John Ashbery "Sings a Song of Thingness"

On Marianne Moore and the Hudson House

By Karin Roffman
Illustrated by Ahndraya Parlato

John Ashbery has been having a virtual conversation with Marianne Moore about the ideal relationship between people and things ever since the publication of his first book, Some Trees (1956). An admitted admirer of Moore’s poetry, Ashbery directly revises Moore’s poetry and ideas even in that first volume. The volume flirts with Moore-like precision, but in its own way, focusing instead on “some precision” (“Popular Songs”), “dissolving” (“Errors”), and “Arranging by chance” (“Some Trees”). This interest in identifying poems’ exactnesses as an accident allows Ashbery to begin a long process of contemplating not only the way a poet views a thing, but also how that complex vision comes together in a poem and in a poet.

In Some Trees, Ashbery responds to Moore’s preoccupation with people and things by challenging some of her conclusions. Although Ashbery claims Elizabeth Bishop as an influence for “The Painter,”1 the poem also rewrites Moore’s “A Grave” (1921)—her poem, by the way, also from a first book—and revises some of its most decided statements about the act of collecting. Moore’s poem begins:

Man looking into the sea,
taking the view from those who have as much right to it as
you have a right to it yourself,
it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing
but you cannot stand in the middle of this:
the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.2

Her poem begins in anger. By revealing the speaker’s annoyance that someone is blocking her view of the sea, the poem shares its pointedly dark and frustrated mood. By the end of this introduction, the speaker’s annoyance shifts its object; she no longer directs her ire at the “man looking into the sea,” but focuses on the sea itself, which “has nothing to give” because—as the poem will explain in detail—it devours whatever is in its path. Ashbery’s poem, on the other hand, begins by describing that un-self-aware man who blocks the view in Moore’s poem:

Sitting between the sea and the buildings
He enjoyed painting the sea’s portrait.
But just as children imagine a prayer
Is merely silence, he expected his subject
To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,
Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.3

This poem kindly explains why Moore’s view-stealer might be mostly innocent of the crime of which she accuses him. Ashbery not only explains why the man, an artist, is there, but he also mocks him for being so naïve as to expect that his seat near the sea will lead automatically to a painting, as though it is the sea’s job to provide one. In beginning the poem in this softly ironic way, Ashbery responds to “A Grave”’s sharp mood and deflects it.

Not only in this opening, but also throughout, the moods and subjects of the two poems remain entangled. As the speaker in Moore’s poem studies the sea, she concludes that the sea has an awful power to take whatever is placed in its path. She sums up this view with the statement that: “the sea is a collector, quick to return a rapacious look.” The word “collector” here takes on a kind of sinister intensity; it is “rapacious.” In Ashbery’s poem the sea is also a voracious thing, willing to “devour” whatever is fed to it, but the artist is equally culpable, unable to give up the sea as a subject for his paintings. Bystanders watch in disbelief as the artist again goes back “to the sea for his subject. / Imagine a painter crucified by his subject!” Yet Ashbery’s poem ends very differently from Moore’s, as

They tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings;
And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush
As though his subject had decided to remain a prayer.

Ashbery’s poem ends with a “prayer”—perhaps in part for the soul of the artist who never fully accesses his subject. Moore’s poem ends with “consciousness” (famously, in fact, as she insisted on the correctness of the choice of word in a letter to Ezra Pound):

and the ocean, under the pulsation of lighthouses and noise of
advances as usual, looking as if it were not that ocean in which
dropped things are bound to sink—
in which if they turn and twist, it is neither with volition nor

In this concluding statement, the speaker’s mood shifts to one of anxious empathy. This empathy, however, is not for the man or the sea, but for the “dropped things” that the ocean rapaciously collects. While in both poems the sea takes more than it gives, Ashbery’s poem is much less anxious—or perhaps simply sees more irony—in the fraught relationship between people and things. “The Painter” revises “A Grave” not only by insisting that the artist is more of a “collector” than the sea is, but also by suggesting that neither “dropped things” nor those who collect them are hurt by the transaction.

