by Simon Collings

Many years ago a poet friend of ours celebrated National Poetry Day by giving a poem to each of her colleagues. The choice in some cases was  ironic. Her boss, who had a tendency to speak in clichés, was presented with ‘Mrs Aesop’ by Carole Ann Duffy, the aptness of which was obvious to everyone, though possible not to him.

She also gave me a poem, John Ashbery’s ‘No longer very clear’, a 4-stanza, 18-line poem about the fragility of memory, time and missed opportunity. Re-reading it recently it seemed appropriate to this year’s National Poetry Day with its theme of ‘remembering’.

‘No longer very clear’ has an interesting history. The poem was commissioned by the US public broadcaster WNYC as part of its 50-year anniversary celebration in 1994. The station invited a dozen composers to respond to the text and the resulting works were performed in a concert on 13 June of that year, at Alice Tully Hall, New York City. Contributing composers included Philip Glass, John Corigliano, Laurie Anderson, Milton Babbitt, and Joan Tower. Recordings of some of these works are available on YouTube.

Anderson’s ‘This House of Blues’ brings a delicious clarity to Ashbery’s elusive text. Her reading, against a background of gentle electronics, is luminous. Babbitt’s more complex setting for soprano and four instruments is eerie, with an atmosphere something like Schoenberg’s ‘Verklärte nacht’. It has a lovely, spare beauty. Joan Tower contributed a solo piano work ‘Or like a…an engine’  the genesis of a suite of four pieces for piano inspired by the poem. The four sections are: ‘Holding a daisy’, ‘Or like a…an engine’, ‘Vast antique cubes’, and ‘Throbbing still’. Each of the composers brings a different insight to the poetry.

Ashbey’s poem was included in the 1995 collection Can you hear, bird. It does not appear to have been published online, but here is the text as set by Anderson:

In this house of blues…

It’s true that I can no longer remember very well
The time when we first began to know each other
However, I do remember very well
The first time we met. You walked in sunlight,
Holding a daisy. You said, “Children make unreliable witnesses.”

In this house of blues…

Now, so long after that time,
I keep the spirit of it throbbing still.
The ideas are still the same, and they expand
to fill vast, antique cubes.
My daughter was reading one just the other day.
She said, “How like pellucid statues, Daddy. Or like a…
an engine.”

In this house of blues…

In this house of blues the cold creeps stealthily upon us.
I do not dare to do what I fantasize doing.
With time the blue congeals into roomlike purple
That takes the shape of alcoves, landings…
Everything is like something else.
I should have waited before I learned this.

Anyone planning an activity for this year’s National Poetry Day on 2 October might like to consider including Ashbery’s poem. Anderson’s setting is a great way into it.