One of the pleasures of being alive is reading John Ash.
Think of a prize-winning poet, someone you think of as a poetry-household-name: that’s how good John Ash is and how well-known he should be. I have a strong suspicion that none of this means a jot to him, which makes me enjoy his work even more.
I first came across his work in the great Cliff Yates‘s great book of teaching poetry, Jumpstart, which contains a marvellous poem of faux-instructions of Ash: ‘Some Words of Advice: After Hesiod’. The poem opens :
Never believe the words you hear in popular songs.
Conversely, believe them all,
even the ones about changing the world and living forever.
This is a microcosm of many of Ash’s procedures: the importance (or complete irrelevance) of words; a relish in artefacts of popular culture; and a profound sense of decay. Most of all, these lines have a conversational lightness of tone, a characteristic he shares with the late Kenneth Koch, who used to say that just because his poems were not solemn did not mean they were not to be taken seriously.
‘Some Words of Advice’ led me to buy Ash’s Selected Poems, which of course it did not contain. By this time I had read Ash’s poem ‘Smoke’ in the terrific Peter Sansom‘s terrific Writing Poems. This poem also contains references to ‘snatches of show tunes in the corridors’ and ‘old arias of desire’, but now the tone is chastened, cautious, elegiac:
In a city of burnt throats there can never be
enough sweet water to start the songs
and if you would dance, you must dance to the memory
of that lighted window the dusk carried off
If you do not know it, it is a seriously important piece of work. Without wishing to be reductive, it is as critical to our understanding of AIDS as the perhaps more famous The Man With Night Sweats, My Alexandria and What the Living Do:
What is left is irretrievable,
but continues like a melody
whose logical and grieving progression nothing can halt. (‘In Rainy Country’)
The book is about much more than that, of course, but I do think, in poems like ‘The Middle Kingdom’, ‘Smoke’, ‘Cigarettes’, ‘My Egypt’, ‘Following a Man’, ‘The Sweeping Gesture’, ‘Forgetting’ and ‘In Rainy Country’ Ash performs a sustained mediation on mortality and decay that is both exquisite and what Peter Sansom calls ‘urgent’.
For my money ‘The Middle Kingdom‘ fuses together two of The Burnt Pages’ chief impulses: clear-eyed satire and deep personal ‘regret’, a word the poem uses three times:
We were all well-fed and warmly clothed, and
experienced no misgivings on this account.
The oceans were calm and shallow,
the rivers stocked with salmon. Each spring
brilliantly coloured birds passed over
on their way to northern lakes and hills.
Poems were often penned concerning
their brief and glorious transit. When
they returned in autumn we succumbed
to appropriate feelings of mild regret.
You should read this, and everything by John Ash. His work, including his recent work about living in Istanbul, never fails to take the reader into wholly new territories both real and imagined, living and historical. His poems never let you forget the forces of history in which they were created, and which they notate, but neither do they bash down your door as they remind you of this. I think he is one of the greats.
Read ‘The Middle Kingdom’ here
You can find more Lifesaving Poems here
Here is a revelation: I did not always adore the work of Frank O’Hara.
I had pause to consider why this was so at a reading once. In the Q and A afterwards the poet I was reading with said they had detected a strong American influence in my work: ‘Frank O’Hara, perhaps?’ This was told to me in a way rather as one would remind a recalcitrant child that they had stepped in something.
I replied that while I had been reading a lot of O’Hara’s work, I still felt as though I did not get it and that I was missing something.
That changed when I read ‘Why I am Not a Painter’.
Everything I’d read of O’Hara’s up till that point had left me with the impression that it was all jotted down in five seconds, and that no thought had gone into it. Simply, I felt he was not serious.
I was wrong on at least two counts, namely that his poems do not contain thinking and that they are not serious. (Similarly, Kenneth Koch famously said that he was always serious in his poems, even his humorous ones; what he refused to be was solemn).
This had the rather bracing effect of forcing me to re-evaluate everything of O’Hara’s that I had read up to that point. It changed everything, and here is why.
The poem is offhand, casual, definitely not solemn. It is about a very particular social milieu and the chance encounters that take place within it; even though it relates these events straightforwardly, it presents its subject matter (making things, the nature of creativity, having a fulfilled life) as though they are the most important things in the world:
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
I realised O’Hara was serious about the process of creativity that he describes because he refuses to romanticise the act of creativity or the decision to pursue it. He wants to be able to make paintings, but knows he will have to stick at poems. We all do that, I think, at some level, wishing we were like our genius photographer brother or writer we once read with. At the same time he undercuts this status anxiety with wit and humour about the processes he engages with and those he observes in the work of others. The drinking and the talking about what is happening seem as important as showing up to make the work in the first place.