Hudson: Lamps of different shapes and sizes and decorative wallpaper from numerous small collections. Master bedroom. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

While Ashbery’s lack of anxiety over this issue of collection may seem specific to this poem or this first volume, it becomes one of the important aspects of his poetic and personal philosophy that he continually returns to—often still through Moore. In “A Conversation with Kenneth Koch” (1965), their discussion moves very quickly from general “matters of taste” to the subject of poetry. Ashbery says that “‘we’ are the subject matter of poetry. . . . Poems are about people and things.”4 Koch clarifies by asking, “when you said ‘we’ you were including the other objects in this room?” Ashbery replies, “Of course.” This reply suggests how easy it is for Ashbery—or how easy he wants it to seem—to have a relationship with things inside and outside of poems. In the same year, Moore’s quite different response to being pushed about her feelings about things is to deny that she is a collector. In her well-known Women’s Wear Daily essay “Dress and Kindred Subjects” (1965), she responds to a question:

My favorite possessions? I am not a collector, merely a fortuitous one. I have a silver seated rat mouse-size—a silver scissor sugar-tongs (a stork that contained a baby originally). Have a Japanese teak mouse, Austrian turquoise velvet one, and a bird embroidery framed in black and lemon lacquer (a long-shafted topaz lalibie with freckled breast and beak curved like a curlew’s). A fly of amber with gold legs and a real fly in the amber of the big one—both given me by Louise Crane. Have a Dresden leopard with green eyes standing on oval green grass; a mahout on an Indian brass elephant; a Chinese gilt-brass baby pheasant with head turning to look back; a mechanical elephant with gait that precisely mimics the lumbering gait of a live elephant; a mechanical crow that hops, squawks and flaps its wings. A Japanese monkey-painting kakemono by So Sen rolled on an ivory cylinder; a Japanese very old brass box with sliding lid; a snow leopard on a jewelbox lid painted by Dan Maloney; an iron firefly bootjack with gold wings, vermilion head and long curving antennae; an Aleutian Island small round basket with lid and design of “three rats” (or beavers) each following the other. A porcupine-quill birchbark round basket with quills woven into a square on the lid; a baby adderskin sewn by Alyse Gregory on a strip of lemon and silver Chinese brocade; an oil, entitled Zoo Picture, of a lion and three apes on trapezes by Mary Meigs, and also by her, five Plymouth Rock roosters and a watercolor of spruce woods in Maine; an Egyptian pale rhinoceros-skin whip; an ivory walrus tusk from the Greeley Expedition. And I received recently a veritable “King of the Castle,” an Arctic ox of walrus ivory, carved by an Esquimau, Kay Hendrickson, for Mr. John Teal, Jr. to give me.5

For Moore, it is quite important to clarify the nature of her relationship to possessions—that she is not acquisitive—before enumerating her clear affection for them. She states upfront that she does not buy things and therefore cannot be considered a collector. Yet she never gives up these pieces. Two years after writing this essay, she will decide to sell her things to the Rosenbach foundation, and almost all of the objects that she mentions can still be found in her archives at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia.

Ashbery clarifies his own position on the ideal attitude of the collector, however, through lightly criticizing Moore’s. In an otherwise positive review of Moore’s 1964 volume Tell Me, Tell Me: Granite, Steel, and Other Topics, Ashbery warns Moore that she is becoming too close to the objects of her interest. He worries, in fact, that Moore occasionally forgets about her poetry when focusing her intense gaze at specific things. Ashbery does not like “Carnegie Hall: Rescued” because “she has become dangerously entranced with the purpose at hand. Save Carnegie Hall! A good idea, but one’s total accord with the program is the extent to which one can participate in this poem as well as in a couple of others.”6 Ashbery cautions that when possession of a thought, an idea, or even a cause becomes too apparent, and takes over the subject of a poem from something larger and less specific, the apparent joy of the thing discussed is lost. Ashbery concludes that the effort to enjoy things without becoming beholden to them or anxious about their futures—to collect things, but to continually shift one’s kinds of attachments to them—is necessary. While Ashbery is rather delighted to see that Moore is willing to get herself so stuck (perhaps because Moore’s intensity has a quality unlike the intensity of any other poet), he also believes that she has failed to maintain the pleasant and joyful attachment between person and thing that they both admire.

