"Not that such a thing could exist, or if it didn't would certainly not be anything like an art, which can only exist by coming into existence, and then the rules may be drawn up, though it makes very little difference since no one will ever play that game again ...". John Ashbery, The New Spirit, pp 25-6
I've been reading Ashbery's Three Poems with a new attention & pleasure. It just so happens I also found a long video interview conducted with him by Al Filreis that seems to have popped up suddenly on YouTube.
Having Three Poems fresh in the mind makes me all the more intrigued by Ashbery's responses & what I detect as Al Filreis' polite frustration. Ashbery so very clearly won't play ball. Not, I think, out of cussedness or the inevitable side effects of old age. Rather because the questions are ... well ... beside the point. It's as if Filreis wants - expects, yearns - to bang his head against the wall, to strike some solid concrete resistance & in so doing prove a consoling depth & plenitude of meaning. Whereas, at each Ashbery response, he finds one after another of those Japanese shoji - each to a papery thinnesse beat. Ashbery doesn't recollect the particular line or poem; doesn't remember what he was thinking at the time; doesn't like this or that text now he looks at it again. Perhaps most telling of all is his admission that he probably writes his poems to forget them afterwards - which so easily sounds like a glib or pretentious remark but the more I read Three Poems the more it makes sense. Literally. Makes sense - & thus the quote I include above.
The writing is an opening up, a passage, a way of seeing thought take shape in language. Each instant offers a host of possibilities. To rewrite or 'improve' is by definition impossible. To ask what was intended at any stage is to misunderstand the nature of this form of composition - Ashbery becomes with every sentence his first reader already at a remove.
Right now, the two most insightful writers on Ashbery I've come across are Charles North (his essay in response to Harold Bloom's appropriation of the poems) & John Cage (his entire approach to composition rather than any direct statement about Ashbery's work).
North gets - celebrates even - the endless shifts of register & sincere insincerity, sensing the impossibility of ever being quite sure what to pin down. Or if you do, this is your decision, an (understandable) desire for some foothold or other.
Cage makes that great shift to the 'environment' & that radical questioning of what is or is not inherent to the work. What if interruption should become part of the very compositional process? ("You can feel the wind in the room, the curtains are moving in the draft and a door slowly closes" - pointless to ask: was this a memory, John? Or were you quoting? Or did it really happen? Or did you plan to put this sentence there? Or what do you mean by this?).
"So there is no need to wait to be transformed: you are already." (p 23)