Most of all O’Hara is open to the possibility that much of what we are up to when we make stuff up remains sealed off from us, in a purely rational sense. We know that the word ‘Sardines’/'Oranges’ needs to go into our painting/poem but we do not know why. We live by the decisions we make in such moments, evaluating (‘It was too much’) with a detached mind that at the same time unconsciously controls the response we bring to our work in ways the rational mind cannot:
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
Finally, I felt I would give my arm to write a line as serious, profound and throwaway as: ‘It is even in/ prose, I am a real poet.’ Hilarious can be devastating.
Eye Level blog post on Why I am Not a Painter
Read the rest of the Lifesaving Poems here
The first thing I do when a new copy of The North, Rialto or Smiths Knoll lands on the doormat is to see if there are any of my friends in it. I know I am not alone in walking around with what I think of as ‘my team’ (poets I know and have worked with; poets I have not met but whose work I adore) looking over my shoulder at what I do. I use this as an excuse to fire off encouraging emails to them straight away with things like ‘Great poem’ in the subject line. What do you mean, you do not do this too?
As I have said before, all we really have as poets is the process, but this does not stop me relishing giving and receiving support from those whose work I admire.
I first came across Naomi Jaffa‘s ‘Some of the Usual’ in The North, and was delighted when she opened her terrific pamphlet of poems The Last Hour of Sleep (Five Leaves Publications) with the same. As Kenneth Koch said when he first encountered the poems of his friends Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, there was nothing in them he did not like.
‘Some of the Usual’ is a great list of weariness and anxiety that somehow manages to sound joyful and celebratory. There are many references in it to violence, death and disease; the horror of ageing -of the speaker and those the speaker loves- stalks every line, it seems.
For the record I think it reads as powerfully and prophetically as it did when Five Leaves brought it out in 2003, which is to say that references to the Taliban, female circumcision and climate change remain as current and pressing as ever.
The world the poem inhabits and recreates is both global and domestic, therefore. The line between a rat on the bird feeder and global warming is deliberately blurred. The poem succeeds in outstripping these events and persuading the reader they are all somehow vital and of a piece because of its great consistency of tone, which comes across as almost casual, spoken, concerned and self-aware all at once.
The poem builds a kind of force-field of rapt inclusivity: detail after detail is presented apparently barehandedly but with such precise attention to the process of their presentation as to make them quietly extraordinary. Notice the force of ‘why I like most men to want me’ compared to the easier to write ‘why I want most men to like me’, for example.
Finally, I think ‘Some of the Usual’ pulls off that rare trick in poetry, of delivering a punchline that is both memorable and worthy of the poem it serves. This is in no small part due to the skillful handling of the voice -direct, engaged, a little bit frayed at the edges- in the lines which precede it. For the record, I am with Naomi on this: if you want a film which really goes under the fingernails, watch The Ice Storm instead. She is also right about the Today programme which grows more Daily Mail by the day.
Some of the Usual
Standing in the kitchen before breakfast, not including some of the usual —
what to buy in Budgens now your Melitta coffee’s been discontinued
how the Today programme’s become so tabloid
how rarely we make love
what thirteen new houses going up bang next door will do to the village
not having children
whether I should read British Dressage or Poetry on the loo
those knife attacks on pregnant mares
the rat I’m watching eating our bird seed
the rust I can’t yet see on the Honda
the chances of ever having jutting hipbones and a flat stomach again
the arrival of occasional hairs on my nipples and chin
why I like most men to want me (even though I don’t want most men)
whether the climate’s really fucked
long-term immune system damage from additives
how many Camel you smoke
lack of religious faith
my waking up one morning and you not
never having had children
ever having to nurse my mother
the day when I won’t be able to telephone her anymore
what the Taliban have done to women
whether deep down I prefer women to men
why I’m so elaborately nice to people I can’t stand
irreparable hard drive corruption (with no files backed up)
keeping white geraniums frost-free with nowhere to store them
always missing the last overseas posting date for Christmas
last summer’s wasps hibernating in the loft
— before breakfast and since last night, I’ve mostly been worrying about getting it wrong:
that perhaps American Beauty may not after all be a film of heartbreaking, staggering genius.
Naomi Jaffa, from The Last Hour of Sleep (Five Leaves Publications, 2003)