I Sleep When I Cannot Avoid It

John Ashbery (1927 – 2017)

I don’t look on poetry as closed works. I feel they are going on all the time in my head, and I occasionally snip off a length.

John Ashbery


by Joel Michael Symington (A.K.A. John Ashbery)

Though we seek always the known absolute
Of all our days together, love will not occur
For us.   Love is a fact
Beyond the witches wood of facts that is
our sorcery’s domain.   And though we may
Charm lion into squirrel, push back the sea,
Love is made outlaw, set beyond all art,
The ultimate error of our reasoning.

But when I see you walk or catch your face
Edged with season’s most erratic leaves
Love grows superfluous, and I look at you
As I would look at flowers.  Our only need
The sympathy of darkness for the seed.


Sleepers Awake

By John Ashbery
Cervantes was asleep when he wrote Don Quixote.
Joyce slept during the Wandering Rocks section of Ulysses.
Homer nodded and occasionally slept during the greater part of the Iliad; he was awake however when he wrote the Odyssey.
Proust snored his way through The Captive, as have legions of his readers after him.
Melville was asleep at the wheel for much of Moby-Dick.
Fitzgerald slept through Tender Is the Night, which is perhaps not so surprising,
but the fact that Mann slumbered on the very slopes of The Magic Mountain is quite extraordinary—that he wrote it, even more so.
Kafka, of course, never slept, even while not writing or on bank holidays.
No one knows too much about George Eliot’s writing habits—my guess is she would sleep a few minutes, wake up and write something, then pop back to sleep again.
Lew Wallace’s forty winks came, incredibly, during the chariot race in Ben-Hur.
Emily Dickinson slept on her cold, narrow bed in Amherst.
When she awoke there would be a new poem inscribed by Jack Frost on the windowpane; outside, glass foliage chimed.
Good old Walt snored as he wrote and, like so many of us, insisted he didn’t.
Maugham snored on the Riviera.
Agatha Christie slept daintily, as a woman sleeps, which is why her novels are like tea sandwiches—artistic, for the most part.
I sleep when I cannot avoid it; my writing and sleeping are constantly improving.
I have other things to say, but shall not detain you much.
Never go out in a boat with an author—they cannot tell when they are over water.
Birds make poor role models.
A philosopher should be shown the door, but don’t, under any circumstances, try it.
Slaves make good servants.
Brushing the teeth may not always improve the appearance.
Store clean rags in old pillow cases.
Feed a dog only when he barks.
Flush tea leaves down the toilet, coffee grounds down the sink.
Beware of anonymous letters—you may have written them, in a wordless implosion of sleep.

An Angel Comes Rapping

Circus Poster in Corral Bar, Durand, Wisconsin

The Circus

(An Excerpt)

by Kenneth Koch

I never mentioned my friends in my poems at the time I wrote The Circus
Although they meant almost more than anything to me
Of this now for some time I’ve felt an attenuation
So I’m mentioning them maybe this will bring them back to me
Not them perhaps but what I felt about them
John Ashbery Jane Freilicher Larry Rivers Frank O’Hara
Their names alone bring tears to my eyes
As seeing Polly did last night
It is beautiful at any time but the paradox is leaving it
In order to feel it when you’ve come back the sun has declined
And the people are merrier or else they’ve gone home altogether
And you are left alone well you put up with that your sureness is like the sun
While you have it but when you don’t its lack’s a black and icy night. I came home
And wrote The Circus that night, Janice. I didn’t come and speak to you
And put my arm around you and ask you if you’d like to take a walk
Or go to the Cirque Medrano though that’s what I wrote poems about
And am writing about that now, and now I’m alone

And this is not as good a poem as The Circus
And I wonder if any good will come of either of them all the same.

I had one of those serendipitous adventures last weekend that was unplanned but pleasantly not unexpected. I headed off to meet my partner who was camping in southern Wisconsin and we wound up hiking several days around Lacrosse and points north. She had lived and worked in Trempealeau county Wisconsin 35 years ago and she took me to revisit some of her favorite outdoor haunts. We went on several breath taking hikes with great views of the forest bluffs, surrounding valleys and the Mississippi river.

Making our way back towards Minneapolis late Sunday afternoon we decided to stretch our legs for a minute before heading the last bit home in the dark. We stopped in Durand, Wisconsin which is on the banks of the Chippewa River. As I walked up the deserted river walk that was behind the storefronts on main street I saw a sign on the back of a bar that advertised canoe rentals. We decided to poke our heads around front to get more information for next summer.

