JOHN ASHBERY| TIMOTHY DONNELLY | ADAM FITZGERALD
Moderated by Robert Polito
September 19, 2013
LIVE from the New York Public Library
Celeste Bartos Forum
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Good evening. Good evening. My name is Paul Holdengräber, and I’m the Director of Public Programs here at the New York Public Library, known as LIVE from the New York Public Library and as all of you know here, my goal at the Library is to make the lions roar, to make a heavy institution dance, and when successful, as tonight, to make it levitate.
Welcome to the second evening of our Fall LIVE from the New York Public Library season. I’m delighted tonight to be in the company of poets, three generations of poets, John Ashbery, Timothy Donnelly, and Adam Fitzgerald, in a conversation moderated and modulated by Robert Polito, the brand-spanking-new president of the Poetry Foundation. For tonight I would like to thank also Robert Weil, formerly executive editor at Norton and now at the revived and revivified imprint of Liveright & Co.
What a season we have ahead of us, ending with a conversation between Junot Díaz and Toni Morrison on December 12, and working backwards, December 10 Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Gilbert, November 18, Alice Waters and Kermit Lynch, October 29, Niko Muhly and Ira Glass, October 25, Lorrie Moore, and speaking to week after next, September 30, Jesmyn Ward, and next Wednesday I will be speaking with Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian and very much else that you should find out by tuning in and joining our e-mail list. Simply go to
It is my great pleasure to announce and welcome LIVE from the New York Public Library’s first-ever season-long presenting sponsor, Morgan Stanley. We are thrilled to have them onboard for the entire fall season and are truly grateful for their support of LIVE and of the Library.
We are also, I am told, live tweeting our events this season and invite you to follow us, whatever that might mean—and here I’m not sure really what I’m saying—you need to use the hashtag #LIVENYPL I’m sure many of you know what I am saying but I do not. (laughter) So live tweeting events throughout the fall, all I can say is oh what joy.
Speaking of tweets, many of you know that for the last seven or so years I’ve been asking the talent who come and grace us with their presence onstage to give us a biography of themselves in seven words, a haiku of sorts, and given that we’re talking about this, a tweet. John Ashbery’s seven words are: “There’s a message for you. Who, me?” Timothy Donnelly’s seven words: “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous.” (laughter) Adam Fitzgerald’s seven words: “The New Jersey of contemporary American poetry.”
And finally I turn to Robert Polito, the president of the Poetry Foundation, the founding director of the graduate writing program at the New School, with many poetry collections to his name such as Hollywood and God and Doubles, who will briefly and properly introduce the evening and the three generations of poets and speak to them after they have read. Last time I spoke about John Ashbery on this stage was with the English psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips, who quoted Ashbery: “The worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about.” Robert Polito has his work cut out for him. Please welcome Robert to his role tonight, once as moderator and I hope instigator. Here are his seven words: “Dorchester, Quincy, Cambridge, Manhattan, and Michigan Avenue.” To begin us tonight, Robert Polito.
ROBERT POLITO: So thank you, Paul. It’s my most pleasurable task briefly now to usher in the readings of the evening. Poets are often sorted generationally for critical or journalistic expedience, however multiform and various their individual styles and accomplishments. Think of the metaphysicals, the romantics, or even the New York School. As Timothy Donnelly, the middle poet chronologically of tonight’s distinguished trio, once proposed in an interview with Guernica: “Reading poems of the past to get a sense of the way in which an era’s psyche worked, what weighd on it and how it pushed back.” Yet as Donnelly also remarked, in a sort of Eliotic zeitgeist counterbalance, “Our moment contains the traces of every moment that came before it.”
So for me, then, one of the most conspicuous intersection points for these three poets, each of them among the most gifted, ambitious, audacious, formally and lexically dexterous of their respective literary coevals, is how they all blur any convenient generational assumptions and categories. One of the legendary aspects of John Ashbery, for instance, is his impossibly wide acquaintance with prior American, British, French, and other European poetries, major or minor, to impose a distinction he rejects. In his elegant 2000 Norton lectures, The Other Tradition, with their loving reclamations of John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Raymond Roussel, Laura Riding, and so on, are just one notable indication of his range and spirit.
