‘Alcove’ to ‘Zymurgy,’ poet Ashbery delights

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Esteemed American poet John Ashbery probably echoed the late-February feelings of many members of last night’s sizable Salomon 101 audience with the first line of his poem “Alcove.”

“Is it possible that spring can be once more approaching?” he asked.

In a lecture presented by the Literary Arts Program, Ashbery read from his recent published and unpublished work. Though the 81-year-old poet walked haltingly, his reading style was very brisk and colloquial, with a hushed, speech-like quality.

Ashbery is regarded as one of America’s greatest living poets. His 1975 collection “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and he is also the recipient of Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships.

Ashbery is a familiar figure at colleges and universities, and not just because his poems are widely read and studied. In 2007, the campus television channel mtvU named Ashbery its poet laureate. Excerpts from his work were featured on the station and its Web site.

The poems Ashbery presented at last night’s reading traded in striking, unexpected images, like “spiffy white legs” and “different-seeming buzzards.” The film world emerged as a theme in several of the newest poems, one of which consisted entirely of a litany of B-movie titles.

Ashbery provided little in the way of context for his poems, aside from their titles and, occasionally, a few words explaining an obscure word or reference.

Before reading one work, “Zymurgy,” Ashbery said that the title came from his memory of a two-volume dictionary. The spine of the second volume read “Pockmark to Zymurgy.”

“I’m not sure what it means, exactly,” he said, getting a laugh from the audience. “For me, it’s always been the last word in the dictionary. I feel that’s all I need to know about it.”

Afterward, audience members stood in line to have books signed by the poet.

Lisa Donovan GS said she was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Ashbery’s reading.

“I had heard that he was a bad reader, and he was a good reader,” she said.

“It’s definitely encouraged me to read his earlier works and see his evolution,” said Timothy Nassau ’12, who had been unfamiliar with Ashbery’s poetry.

For Professor of Comparative Literature Forrest Gander – who said Ashbery’s influential poetry “changed the art in English” – listening to the writer read his own work was very different from the individual reading experience.

“The way he reads is very flat. It’s so understated,” Gander said. “When you read the work, it’s much more like a roller coaster in terms of tone and pitch.”

“It was tremendous,” said Jacques Khalip, assistant professor of English. “It was a great experience.”

The next Literary Arts Program-sponsored reading, on March 5, will feature Australian novelist Peter Carey.

And, just for the record ­- zymurgy is the study of fermentation and wine brewing.