In this review and others, Ashbery offers sympathy for the ethical and aesthetic difficulties Moore finds herself in, but he also recognizes that his view of things is in some fundamental way different from Moore’s. In “Throughout Is This Quality of Thingness,” a 1969 review of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, Ashbery presents Bishop and Moore as representing two opposing poles, and he places himself on Bishop’s pole, though grateful for the view of Moore’s. He writes that “the two poets couldn’t be more different: Miss Moore’s synthesizing, collector’s approach is far from Miss Bishop’s linear, exploring one.”7 He explains this distinction further in identifying Bishop’s thinking:

One can admire the way these creatures imperfectly perceive their habitat, but their dilemma is ours, too, for we confusedly feel ourselves to be part thing and part thought. . . . our inert thingness pleases us, and though we would prefer not to give up “travel” or intellectual voyaging, in a showdown we would doubtless choose the iceberg, or object, because it mysteriously includes the soul. . . . this quality which one can only call “thingness” is with her throughout.

Ashbery provocatively claims that a thing might be better than a thought because a thing “mysteriously includes the soul.” In exploring the difference between Bishop and Moore, Ashbery suggests that what Bishop explores as a “mystery” that develops between a person and a thing, Moore might simply be tempted to catalogue. He explains that while Moore’s “synthesizing, collector’s approach” is compelling, the less overtly systematic approach that drives Bishop’s thinking allows people and things to enjoy processing what “mysteriously” connects them. Yet Ashbery shares aspects of his thinking about this issue with both writers. On the one hand, like Moore, Ashbery has the desire to synthesize and collect, but unlike Moore, he seeks to navigate rather than organize that desire. Like Bishop, he feels patient and thrilled by the mystery that develops around “thingness.”8

Hudson: The candelabra were inherited; the clock was purchased by Ashbery to replicate his memory of a piece belonging to his grandmother. Front hall. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

Although Ashbery’s early poems and essays suggest a developing philosophy on the necessarily shifting relationships among people, things, and poems, beginning with Shadow Train in 1981 these ideas deepen as he becomes perhaps even more reflective of the process by which things accumulate and of the unexpected relationships that can develop through participating in this experience. John Shoptaw has remarked on the timing between Ashbery’s work on Shadow Train—written “between March and mid-October 1979 (with a break in April)”—and his purchase of a “Victorian-era house in upstate New York.”9 Ashbery’s view of his altered status as a new owner of an old house becomes most simply expressed in this volume through “Some Old Tires.” This poem thoughtfully considers the issues of loss and possession that arise around recognizing the shared histories of things:

This was mine, and I let it slip through my fingers.
Nevertheless, I do not want, in this airy and pleasant city,
To be held back by valors that were mine
Only for the space of a dream instant, before continuing

To be someone else’s. Because there’s too much to
Be done that doesn’t fit, and the parts that get lost
Are the reasonable ones just because they got lost
And were forced to suffer transfiguration by finding their way home

To a forgotten spot way out in the fields. To have always
Had the wind for a friend is no recommendation. Yet some
Disagree, while still others claim that signs of fatigue
And mended places are, these offshore days, open

And a symbol of what must continue
After the ring is closed on us. The furniture,
Taken out and examined under the starlight, pleads
No contest. And the backs of those who sat there before. 10

Ashbery returns to the subject of loss in “A Grave” that so worried Moore—the degree to which possessing something “transfigure[es]” both the thing itself and the owner. In “Some Old Tires,” Ashbery’s speaker—like Moore’s—is extremely sensitive to the experience of the thing as it moves from possessor to possessor. But unlike Moore, the speaker does not empathize with the object; instead, he almost paradoxically retains enough distance from the object to show confidently the importance of his own participation in its shared history.

