THE RECIPIENT of countless American and international awards for poetry and the author of over twenty-five collections, John Ashbery (1927–2017) was a groundbreaking and influential poet, as well as an acclaimed art critic, collagist, and translator from the French. His work was marked by its intertextuality, fluidity, and innovation. An Ashbery poem, to quote Ann Lauterbach, is “an enactment of the ways in which a self and world are as mobile and intertwined as molecules of oxygen.”
“Sacred and Profane Dances” is an as yet undated grouping of prose poems, likely from early in Ashbery’s career. Its first two sections, “ATTAINDER” and “Sacred and Profane Dances” loosely follow the parable of the ten virgins from the Gospel of Matthew, while its third section, “Tempest,” seems to be a separate prose work. The most significant clue that these are early poems is the capitalization of “ATTAINDER.” According to his biographer, Karin Roffman, Ashbery capitalized his titles until around 1952.
David Kermani, Ashbery’s husband, found the typescripts of these poems in Ashbery’s study in their New York City apartment in the spring of 2018. Grouped together were various drafts of “ATTAINDER” and “Sacred and Profane Dances,” typed on the same typewriter, along with computer typescripts incorporating Ashbery’s handwritten revisions for “ATTAINDER,” and a computer typescript of “Tempest,” all fastened together with a paperclip. Eugene Richie, Ashbery’s former assistant and editor of his Selected Prose (2004), remembers making the computer typescripts from the original typescript drafts for possible inclusion in Selected Prose in the late 1990s. According to Richie, Ashbery ultimately felt that these prose poems didn’t fit with the nonfiction work of that collection, and so they were not included.
While it’s unlikely that “Tempest” was part of the same project as “ATTAINDER” and “Sacred and Profane Dances,” since it breaks from the parable of the ten virgins, it is plausible that it is part of the same period of prose experimentation. I hesitated about whether to include it in the grouping, but ultimately decided that its charms as a text outweighed its status as an outsider. Since the series as a whole was untitled, I have named it after its central poem.
Ashbery had an impressive collection of different versions of the Bible, including an old set of Bibles that had belonged to his family. According to Kermani, Ashbery was, for a time, a subscriber to the Anchor Bible Commentary Series, in which new translations of books of the Bible were annotated, contextualized, illustrated, and commented upon by various scholars. In this unusual project, Ashbery takes on the role of the biblical commentator.
The parable of the ten virgins (or sometimes the wise and foolish virgins) imagines the day of judgment as a wedding feast. In the tale, when the bridegroom arrives unexpectedly, the virgins who have refilled their lamps with oil are rewarded and welcomed to the feast, while those who aren’t ready are punished and cast out.
Ashbery’s playful expansion of this parable seems to take pity on the ostracized virgins—even coming to their defense in places—and imagines a kind of social architecture to the household and its various servants. The piece is also a meditation on the nature of arrival, both in quotidian and spiritual terms. In our conversations about this manuscript, Roffman kindly pointed me towards Ashbery’s early poem “A Sermon: Amos 8–11:14,” which she discovered was written “the summer between his freshman and sophomore years” at Harvard on his family’s farm in Sodus, New York. This poem also mentions virgins and reflects on a prophetic biblical text. Roffman discusses this poem in detail in The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life, in connection with Ashbery’s “religious period” at Harvard, citing letters between Ashbery and his roommate, Bob Hunter:
He vigorously defended his religious interests to his increasingly impatient friends… Bob suspected that John’s flirtation with religion was primarily a desire to resolve “the vast contradictions that existed within his soul.” John argued that it was even more self-interested; at the very least, he said, it would “be a pity to be caught on the losing team on the Day of Atonement.”
J.S. Bach’s 1731 cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Sleepers Awake) is also based on the Matthew parable. Ashbery’s sympathy for “sleepers” everywhere is well-documented. A list poem titled “Sleepers Awake” appears in Can You Hear, Bird (1995): “I sleep when I cannot avoid it; my writing and sleeping are constantly improving.”
Introduction and endnotes by Emily Skillings are adapted from Parallel Movement of the Hands: Five Unfinished Longer Works by John Ashbery (forthcoming from Ecco/HarperCollins, Spring 2021).