In 1972 or '73, I was part of a reading series at The Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC that featured six "major American poets" (the organizers' words in the publicity for it) with two poets reading over three nights. I was paired with Lucille Clifton and felt I should support the other four poets—one of whom was Ashbery—by checking out the other two nights. I knew John's work from his first couple of books that friends had touted to me. But at the time I found his work almost too technically brilliant, without the humor and warmth and connection I looked for in the poetry I liked.
I went to his reading with some friends, all of us younger than Ashbery, or most of the staid audience, dressed as if for a formal occasion (we were in our best hippie garb and stoned as well). But I became immediately defensive for Ashbery when the professor who introduced him seemed to be apologizing ahead of time for how difficult John's work was, almost as if he were embarrassed to have to be introducing him.
Then John read his Popeye sestina, as I like to call it ("Farm Implements And Rutabagas In A Landscape"—look it up, really) and I started laughing so hard I had to steady myself by putting one hand on the carpet to keep from entirely falling out of my chair, while most of the audience didn't even crack a smile. But John paused, in his nasally monotone reading style at the time, and stared right at me with a little gleam in his eye, and that was that. For the rest of the reading I finally could hear not only the technical brilliance, but the humor, the passion, the curiosity, the warmth, and insight, and the profundity, whether accidental or incidental or calculatingly intended.
Afterwards he approached me, and I invited him to join me and my friends at an old warehouse in an industrial part of DC, that had been turned into a gay disco (a new phenomena at the time) called Pier Nine. We all danced and laughed and had a great time, and he invited me to visit him in New York, and I did, and we became intimate friends for a number of years. He generously introduced me to his old friends, like the poets Jimmy Schuyler and Kenneth Koch and Barbara Guest and Kenward Elmslie and Edwin Denby and more, and they all welcomed me warmly, thanks to John.
When I moved to New York in early 1975, I spent even more time with him. He was the most delightful host, and one of the most knowledgeable conversationalists I've ever known. Pretty much anything I brought up he could spew facts about, but always in a humorous way, either with an ironic or campy slant, or sometimes with the timing of a stand-up comic. I loved spending time with him and I loved him. And he taught me so much, for instance turning me on to the novels of Ronald Firbank by lending me his own copy of Firbank's novels—which had been a gift from his late friend Frank O'Hara.
I got married for the second time in 1982 (he and his partner, now husband, David Kermani were at my wedding, I have his wedding gift in my archives, an elaborate 19th-Century giant pop-up wedding card, as well as some antique advertisements that I had framed). Then I moved to L.A. later that year and saw him a few times when he visited there. Back before the Internet it was letter writing that connected us and I mostly sent what I thought were funny collages etc.
But eventually life's challenges and events left us more or less out of touch in more recent years. The last time I saw him was after I moved back to Jersey and he did a reading at Seton Hall University in the town I grew up in and now live nearby. I went to see him and David, and when he saw me in the audience he announced, "Michael Lally's here, the author of the famous South Orange Sonnets," which none of the mostly student audience seemed to know or care about, but it was, as usual, very generous of him to acknowledge me that way and remember the connection of my poems to the town he was reading in.
I don't think he ever knew how much he meant to me, but I hope he did. He had a well-rewarded poet's life and a wonderful partner in the always supportive and kind David Kermani. I offer my condolences to David and to all of John's many friends and fans. There was never a poet or a person like him and never will be again.
Here's a short poem from his book A WORDLY COUNTRY:
the bruise will stop by later.
For now, the pain pauses in its round,
notes the time of day, the patient's temperature,
leaves a memo for the surrogate: What the hell
did you think you were doing? I mean...
Oh well, less said the better, they all say.
I'll post this at the desk.
God will find the pattern and break it.