Until he went off to college, John Ashbery, who would become the leading American poet of his generation, saw himself more as a painter than as a poet. He began art lessons at 11, four years before he started to write poetry. Sometime around 16 — perhaps inspired by reproductions of works by surrealists, such as Max Ernst, that he saw in Vogue magazine — he began to make collages.
Like all of the New York School poets, he studied the visual arts throughout his life. It is somewhat easy to overlook this in the case of Ashbery, whose poetry is not primarily visual or imagistic, aiming predominantly at the ear rather than the inner eye. But he was fascinated by visual art. He thought, talked and wrote about it, befriended painters, fantasized about being one himself and incorporated their methods and techniques into his writing.
“John Ashbery: They Knew What They Wanted” does readers the great favor of letting us peer into Ashbery’s second, less known artistic career. His collages are presented alongside a selection of his poems, allowing us to see how much they have in common, to understand how each medium came to occupy a natural space in this prolific and influential artist’s creative landscape. And the book invites readers, even those who are most familiar with his poetry, to see the poems in a fresh light. Indeed, although “They Knew What They Wanted” collects work that spans a period of more than half a century, it feels so new that turning these pages is an experience of constant pleasurable surprise.
To make his collages, Ashbery cut up and combined postcards, comic books, board games, all manner of pictorial ephemera. In large part, his materials consisted of the paper bric-a-brac of childhood: illustrations from early 20th-century children’s books and catalogues of children’s goods, superheroes and sinister villains from comics, diagrams that appear to be drawn from outdated health manuals aimed at youth. These are presented in combination with more adult matters: reproductions of classical paintings, postcards of hilariously unappealing vacation spots, nudes and sexualized images drawn from art, pornography or the contested hinterland that lies between.
In “Diffusion of Knowledge” two agitated cartoon superheroes strike an action pose in front of the Smithsonian Institution. “Late for School” — an early collage dating from 1948 and one of my favorites — consists of two panels suggesting a cartoon narrative. In the first, a young boy about to dash out of the visual frame is being pursued by a large dark bird while two girls, possibly his sisters, look on. In the second frame, the boy has returned, but a metamorphosis has taken place: The boy’s head has been replaced by the head of the bird. The sly, subversive and disturbing wit on display here will feel familiar to readers of Ashbery’s poems.
In juxtaposing his found images, Ashbery superimposes broad themes: most frequently, perhaps, themes of innocence and experience. Ashbery, who was gay, grew up in a small New York town in the 1930s and ’40s; his relationships with his parents and others were complicated and at times strained by their attitudes toward his homosexuality. In “Après un Rêve,” an early-20th-century boy gazes directly at the viewer while displaying, in his lap, a wooden frame through which we see an erotic scene involving a man and a bare-breasted woman. That the frame is skewed with respect to its subjects suggests that the boy is holding not a picture but some kind of window or portal opening onto another reality. A later piece, “To the City,” seems to depict a pair of young men on what is perhaps their first erotic road trip.
In an interesting interview conducted by Ashbery’s friend and fellow poet John Yau — who also contributes a brief introduction to this volume — Yau remarks that collages like “To the City” are “much more gay than you’ve ever been in your written work. . . . You perhaps let your guard down, in a way, in the collages.” This seems right, as far as it goes, though one would not want to overstate the point. Yau is correct that the collages can feel more straightforwardly personal than the poems — this is, indeed, part of the book’s great charm — but, like the poems that accompany them, the collages ultimately resist any definitive interpretation, suggesting instead a plurality of proliferating meanings.
These unique and amusing collages are well served by this beautifully designed and produced book, which is permeated by the sense of a half-remembered, half-postulated childhood. That Ashbery died last September makes it all the more potently bittersweet. Though his poems sometimes leave readers with the impression of an aloof postmodern trickster, those who knew Ashbery say he was something else entirely. The publication of “They Knew What They Wanted” will help bring us closer to an artist whose work was what we sometimes forget poetry can be: a whole lot of fun.
Troy Jollimore’s most recent book of poetry is “Syllabus of Errors.”
By John Ashbery
Rizzoli Electa. 128 pp. $35
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