John Ashbery’s complete library has just been donated to Houghton Library’s Woodberry Poetry Room where Ashbery delivered his first poems as an undergraduate in the 1940s. This month, the cataloging of six- to seven-thousand manuscripts, papers, and books will commence, slated for completion in 2020.
Christina Davis, the Woodberry Poetry Room’s curator, made this announcement on Thursday, Nov. 1 in an introduction to a reading by acclaimed American poets Ann Lauterbach and Dara Wier, both of whom knew Ashbery throughout his career.
“I learned that they were all dear friends at this memorial service [in Dec. 2017],” Davis said. “When I was trying to find a meaningful way to make this announcement, it seemed like the legacy of his friendship would be the perfect portal through which to announce it.”
Previously stored at his homes in Chelsea and Hudson, NY, the comprehensive collection of Ashbery’s works is what Davis describes as “the 20th century iteration of what a poet’s library could be.” Already, Houghton is home to the Emily Dickinson library, to which Davis pointed as an exemplary collection of a 19th century poet. The Ashbery library, she says, will be an immersive experience: For example, visitors of the Woodberry Poetry Room will even be able to sit at Ashbery’s own writing desk.
Ashbery’s poetry triangulates well with Lauterbach and Wier, Davis added. “For both of these poets, his death is still very raw.”
“I think I was lucky to be a good friend of his for most of my adult life,” Wier said. At the reading itself, Wier stood first and declaimed four of her poems. The first came from her collection “In the Still of the Night” and is titled “The Usual Ratio of Banality to Wonder.” This, she explained, was a newspaper headline that had caught her attention: She didn’t understand how such a ratio could possibly be known.
The poems she selected meditated on the power of poetry and the boldness of art. For example, “The Usual Ratio of Banality to Wonder” says that “Embarrassed poets are pretty worthless to humanity.”
Wier then read three of her newer poems: “Things Art Can Do,” “Waiting,” and “During the Time You Are Deceased.” This last poem, she said, hopefully had a “slight leavening effect” on the audience, shedding a light on the “truth we all have to face with our loved ones.” Wier’s late husband, the poet James Tate, was friends with Ashbery as well.
Lauterbach’s reading closed the event. Kate Colby, who introduced both poets, remarked that Lauterbach’s poetry is distinctive for its metaphysical rigor; by contrast, Lauterbach praised Wier’s poetry for being “straightforward” without being literal. Lauterbach, like Wier, has known Ashbery since the 1970s, when they met while working in London.
At the reading, Lauterbach presented several short poems, which played with ideas of time and art-making. They included “Of This,” “Intent, Intend” (a prose poem from her new collection, “Spell,” “Spell” (the title poem of this same collection), “After After Nature,” and “Thread.”
While reading, Lauterbach uses one hand to swoop and trace arcs through the air, like a conductor. “I’m drawing the space of sound, which is not the same as conducting,” she said, but rather a visualization of her words.
Lauterbach, like Wier, expressed faith in the power of poetry to influence an audience.
“One fundamental desire [of mine] is for people to love language, and to feel that language actually can make some impact on the world,” she said. “We’re living in a time when language is so damaged in the public sphere that to awaken to a resistance is what I would like to see happen.”