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John Ashbery Headlines Lowell Poetry Reading

Pulitzer-winning poet reads from his latest work tonight

Boston University BU, Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet John Ashbery, Former Robert Pinsky Global Fellow Sophie Grimes

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet John Ashbery will read from his latest poetry collection, Quick Question, at tonight’s Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading at 6 p.m. at the Castle. Photo by Lynn Davis

John Ashbery has been a fixture on the American literary scene for so long, it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t writing. Since his first collection of poems, Some Trees, in 1956, he’s published 26 volumes. His latest collection, Quick Question (Ecco/HarperCollins), came out late last year to largely glowing reviews.

Ashbery has collected nearly every prize imaginable over his six-decade career. His most celebrated work, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, won the triple crown in 1976: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. He has also received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. And Ashbery was the first living poet to have his collected poems published by the Library of America.

Yet for all the acclaim, his work has often been described by critics as opaque, elusive, and difficult to read. His use of pronouns, in particular, has vexed many a reader (and critic), who has struggled to discern the identity of the “we” or the “I” or the “you” speaking in a poem. Even as great a poet as W. H. Auden, who selected Some Trees for inclusion in the Yale Younger Poet series, famously confessed later that he didn’t understand a line of the poet’s work. Ashbery says it is never his intention to make his work difficult. “My goal is to reach as large an audience as possible,” he says. “I do not go out of my way to be obscure or otherwise difficult.”

Now 86, he continues to write steadily, he says, “not every day, but I’m still writing at my usual pace.” Tonight, he will read selections from Quick Question as well as some new poems at the Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, followed by a reception and book signing, at the Castle. The semiannual event, which pairs a distinguished poet with a recent graduate of BU’s Creative Writing Program, honors Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Robert Lowell, 1947–48 US poet laureate, who taught Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and a number of other influential poets during his tenure at BU in the late 1950s.

Ashbery initially set out to be a painter, but switched to poetry in high school because writing came to him more easily than painting. He did, however, spend many years moonlighting as an art critic to help support himself, first for publications like ARTnews and the International Herald Tribune when he was living in Paris in the 1950s and early ’60s, and later for New York magazine and Newsweek. The experience influenced his work as a poet, he says, “if only by forcing me to learn how to write on deadline.”

He finds inspiration for his poems “everywhere, including old movies and overheard conversations.” The critic and writer Meghan O’Rourke, in an article for Slate, notes that “Ashbery becomes a kind of radio transistor through which many different voices, genres, and curious archaeological remains of language filter, so that the poems are like the sound you would hear if you spun through the AM/FM dial without stopping to tune into any one program for long.”

“When President Obama presented John Ashbery with the National Humanities Medal a couple of years ago, that was one more worldly honor for an essential artist who has won every national prize for poetry,” says Robert Pinsky, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English and three-time US poet laureate, “but his most significant, enduring honor is that young poets, for decades, have found inspiration in the artful freshness, alertness, and sophistication of his work.”

Boston University BU, Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, Sophie Grimes

Former Robert Pinsky Global Fellow Sophie Grimes (GRS’11) will read from new work at tonight’s event. Photo by Emily Grimes

Joining Ashbery at tonight’s reading is Sophie Grimes (GRS’11), who admits to being more than a little nervous at the prospect of sharing a stage with the elder poet. “My boyfriend had a pretty good analogy for what it feels like as a poet to introduce John Ashbery,” Grimes says. “He said, ‘If you were a band and were asked to open for the Rolling Stones, would you play some acoustic songs or would you pull out all the stops and do your best stuff?’” She plans to debut some poems she’s been working on, but says she is prepared to “throw in some of my greatest hits, if I need to.”

The Chicago-based Grimes recently had her first poetry collection, City Structures (Damask, 2013), published as an illustrated chapbook. Many of the poems are the result of two trips she made to China, first as an Oberlin Shansi fellow in 2007 and later as a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow following her graduation from BU, when she traveled through mainland China, Taiwan, and Korea.

“My experiences abroad permeate every aspect of my poetry,” says Grimes. “I try to embody the feeling of displacement and foreignness in everything I write.” During her first trip to China, she taught English to Chinese students and many of the poems in her book were an attempt to “react to the weird feeling I had while living and traveling in China. I felt distant from certain things, yet hyperaware of others.” Because her Mandarin “is not that great,” she frequently found herself having to say things in a roundabout way, which led to many lively conversations. She’s drawn to writing about travel, she says, because “the strangeness of being a stranger offers a fertile kind of built-in tension.”

Grimes values her experience in the Creative Writing Program, because all of her colleagues—students and faculty—lived and breathed poetry and had “carved out a place for it in their lives,” and expected her to do the same. “This is a good nudge for me whenever I complain about not having time to write or having more important things to do,” says Grimes. “‘What’s more important?’ says the historic Room 222 [the 236 Bay State Road classroom where Lowell taught]. Then I set aside some time and do the work-play of writing poetry.”

The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading is tonight, Thursday, October 3, at 6 p.m. at the Castle, 225 Bay State Road, followed by a reception and book signing. The event is free and open to the public.

The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Readings are funded by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred M. Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.

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John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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