Listening to John Ashbery

Ashbery tells the story of the genesis of his poem “Pyrography,” commissioned by the Department of the Interior with a deadline of one day (another poet had been commissioned but not produced a work) for an exhibition of American landscape painting at the Smithsonian. Ashbery at first demurred but then agreed to write the poem when told what the fee was. When he turned it in, officials in Washington felt taxpayer dollars were better spent elsewhere. It’s too bad that happened because the opening lines have a strange patriotic beauty:

Out here on Cottage Grove it matters. The galloping
Wind balks at its shadow. The carriages
Are drawn forward under a sky of fumed oak.
This is America calling:
The mirroring of state to state,
Of voice to voice on the wires,
The force of colloquial greetings like golden
Pollen sinking on the afternoon breeze.
In service stairs the sweet corruption thrives;
The page of dusk turns like a creaking revolving stage in Warren, Ohio.