Over his decades-long career, John Ashbery has been many things, including the winner of just about every major poetry prize out there, poet laureate of New York, subject of a book-length work by Harold Bloom (a sure sign of having arrived in American letters), and, most recently, poet laureate of mtvU, which is exactly what you think it is. Given all this, it’s not surprising that he read to a sold-out auditorium on a Monday night at the 92nd Street Y (only in New York . . . ).
Practically 56 years after he won the Discovery Prize and first appeared in the hallowed hall, Ashbery took the stage to read mostly early verse and some recent poems, “to prove that [he’s] still writing them.” Between poems his breath was ragged and haggard, but he read the lines fluidly and fluently. There was also the occasional offhand remark: “I’ve written a lot of sestinas. This is the only one I’ll inflict on you.” Aloud the verse seemed more cohesive and conclusive than it sometimes appears on the page, imbued as it was with the stuff of life.