On weekdays at 7 p.m., you will probably find John Ashbery, the most famous living American poet, in his postwar Chelsea apartment watching Extra after a good dose of Entertainment Tonight, or, on a recent spring afternoon, lamenting that Chelsea Piers has blocked his view of the river. In fact, Ashbery is such a regular guy that you would never guess at his enormous literary prominence, which began in 1955, when W. H. Auden chose Some Trees for the Yale Younger Poets series. Now, at 71, after eighteen collections that have both delighted and confounded critics, some of whom claim his cerebral code is a bit too hard to crack, he's about to release the fetchingly titled Girls on the Run (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a fantastical, playfully erotic tale of bawdy preteens that will no doubt delight and confound Ashbery's widest audience yet.
Girls on the Run is suggested by the paintings of the late outsider artist Henry Darger, whose work was given a buzz-inducing retrospective at the Museum of American Folk Art two years ago. Darger's jewel-toned watercolors chronicle a band of rosy-faced schoolgirls that he traced from sources like comic books. In some renderings, the girls are frolicking at water's edge. In more disturbing sequences, they are drawn naked, some with penises, tormented by storms, tied to trees, and eviscerated. In a climate in which images of children are intensely scrutinized (just ask Calvin Klein or Sally Mann), Ashbery's choice of inspiration seems to be made for limelight-enhancing controversy. Ashbery, however, doesn't see it that way at all.
Even though he's famous for refusing to explain his poems, when asked about Girls on the Run's connection to Darger's work, Ashbery obliges. But whether he's ticking off his poem's associations or dropping the details of his low-key life (his teaching at Bard College, his weekend house in Hudson, his cravings for gossip about TV stars), he manages to remain the ever-elusive observer -- the trademark stance he takes in his life and in his work.
"It all reminds me very much of my childhood," says Ashbery, settling into an armchair. "The comic-book images Darger used happened to be from the 1930s, so it was kind of a re-creation of the games and kids I used to play with." He pauses, then adds, "But also the somewhat more ominous feelings."
David Lehman, a poet who analyzed Ashbery and his coterie of New York School poets in The Last Avant-Garde, recalls that, like Citizen Kane loving his sled, Ashbery has always had a fondness for the objects of his youth. "Girls' adventure stories turned him on in a way," says Lehman. And when charting these adventures, his narrative occasionally turns toward the erotic. On this subject, Ashbery is clearly uneasy. When asked about the phrase "the oxymoron got his rocks off," he hesitates. After a long minute, he smiles, clearly amused. "Oxymoron is an abstract figure of speech, so if it masturbates, it's not really something very sexy."
Fellow New York School poet Kenneth Koch is sure Ashbery didn't choose Darger to be provocative. "Sometimes poets write because they have to say something about a subject that's important to them. I think it's rather that John's sometimes odd subjects enable him to say important things that aren't precisely about them -- as in his sestina about Popeye, for example."
As Ashbery sees it, poetry runs inside him like a constant stream, and when he writes, it's as if he dips a bucket down and pulls up whatever he gets -- musings devoid of his autobiography, or his homosexuality, for that matter. "My life doesn't seem interesting to me," he says. "We all have basically the same experiences. I write about what I don't know."
Ashbery stands and slowly leads the way to his small office, where an ancient Royal typewriter holds court. A clutter of photographs in boxes, the possessions of the French novelist Pierre Martory, his lover of many years who died last October, are arranged on a couch like a still life. "I tend to leave things the way they are," he confides, back in the living room. "I was sent a book with a photo of me in this room 25 years ago. Everything is the same. Except for me. Even the plants," he says, laughing, pointing to a hanging spider by the window. "I'm like Dorian Gray."