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Thursday, April 30, 2009

John Ashbery talks to The Boston Globe

John Ashbery returns to Harvard on Thursday to receive his alma mater's Arts Medal six decades after he graduated. The 81-year-old poet has won virtually every major literary award, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. He spoke via telephone from his home in Hudson, N.Y. Here is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.

Q. How did you get interested in poetry?

A. I was about 15. I won a prize in a high school class. Time magazine used to have current-event contests. You had a choice of several books. The only book that appealed to me happened to be an anthology of 20th-century poetry. I started reading it and never looked back.

Q. Why is poetry important?

A. Its beauty is its impracticality. It's also a way of connecting with our lives in a way which I don't see any way of doing otherwise. It's not only the daily emotional life but also the life of our dreams.

Q. Cambridge's poet populist, Peter Payack, is asking residents to submit a few lines of poetry for a "community poem." Are ideas like this good for poetry?

A. I like the idea of many voices contributing to a single poem. The 19th-century proto-surrealist French poet Lautréamont once wrote that poetry should be made by everybody, and that sounds like what this project is carrying out.

Q. Do you have a favorite poet? Poem?

A. Let me see. (Long pause) One would certainly be John Donne. "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning." It manages to say everything.

Q. Your poetry has been described as difficult. How much work should poetry require of the reader?

A. I intend my poetry to be read without head scratching. I think of it as something very immediate like music, which embraces one without having anything to do about it. Of course, that's not the opinion of many critics of my work, but that's the way I see it.

Q. You were a contestant on "Quiz Kids" when you were 14 and loved "The Book of Knowledge" as a boy. What about the collection of information interests you?

A. I just have one of those minds that collects all kinds of intellectual lint.

Q. You are still writing poetry and last fall you had an exhibit of your collages at a Manhattan gallery. Could you please share some lessons of a long life?

A. I go back to Harvard and see all the same buildings and streets and rivers. It seems as though this was only a few months ago that I was there. I don't know that I have really accumulated any wisdom in my fourscore years. I feel as unprepared now as I was when I was a student. I guess I'm just an 80-year-old adolescent. Or 81.


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