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Johns: Ciardi and Ashbery

October 20, 2012

Leave it to me to find cause for complaint, in this case about those two stellar Johns of poetry of whom I am not worthy to touch the hems of their garments. (This is an allusion to a story in the New Testament about Jesus and the woman with the flow of blood. Google it, since I'm not feeling charitable enough to 'splain, as Ricky Ricardo used to say; if you don't know "Ricky Ricardo," Google "I Love Lucy.")
 

The two Johns I mean to complain about are Ciardi and Ashbery, the former a poet and Dante translator who died in 1986, the latter an equally famous poet who doesn't live all that far south from where I do which explains the restaurant anecdote to follow.

So I'm reading chapter one in John Ciardi's How Does a Poem Mean? which is a title I've always thought cloying, but he wrote it in the 1950's so maybe saying 'How' instead of 'What' didn't seem so cutesy-ish then. In any case, I was totally in sync with what he had to say--in spite of his tedious cross-examination of a Keats' sonnet--thinking that I would have my freshmen/sophomore students read this essay as a way for them to domesticate and even enjoy reading poetry. What, ho! I thought (because that's how I think sometimes).

But then I came to this sentence (the italics are his): "No matter how serious the overt message of a poem, the unparaphraseable and undiminishable life of the poem lies in the way it performs itself through the difficulties it imposes on itself. The way in which it means is what it means."

Sorry, Charlie. That's what's wrong with some poetry. It gets so wordy it loses all meaning. That's how I see it, anyway.

So--back to Ashbery. I mean, I can read John Ashbery. I just don't get John Ashbery. Only his French translations. And that's because I can read French. So I get what he's translating. Just not when he's writing in English.

Anyway, here's the restaurant story: I'm waiting for a friend for lunch at a somewhat trendy place in Hudson, New York--which in some circles is somewhat trendy. Ashbery enters restaurant, checks in at desk, annoyed already with no apparent cause other than the need to check his reservation.

"Ashbery," he says, "Party of eight."

"Certainly," the server says, and leads him to his table where a group of black-clad, serious-faced, variously pink-haired and mildly-pierced folks slowly assemble. John Ashbery remains unfazed and seemingly displeased. Fame doesn't suit a poet, perhaps?

But what do I know? Or should I parrot John Ciardi--how do I know?  

My friend arrives. She is a ghost-writer. I am, if not a failed writer, then an unknown one. We have saved our pennies to eat our lunch at this trendy little spot with its locally-sourced cheeses, speck and beers. I don't mention that John Ashbery is just over there at the next table, glumly peering into some mineral water. What would be the point? We will never be obtuse enough to be that famous nor famous enough to resent eating here. 

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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.