Corral Bar with the Orton Room in Durand, Wisconsin

This was a classic small town bar/grill with a group of regulars watching the Packers game on the big screen in the bar. The restaurant area was empty and as we were the only two wearing masks and Wisconsin COVID is sky rocketing we grabbed a high top well away from everyone else. Our information mission with the waitress turned into the munchies when I spied the fried chicken with home made stuffing special on the black board and we settled down to a Spotted Cow (great local beer) and a bite of dinner. The owner stopped over for a socially distanced chat and update us on canoe rentals. As we were wrapping up and getting ready to leave, he stopped by again and said, “Did you see the circus poster, people come from all over the world to see it.” We said, “What?”

He proceeded to take us through the adjoining building into a banquet area complete with its own original wood saloon and ornate tin ceiling. It was entirely empty. He turned on the lights and there under glass, running the entire length of the side of the building opposite the bar from floor to ceiling was a paper lithograph poster of a circus that had come to town in August of 1884, the Great Anglo-American Circus. The star and owner of the circus was Miles Orton, the preeminent acrobatic equestrian of his day. The poster is incredible, both in its miraculous state of preservation, but also the incredible detail and quality of the colors. The bar owner had been the one to discover it while cutting in a hole to form the door we had just walked through when they had acquired the building in 2015 to expand their restaurant business. He proceeded to give us a half hour private lecture on the fascinating history of the circus and the preservation process that in the end, he and his sisters lovingly undertook all on their own. The entire experience was magical. It is a great example of you never know what you are going to discover in any town in America. What makes his find one of a kind, is the poster was made and applied with the intent it would only last a few weeks. It is by pure chance that the neighboring building sprung up and was built so quickly, encasing it between two walls following the circus coming through town, allowed for it to be waiting in the dark to be discovered 130 years later.

You can read more about the history of the discovery of the poster and just how a unique set of circumstances allowed it to be preserved all these years in the article below. If you are ever traveling through central Wisconsin, stop in to the Corral Bar, have a delicious bite to eat, drink a Spotted Cow and go see the circus poster in the Orton Room!



by John Ashbery (1927 – 2017)

we could send you out there
to join the cackle squad,
but hey, that highly accomplished,
thinly regarded equestrian—well there was no way
he was going to join the others’ field trip.
Wouldn’t put his head on the table.
But here’s the thing:

They had owned great dread,
knew of a way to get away from here
through ice and smoke
always clutching her fingers, like it says
to do.

Once we were passionate about the police,
yawned in the teeth of pixels,
but a far rumor blanked us out.
We bathed in moonshine.
Now, experts disagree.
Were we unhappy or sublime?
We’ll have to wait until the next time
an angel comes rapping at the door
to rejoice docently.

(I know there’s a way to do this.)

The Extreme Austerity Of An Almost Empty Mind

John Ashbery
John Ashbery (1927 – 2017)

I don’t look on poetry as closed works. I feel they’re going on all the time in my head and I occasionally snip off a length.

John Ashbery

Sonnet: More of Same

by John Ashbery

Try to avoid the pattern that has been avoided,
the avoidance pattern. It’s not as easy as it looks:
The herringbone is floating eagerly up
from the herring to become parquet. Or whatever suits it.
New fractals clamour to be identical
to their sisters. Half of them succeed. The others
go on to be Provencal floral prints some sleepy but ingenious
weaver created halfway through the eighteenth century,
and they never came to life until now.
It’s like practising a scale: at once different and never the same.
Ask not why we do these things. Ask why we find them meaningful.
Ask the cuckoo transfixed in mid-flight
between the pagoda and the hermit’s rococo cave. He may tell you

And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name

by John Ashbery

You can’t say it that way any more.
Bothered about beauty you have to
Come out into the open, into a clearing.
And rest. Certainly whatever funny happens to you
Is OK. To demand more than this would be strange
Of you, you who have so many lovers.
People who look up to you and are willing
To do things for you, but you think
It’s not right, that if they really knew you . . .
So much for self-analysis. Now,
About what to put in your poem-painting:
Flowers are always nice, particularly delphinium.
Names of boys you once knew and their sleds,
Skyrockets are good—do they still exist?
There are a lot of other things of the same quality
As those I’ve mentioned. Now one must
Find a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed,
Dull-sounding ones. She approached me
About buying her desk. Suddenly the street was
Bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments.
Humdrum testaments were scattered around. His head
Locked into mine. We were a seesaw. Something
Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone.