In response to a panel discussion titled Poets and Their Work: Poetry as Its Own Biography (personal I vs. poetic eye), John Ashbery delivers a “mini-lecture” on so-called confessional poetry and the work of Elizabeth Bishop. At the conclusion of the lecture, Ashbery reads his “Soonest Mended” (1966), from The Double Dream of Spring, inspired, he tells us, by Bishop’s “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.”
This is the (unpublished) lecture cited in Eugene Richie’s introduction to Ashbery’s Selected Prose. An excerpt:
It’s only when I feel compelled to write poetry that is all of a piece, that I feel uncomfortable. Poetry bloweth where it listeth. It should never be thought of as a practical solution to life’s mess. Its value is in its total uselessness. It’s the roses we are always being urged to stop and smell.
Elizabeth Bishop is a poet in whom the two kinds of I/eye are fully, and beautifully, fused. We do not read her to discover the details of her biography, yet I feel that we end up knowing her— and I feel it all the more intensely in Key West, every time I walk past that little house, tucked behind the pandanus bush— better than many poets who set out to inform us about the particulars of their lives.
From KWLS 2003: The Beautiful Changes