean "Write only what you've actually experienced in
real life in real time." It's nice to know from you that we can pick and
choose among time, history, and imagination so that we can write a poem
that sounds good and feels good.

JA: Well, I think one can, though not everybody would agree.

DK: If a teacher stopped you on the street one day and said, "Mr. Ashbery,
whether you like it or not, I'm going to assign 'What Is Poetry' to my high
school students and tell them to write variations on it-help me find a
way to do this," what would you say?

JA: I'd like to have a teacher assign a poem that would be variations on one
of my poems. There would be no recipe for doing this-just free
associating, which is basically what I'm doing when I write. I use the poem
as a sort of launching pad for free associations.

DK: Can people still write about flowers without sounding flowery about

JA: I don't think there are any things that can't be written about in
poetry-it all depends on how it's done. I don't know if I've succeeded
in "What Is Poetry" in taking the curse off flowers. In fact, everybody likes
flowers. Why not bring them into the room with the poem? That particu- 
lar line "It might give us-what?-some flowers soon?" was something I
overheard someone saying. I frequently incorporate overheard speech,
which there's a lot of in New York City, much of which obviously doesn't
make very much sense when overheard. But it obviously makes a lot of
sense to the people who are talking. I overheard a boy saying that partic-
ular line to a girl in Brentano's bookshop where I was browsing. The "thin
vertical path" would be what suddenly appeared in your eyes as you open
them after looking at a broad field, and the line would be perhaps a trel-
lis or the field about to flatten out again and burst into bloom. I also like
it that the couple who were talking seemed to be lovers, so the line "It
might give us-what?-some flowers soon?" seemed to have special
meaning for them.

DK: I read "the thin vertical path" as representing predictable poetry. I
thought you were making a funny kind of editorial comment on poetry
that gives us the obvious-the "flowers" of conventional poetry.

JA: That's okay with me. It's okay to interpret poetry in a variety of ways.
In fact, that's the only way poetry is read, I think. We all interpret poetry
according to what we've experienced. Therefore everybody's interpretation 
is going to differ from everybody else's.

DK: Are there such things as wrong interpretations, or do you distinguish
more along the lines of imaginative interpretations versus dull,
unenthusiastic interpretations?

JA: It depends on the reader. If the reader is bored by his or her interpre-
tation, then I suppose it would be a boring interpretation. I don't think
it's a question of being right or wrong.

DK: You ended "What Is Poetry" with a question mark. Are there any
virtues in ending a poem with a question mark or some other sign of inde-

JA: I don't know that I would say there's a virtue connected with it, or
that one should set out to end a poem with a question mark-I certainly
didn't. I didn't know how it was going to end-I never do. But the ques-
tion mark leaves things up in the air, as opposed to slamming the book
shut and ending with an "experience" of the poem. I don't know whether
I do it a great deal. I once read a poem by the nineteenth-century Ger-
man poet Holderlin which ended with a comma. I thought that was a good
idea, and I immediately stole it. The Holderlin poem is in a collection
called Hymns and Fragments, translated by Richard Sieburth.

DK: Is there anything you want to add to our discussion of "What Is

JA: I wrote this poem and another one called "And 'Ut Pictura Poesis Is
Her Name,'" both of which deal in a playful way with the nature of poetry.
Right after I began teaching, when I was in my late forties, I wasn't used
to students asking me "Why is this a poem?" or "Why isn't this a poem?" or
"What are poems?" I never really thought about it-I'd just been writing
poems all these years. So, from thinking about the nature of poetry came
this admittedly slight and light partial answer to the question, "What is