While the sentiment that “this was mine” may initially suggest competitive or negative feelings about ownership, one’s understanding of that phrase transforms as the poem unfolds. The speaker becomes increasingly aware that he likes the effect his time with an object has on the object’s total experience. He also realizes that he is not anxious about the sense of loss he may feel when the object eventually becomes someone else’s possession. As far as this poem is concerned, at least, the speaker’s effect on an object is a necessary and positive part of his own and the object’s history. Rethinking the initial statement that “this was mine,” the speaker’s tone seems more ironic than possessive; the phrase simply represents an expression of fact among those who have shared their lives with things. The poem begins as a kind of ode to acquisition, but it ends by reiterating that great strength comes not from individual ownership but from a recognition of shared histories—the exciting and almost physical sensation of the “backs of those who sat there before.”

The poem’s meditation on the intellectual and physical comfort that arises from the revelation of shared histories among people and things serves as a fitting epigraph to Ashbery’s anecdotally and historically rich Hudson house. Photographs of the Hudson home show a large, stately, symmetrical structure with solid furniture, big windows, fabulous artwork, and unexpectedly grand decorative touches such as huge stained-glass windows—an imposing and impressive space. These pictures reveal what Ashbery calls the “gloomy charm” of the home, but they do not reveal the various ways this idea of “gloomy charm” develops out of the unexpected combinations of Ashbery’s and the house’s own pasts. Ashbery sees the house—its things and its shape—as a reminder of his childhood homes, and these memories help him feel “safe and protected.11 Certainly, not everyone who has lived in the house has felt that way. Before Ashbery took occupancy around April, 1979, a young college-age caretaker lived in the empty house with a machete under his bed—just in case.12 Perhaps the young man was spooked by the aura of death that hangs around the house—what is now the parlor was at one time used to hold dead bodies, just as the double-wide front door was supposedly cut that way to accommodate the conveyance of coffins. Neither the aura of death nor its specifics spook its current owners; rather, Ashbery holds onto an image of what he knows of Mrs. Cummings, the previous owner, who died while sitting on a chair at the kitchen table making her grocery list. The oddly gloomy comfort that the house provides has to do not only with what it enables (this place has one luxury that New York City apartments generally don’t have—space—and therefore enough room for Ashbery’s own and his parents and grandparents’ accumulated possessions), but also the completeness of the lives that have been lived there—that powerfully connecting sensation when one feels “the backs of those who sat there before.”

Hudson: The artwork is not only curatorially compelling, but tremendously personal. Music room. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.

The Hudson home demonstrates Ashbery’s philosophy of the possibility for a kind of joyful collection, a celebration of the mysterious ways things resonate when given the space and time to do so. Not only did Ashbery inherit stories about three generations of the family who lived in the house before he did, but he also inherited Mrs. Cummings’s stuff: a bedroom set and a lamp, cartons full of wills and business records dating back almost one hundred years. Some expected but missing things, however, almost derailed (“botched up”) the purchase of the house: the family sold the parlor chandelier before Ashbery moved in and removed some andirons that belonged to the fireplaces. Ashbery found an almost perfect replacement chandelier in an antique store one day in Hudson years after moving in, which now hangs in its old spot in the parlor and sheds light on lovely French furniture. It also illuminates works by Willem de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, and Lynn Davis (looking at Davis’s work, Ashbery comments that it was so heavy it cost seventy-five dollars to hang). The artwork in the parlor makes up only a tiny part of what hangs throughout the home. Since many of the sketches and paintings are of Ashbery or are of and by close friends, the art is not only curatorially compelling (particularly noting that many of the paintings, sketches, and photograph pieces that he owns are not on the walls), but also feels tremendously personal. Diagonally across from the parlor in the dining room, there are collections of pottery pieces, fruit plates from the homes of his parents and grandparents, and 1950s match strikers brought back from his years in France. Upstairs, there are collections of books (poetry—including two lightly annotated copies of Moore’s Collected and Complete Poems—and literature, film, and art), records, postcards, and games. Throughout the home, lamps of different shapes and sizes and decorative wallpaper (in the upstairs rooms some William Morris prints Ashbery chose) form smaller collections. And beyond that, there are groupings—of candlesticks and clocks (one purchased because “it looks like a piece my grandmother had”), oriental rugs and pieces of furniture (two chairs and a rug purchased in February 1979 after buying, but before occupying, the house), and a piano. Then there are newer, ephemeral, collections—of Netflix movies, exercise equipment, and Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Chunk cookies. Only the outside of the house seems to go uncollected. From the wide front steps of the house, one can look out onto what in New England might be called “The Green” and imagine that this view was very much the same for the past hundred years, but the home’s substantial curtains generally stay closed, suggesting that the interest in the house really is not about what is outside of it, but what is inside.

