Diary note 11: John Ashbery

8 IX 2017, Singapore

I am shocked to hear that John Ashbery died last Sunday (3 IX 2017). I began innocently reading an article in the newspaper because his portrait (in profile) was there. But the profile went with an obituary.

I had always expected us to meet again, even more so as I am to return to the USA frequently in the future. This chance is no longer there.

As I have written elsewhere I got to know him and his poetry when he was reading at Spoleto in 1965. In the Teatro Caio Melisso he immediately captivated me by the immaterial quality of his verse. It is not possible to avoid the comparison with soap-bubbles blown in endless series by children, as long as one stays aware of the fact that the liquid spheres contain a breath of life and are liable to snap in a moment.

The floating poems reflected our material surroundings on all sides, but while capturing them, gave them new meaning by distortion. If it would just have been wordplay I would not for a moment have been interested. But here the moment captivated impermanence.

I am not sure one of his sentences will endure, but during our life- time they were a constant flow, a commentary, there as sure as the clouds in the sky.

When I asked him in Rotterdam at the Poetry International Festival  what he had felt while reading his poems he thought for a moment and answered: “Nothing, Adrian, nothing at all.”

Though we communicated little, we felt a kind of mutual understanding. He once wrote to ask me if I could help obtain the rights to publish a painting of a church by Saenredam, which he had seen at the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam. I wrote to Wim Beeren, then director of that museum, and he granted permission. The picture appeared on the cover of his bundle AS WE KNOW (published by Penguin).

With all his ethereal imagery John Ashbery was an eminently practical guest. The only other thing he ever asked of me was to arrange that he could have his daily practice at a tennis court.

In his dedication to exercise there was, I think, not so much self-indulgence as a wish to stay trim and fit and to go on hitting the ball as long as he could.

The photo with the obituary showed a nearly saint-like emaciation.