Yet Ashbery is no less legendary for his generosity to younger and emerging poets, promoting their work and speaking in interviews and public conversations about his keenness to engage and be influenced by new poetry. As he described Timothy Donnelly for the TLS, “the poetry of the future, here today.” Such slippery and vivifying temporal restlessness—yesterday, today, and tomorrow, all in the same room and there’s little you can imagine not happening—animates all three of tonight’s poets. So when in his most recent book, The Cloud Corporation, a corrosive and gorgeous probing of empire, capitalism, and poetry, Timothy Donnelly writes these lines: “The clouds part, revealing an apology for clouds implicit in the air where the clouds had been recently witnessed rehearsing departure. Our heartfelt phrase in the push of the airborne drops and crystals over water, over time. How being made to think oneself an obstruction between the observer and the object or objects under surveillance or even desired.”
When he writes those lines, we hear the distinctive Donnelly signatures—obstruction, surveillance, witness, rehearsing, object, desired—while we glimpse in a distant rear-view mirror Wallace Stevens and perhaps also to my ear the John Ashbery of “The System” or when Adam Fitzgerald in “The Late Parade,” the title poem of a debut as incandescent and headlong and masterly as any I know: “A glitter in the dromedary dawn with cold rubles, the old cyclone boasts come what may, sir. Like a silly curlicue for instance that you call August, it too had a way prescient and plunderable, a mix of corsage and assemblage, or coconut if you can imagine it.”
Again you hear in these lines, inside the Fitzgerald brio and yearning, the swagger and loss, echoes of Hart Crane and to my ear again also the Ashbery of “As One Put Drunk into a Packet Boat” and “Your Name Here” and when Ashbery himself writes these days in “Breezeway,” a poem published in the New Yorker this past May, “Someone said we needed a breezeway to bark down remnants of super storm Elias jugularly.Alas it wasn't my call. I didn't have a call or anything resembling one. You see I have always been a rather dull-spirited winch. The days go by and I go with them.”
When you read this, you catch not only the unmistakable Ashbery about-faces, deflections and skidding locutions but also the sly undertones of writers who came after him, maybe James Tate, maybe Mark Ford, and maybe also the two younger poets reading tonight. As Ashbery recently recounted, “I enjoy reading the work of younger poets who at one time may have been influenced by me but have decided to throw this off and strike out on their own. This is how poetry continues to get written, of course.”
Such relentless, resourceful, inventive, and original repurposing, across languages, tones, forms, and subjects, is the great legacy of only our boldest and most enduring poetry. So please join me now in welcoming first John Ashbery, then Timothy Donnelly and Adam Fitzgerald.
JOHN ASHBERY: I’m going to read some poems from my last book, Quick Question, and then a few more recent ones. This one is called “Words to That Effect.”
The drive down was smooth
but after we arrived things started to go haywire,
first one thing and then another. The days
scudded past like tumbleweed, slow then fast,
then slow again. The sky was sweet and plain.
You remember how still it was then,
a season putting its arms into a coat and staying unwrapped
for a long, a little time.
It was during the week we talked about deforestation.
How sad that everything has to change,
yet what a relief, too! Otherwise we’d only have
looking forward to look forward to.
The moment would be a bud
that never filled, only persevered
in a static trance, before it came to be no more.
We’d walked a little way in our shoes.
I was sure you’d remember how it had been
the other time, before the messenger came to your door
and seemed to want to peer in and size up the place.
So each evening became a forbidden morning
of thunder and curdled milk, though the invoices
got forwarded and birds settled on the periphery.
Here in the museum we do not invite trouble,
only establishment woes, sort of. We can bet farther
and classier with no returns. Sometimes late at night
cars droned and paled: Splurge and repent—
wasn’t that the idea? It was your initiative
that brought us here, through the difficult part
of a city. Some angels
seemed to teeter on the wooden fence.
Were we all they knew?
Or are we part of their mind-cleansing
ritual, necessary and discardable?
Doesn’t that make more sense?
Less than an hour before our return from the lake
trees blossomed like shells exploding,
the landscape sucked in its breath,
taking its time as always.
I meant to speak to your mother about it,
but never forgave her for not being here, and drab,
the way mothers are supposed to be,I think. Too many applications of the rule ensue. There are too many, always with us
under the tree that stands on the lawn
but is no longer here, as if to prove it was a dream,
a different time slot.
“The Short Answer”
I am forced to sleepwalk much of the time.
We hold on to these old ways, are troubled
sometimes and then the geyser goes away,
time gutted. In and of itself there is
no great roar, force pitted against force that
makes up in time what it loses in speed.
The waterfalls, the canyon, a royal I-told-you-so
comes back to greet us at the beginning.
How was your trip? Oh I didn’t last
you see, folded over like the margin
of a dream of the thing-in-itself. Well, and
what have we come to? A paper-thin past,
just so, and more’s the pity. We regurgitate
old anthems and what has come to pass, and why
dwell on these. Why make things more difficult
than they already are? Because if it’s boring
in a different way, that’ll be interesting too.
