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John Ashbery at the Movies

Movies show us ourselves as we had not yet learned to recognize us—something in the nature of daily being or happening that quickly gets folded over into ancient history like yesterday’s newspaper, but in so doing a new face has been revealed, a surface on which a new phrase may be written before it rejoins history, or it may remain blank and do so anyway.

— John Ashbery, “The System”

The work of John Ashbery (b. 1927), this country’s most celebrated living poet, engages the cinema on many different levels and in ways that are just starting to be explored by scholars. Indeed, a type of cinematic style and consciousness informs Ashbery’s experiments in creating and subverting meaning through syntax, the sense of place and space in his poems and his frequent juxtaposition of “high” and “popular” culture.

Ashbery rose to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, with his 1975 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror winning the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Although not himself a surrealist, Ashbery's work has been influenced by surrealist filmmakers – his poetry plays with syntax and tone to interrupt and undermine meaning, and sometimes to suspend sense itself, even as it continually suggests events and half-glimpsed narratives.

A lifelong, ardent cinephile, Ashbery dutifully attended campus and local film club screenings during his undergraduate years at Harvard in the 1940s while fully immersing himself in European film, as well as the classical Hollywood cinema so important to his childhood, during his decade in Paris from 1955 to 1965. An occasional and insightful film critic, many of Ashbery's poems and plays make clear reference to the movies that helped inspire them. On the occasion of John Ashbery being awarded the 2009 Harvard Arts Medal, the Harvard Film Archive has invited America's greatest modern poet for a rare conversation about what cinema means to him and to his work. The program assembled here includes favorite films and fond memories as well as works by filmmakers influenced by Ashbery's poetry.