If a thing can “mysteriously include the soul,” as Ashbery remarked when thinking about Bishop’s distinction from Moore, then the Hudson house—with all its things mingling so openly and unprepossessingly—provides a glimpse into the soul of a poet. Ashbery’s interest in letting things mix and mingle to produce some kind of joy revises Moore’s anxious concern with the ideal placement of things in both physical and metaphorical spaces. Among other uses, the Hudson house provides a large and exciting space to practice and reflect on this process; in each room of the house, things forge connections to Ashbery’s childhood, to his own family history, to his friendships, to an adult life as a successful poet and art critic, to the former Hudson family who lived there, and to poems. Just as Henry David Thoreau first experimented with purifying his thought process by building a house on Walden Pond with an interior that included only things he believed he needed—three chairs, bread, a broom—Ashbery has also brought into his Hudson house room by room only those things he feels he needs. Ashbery sums up the qualities of this process of accumulation and thinking in a comment on painter and friend Jane Freileicher (2001): “The painting sings a song of thingness, whether that of the swatch of nature sitting for its portrait or the paint that’s helping it to become itself even as it casually poses for its own portrait.”13 Ashbery’s suggestion—that when one “sings a song of thingness” art is happening—is a lyrical, rhythmic, physical response to Moore’s concerns—and his own.

Finally, one wonders: did Ashbery and Moore ever meet? Did this virtual conversation ever become an actual one? Did Ashbery, like Pound, leave a cigar lit on the banister while making the pilgrimage to Moore’s Cumberland Street apartment? Or, like Bishop, was he forced to take a nickel from the nickel jar before concluding an afternoon visit? No. In true city fashion, Ashbery and Moore met on the 7th Avenue Subway. It was the early fifties and it was raining. Moore wore galoshes. Ashbery said: “I am a tremendous admirer of your poetry.” Then they met again during an intermission at the New York City Ballet. Ashbery said of the Balanchine ballet: “Wasn’t that wonderful?” Moore agreed: “Yes, all those girls in their white.” A few years later Moore reviewed Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry (1960), for the New York Herald Tribune book section. Ashbery wasn’t mentioned. Shortly after, and while in France, he received a postcard from her. She was quite upset that her remark about Ashbery had been cut from the review. She sent the deleted sentence: “I find him prepossessing.” As a thank you, Ashbery sent her a quotation about the jerboa. Characteristically—even mysteriously—she replied: “Is it not beautiful?”

1John Ashbery in Conversation with Mark Ford (London: BTL, 2003), p. 34.
2Marianne Moore, Complete Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 49-50.
3John Ashbery, Selected Poems (New York: Penguin, 1986), pp. 20-21.
4John Ashbery, Selected Prose, ed. Eugene Richie (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2004), p. 55.
5Marianne Moore, The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, ed. Patricia Willis (New York: Viking, 1986), p. 598.
6Selected Prose, p. 85.
7Selected Prose, p. 120.
8Selected Prose, p. 121.
9John Shoptaw, On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry (Cambridge:
Harvard UP, 1994), p. 250.

10John Ashbery, Shadow Train (New York: Viking, 1981), p. 20.
11Interview with John Ashbery. Hudson House. 29 February 2008.
12Interview with David Kermani. Hudson House. 29 February 2008.
13Selected Prose, p. 279.

Created Spaces: John Ashbery's Textual and Domestic Environments