John Ashbery: On The Inside Looking In by Roger Gilbert

Hudson: A gloom one knows. Dining room.

“Some poets invite us into their homes. W. B. Yeats’s Thoor Ballylee and Robinson Jeffers’s Tor House figure prominently in their poetry while remaining coldly majestic edifices. Not so Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment, whose rooms and objects spark the verbal fireworks of ‘Tender Buttons,’ or W. H. Auden’s Kirchstetten cottage, lovingly displayed from bathroom to attic in ‘Thanksgiving for a Habitat.’ James Merrill’s Stonington residence plays an intimate role in his work, especially the flame-colored salon in which the poet and his partner contacted the spirit world. Attentive readers of A.R. Ammons could practically draw a map of his backyard at 606 Hanshaw Road, though they’d be hard pressed to describe the inside of the house. Donald Hall’s Eagle Pond farmhouse is a vivid presence in his poems, helped along by copious prose sketches. John Ashbery is not exactly that kind of poet. His poems contain little in the way of conventional description. When he does paint scenes, whether interior or exterior, the odds are good that he’s making them up (see ‘The Instruction Manual’). And yet touring the poet’s magnificent stone and clapboard house in Hudson, New York, one has an eerie sense of déjà-vu. It’s not that any of the objects or artworks on display appears in Ashbery’s poems. Rather, we feel we’re inside the imaginative space from which the poems issue. One might have to go back to Pope’s famous glass-encrusted grotto at Twickenham to find an environment so meticulously crafted to embody a poet’s sensibility. David Kermani has suggested that the house is a kind of ‘physical poetry. . . a three-dimensional Ashberian milieu,’ and one can indeed find many points of contact between that milieu and the richly layered environment Ashbery creates in his poems. Above all the house shares the poetry’s ambidextrous spirit, balancing past and present, familiarity and surprise, sophistication and perversity, pathos and humor, all with the same off-handed elegance the poems possess. Ashbery bought the Hudson house in 1979 but only began living there in the mid-eighties. Its establishment thus coincides with the emergence of what many critics have recognized as the distinctive aesthetic of his later work. Ashbery had always been preoccupied with inner spaces, but before Hudson those spaces often seemed to possess an oppressive sameness. …”
Rain Taxi

Hudson: Much has been said about Ashbery’s fondness for conjoining specimens of high and pop culture—Ariosto and Happy Hooligan, Milton and Daffy Duck. Upstairs sitting room.

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