That’s what I say.
That rascal jumped over the fence.
I’m wiping my pince-nez now. Did you ever hear from
the one who said he’d be back once it was over,
who eluded me even in my sleep? That was a particularly
promising time, we thought. Now the sun’s out
and its raining again Just like a day from
the compendium. I’ll vouch for you,
and we can go on scrolling as though nothing had risen,
the horizon forest look back at us. The preacher
shook his head, the evangelist balanced two spools
at the end of his little makeshift rope. we’d gone too far.
We’d have to come back in a day or so.
I think the origin of this poem was in the lines, “Why make things more difficult than they already are, because if it’s boring in adifferent way, that’ll be interesting too.” That was something that Susan Sontag said to me once when we were both writers on tour in Poland and we were summoned to go to an avant-garde Japanese ballet at the Warsaw Opera House. (laughter) I said, “I don’t think this is going to be too interesting,” and she uttered those lines which have become a sort of mantra for me ever since. And it was quite interesting, actually.
“A Voice from the Fireplace”
Like many of my titles, this one is stolen from a movie, actually an unknown movie that nobody has ever seen, including me, from about 1914, I think.
Like a windup denture in a joke store
fate approaches, leans quietly. Let’s see . . .
There was moreover meaning in the last clause,
meaning we couldn’t equate
from what was happening to us down the block.
We approached with some hesitancy:
Let “I dare not” wait upon “I would.”
Wasn’t it April? Weren’t things more likely to last
in this or any season? Rhymes we like.
More than rhythm, they provide a life preserver
for embarrassing sorties. Um, someday we’ll be grown up too,
the desk lights not cancel the barge
as it approaches the corner of avenues.
sweated that out. It amounts to self-importance.
Whether the sea is a vernacular one
only heroes can describe. Why don’t you pluck me one?
Seems they all rushed to the other side
of the deck, causing alarm.
Wind shriveled the rags that were left.
Hold on a minute, we’ll get you aloft.
No sense taking up time with vellum sunsets,
he hears, and cannot stay. The whitish, gluey smell
of the forest imbibes our earnings in a dream.
Egg whites dry at room temperature.
In my mature moments I was robotic like you
but never canceled my interest.
We all attempt starting out, yet few undergo
the first few days of orientation lightly.
Which is funny, I mean with so many around to project
enlightenment or entertainment. If you live
in a wren house you’ll quickly understand what I mean.
That, needless to say, was the last time
I heard from them. I continue to get their flyers
in the mail but the project remains uninhabited.
Flowers and goats cram the entrance with something
you can see over. The orange sea propels itself
lightly forward, ever in quest of spectators,
but you can only do just so much in the way of self-formation.
I hadn’t expected it to be otherwise,
yet it doesn’t seem right. Neither is it unjust,
only pro forma. Nights imply seasons
and much in the way of impish narrative, while in daylight
it’s a matter of getting flush with the pavement.
Don’t forget to check every box
on the front door and leave change for the milkman.
Too bad they spotted us. Like I say,
no jury will ever convict he or I. Off you go then.
An egg is a puzzle, a tree a piece of that puzzle.
I’ve had a pleasant but uneven time.
My helpmates could aver as much. Let us know
how much we owe you. The balloon is ascending
above ferns, teacup chimneys, striped stockings.
So long training wheels. I’m gone for three weeks at a time.
“Postlude and Prequel”
Would I lie to you? I don’t know what to say to you,
and the season is coming into season just now
with long-awaited words from back when we were
friends and still are, of course, but the tides
pursue their course each day. Perturbing elements
listen in the wings, which are coming apart at the seams.
Is it all doggerel and folderol? A cracked knowledge?
This is better than the other overlooked good
that dried up a while back and whispers.
The results, if any, won’t last too much longer
and I meanwhile am on my way to correct you
about the tickets and their availability.
We pitch and stiffen, elbowed by traffic mysteriously
descending the other lane of the avenue
as lamps burst in many-benched Central Park.
I’ll read just a few recent ones.
“Listening to Her”
We were arguing about whether NBC was better than CBS.
I said CBS because it’s smaller and had to work harder to please viewers.
You didn’t like either that much but preferred smaller, independent companies.
Just then an avalanche flew overhead, light blue against the sky’s determined violet.
We started to grab our stuff but it was too late. We segued.
Yet in another era the revolutions were put down by the farmers, working together with the peasants and the enlightened classes. All benefited in some way. That was all I had to hear. Whatever.