Yesterday (April 20, 2016) marked the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month. This annual event, created by The Academy of American Poets, has become the largest literary celebration in the world. Click here to discover what poetic events are happening near you.
In that spirit of celebration, today’s piece is by a most celebrated poet. John Ashbery has published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won The Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and just about everything else I can think of.
Ashbery approaches the blank page the way a modern artist might approach a blank canvas. The words from his broad palette are applied with a bold hand. He’s incisive about human nature, sometimes poking fun at himself in a way that shows us our own funny human frailties as well.
This meandering stream-of-consciousness piece from the sixties is one of my favorites. Enjoy!
My Philosophy of Life Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough for another thought in my head, I had this great idea-- call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly, it involved living the way philosophers live, according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones? That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like. Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests, would be affected, or more precisely, inflected by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy, or worry about children and old people, except in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe. Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back, revealing a winding staircase with greenish light somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions. At once a fragrance overwhelms him--not saffron, not lavender, but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something William James wrote in some book of his you never read--it was fine, it had the fineness, the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone. It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore. There are lots of little trips to be made. A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well, messages to the world, as they sat and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles, and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort? I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought-- something’s blocking it. Something I’m not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared. What was the matter with how I acted before? But maybe I can come up with a compromise--I’ll let things be what they are, sort of. In the autumn I’ll put up jellies and preserves, against the winter cold and futility, and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well. I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks, or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part, as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea of two people near him talking together. Well he’s got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him-- this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know. Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas. That’s what they’re made for! Now I want you to go out there and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too. They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one... -- John Ashbery