Tonight at the New School auditorium on West 12th Street, I went to a mass poetry reading in honor of John Ashbery, who was there, having made his way in from the side door right where I was sitting. (It was my second official celebrity sighting of the day, having shared an elevator ride with Chris Rock and his film crew posse earlier.) Right behind Ashbery was Billy Collins, strolling into the room, whom I've seen before, but it's always a treat to share room space with him.
I knew the Ashbery name and read some of his stuff in school, but none of it really stuck with me or affected me very deeply. So I attended this event more on the idea that there are people out there who truly respect his work and that there would be so many other poets in attendance.
The setup of the program was that each poet, appearing in alphabetical order, was to read one of Ashbery's works and then read one of their own, but as with any room full of artists, some eventually broke from that rule. Some read only a selection by the honoree. Some read their work first and then an Ashbery poem. One guy (David Shapiro) gushed about how Ashbery was the most amazing poet ever, and how he remembered everything that the man had ever said to him as if it were received wisdom from on high (my analogy, not his). Shapiro said, "[David Lehman] asked me not to give anecdotes and I won't," even as he was giving anecdotes. Later, he said of Ashbery, "I've always wanted him to get the Nobel Prize, but now that would be nothing," which evoked laughter from the audience.
So because of this devolving setup, we in the audience found ourselves alternately clapping in the wake of Ashbery's work, or sitting on our hands while we waited for the individual poet to read their follow-up piece, or clapping loudly for an especially good poem by a reader (e.g., Collins), or breaking our rule and clapping between the Ashbery poem and the reader's own verse after especially good ones by the honoree, or otherwise when Shapiro started clapping insistently.
It was all very funny, and while I read poetry and know Collins' work well, I still felt like there had to be various hidden dynamics in play throughout the program.
Collins read a poem I've heard him do before called "January in Paris," in which he aims to skillfully and hilariously explode the maxim by Paul Valery that says, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned." It's a real showstopper to read aloud because it opens with these riffs on Frenchness and then it leads into an anthropomorphic take on Valery's quote that is at once a witty put-down and a fantasy worthy of any little boy writer who ever dreamed of having women swoon at his words.
Of course, Collins occasionally ends up being lambasted for somehow dumbing down the art of poetry by aiming for a more populist voice or going for big laughs. A guy sitting behind me hinted at such critiques, but couched it in the disclaimer, "Hey, that's just what the internet told me."
I haven't had time to do any internet research of my own, but here are the Ashbery poems I liked and intend to read again: "At North Farm," "To a Waterfowl," "The Problem with Anxiety," "Memories of Imperialism," "Title Search," and "My Philosophy of Life." And here are the poets who are new to me and whom I liked hearing: Douglas Crase, Vicki Hudspith, Deborah Landau, James Longenbach, Ron Padgett, Robert Polito, James Tate, and Dara Wier.
In all there were 24 poets on stage and an Ashbery in the front row. It would've been nice to hear him read some of his own stuff, but this event was part of a three-day Ashbery festival, and I guess they're saving him for later.