The following post is part of our monthly series, “Literary Treasures,” which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”
John Ashbery, one of the most influential American poets of the 20th century, appeared at the Library of Congress on five occasions to read his poetry.* A recording of one of those appearances—Ashbery’s November 24, 1975, joint reading with former Poet Laureate Charles Simic, moderated by Stanley Kunitz—is available in the Library’s online Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, and is this month’s featured recording.
Ashbery—who died on Sunday—was known for his elusive poetry that often defied ready interpretation or understanding. Stanley Kunitz acknowledges this in his introduction of Ashbery (beginning at 34:24), but also notes that Ashbery’s “fluid ambiguities” are increasingly being praised (Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, published earlier that year, would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle prize). He then quotes Jonathan Cott, who wrote of Ashbery: “His verse has the quality of a dream which begs to be interpreted, since we dream it, and yet whose [most] fascinating and wondrous quality is that it resists being interpreted.” Kunitz concludes with the following assessment by literary critic Harold Bloom: “No one now writing poems in the English language is likelier than Ashbery to survive the severe judgment of time.”
Ashbery reads ten poems during the program, which I’ve timestamped below:
- “Two Scenes” (43:13)
- “Popular Songs” (44:35)
- “The Recent Past” (46:34)
- “A Blessing in Disguise” (48:07)
- “Soonest Mended” (50:00)
- “It Was Raining in the Capital” (56:11)
- “Worsening Situation” (1:00:03)
- “Street Musicians” (1:02:22)
- “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” (1:03:55)
- “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name” (1:13:36)
If you listen to the recording and come away wanting to hear and learn more about Ashbery’s life and work, a few starting points include:
- David Orr and Dinitia Smith’s obituary of Ashbery in the New York Times;
- Meghan O’Rourke’s 2005 Slate primer on how to read Ashbery’s poetry;
- Jacket2‘s compilation of Ashbery resources;
- and PennSound’s extensive collection of Ashbery recordings.
Look for a more personal take on John Ashbery soon by Poetry and Literature Center Head Rob Casper.
*In addition to his 1975 joint reading with Charles Simic, Ashbery recorded and discussed several of his poems in the Library’s Recording Laboratory on January 16, 1973; engaged in a joint reading with David Bottoms in the Coolidge Auditorium on February 24, 1987; read his poetry at a Library-hosted celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Academy of American Poets on September 29, 1994; and read his poetry, as part of a joint reading with Tony Towle, in the Library’s Mumford Room on November 8, 2001.