John Ashbery

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John Ashbery
Accepting the 2010 Best of Brooklyn Award
BornJohn Lawrence Ashbery
(1927-07-28)July 28, 1927
Rochester, New York, U.S.
DiedSeptember 3, 2017(2017-09-03) (aged 90)
Hudson, New York, U.S.
OccupationPoet, professor, and art critic
Alma mater Harvard University
Columbia University
Literary movement Surrealism, The New York School, Postmodernism
Notable works Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
Notable awards MacArthur Fellowship, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, Guggenheim Fellowship
SpouseDavid Kermani
John Ashbery signature.svg

John Lawrence Ashbery [1] (July 28, 1927 – September 3, 2017) was an American poet and art critic. [2]


Ashbery is considered the most influential American poet of his time. Oxford University literary critic John Bayley wrote that Ashbery "sounded, in poetry, the standard tones of the age." [3] Langdon Hammer, chair of the English Department at Yale University, wrote in 2008, "No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery" and "No American poet has had a larger, more diverse vocabulary, not Whitman, not Pound." [4] Stephanie Burt, a poet and Harvard professor of English, has compared Ashbery to T. S. Eliot, calling Ashbery "the last figure whom half the English-language poets alive thought a great model, and the other half thought incomprehensible". [5]

Ashbery published more than 20 volumes of poetry and won nearly every major American award for poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror . Renowned for its postmodern complexity and opacity, his work still proves controversial. Ashbery said he wished his work to be accessible to as many people as possible, not a private dialogue with himself. [2] [6] At the same time, he once joked that some critics still view him as "a harebrained, homegrown surrealist whose poetry defies even the rules and logic of Surrealism." [7]


Photo portrait of Ashbery from the dust jacket of his 1975 poetry collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. John Ashbery (1975).jpg
Photo portrait of Ashbery from the dust jacket of his 1975 poetry collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror .

Ashbery was born in Rochester, [8] New York, the son of Helen (née Lawrence), a biology teacher, and Chester Frederick Ashbery, a farmer. [9] He was raised on a farm near Lake Ontario; his brother died when they were children. [10] Ashbery was educated at Deerfield Academy, an all-boys school, where he read such poets as W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas and began writing poetry. Two of his poems were published in Poetry magazine by a classmate who had submitted them under his own name, without Ashbery's knowledge or permission. [11] Ashbery also published a piece of short fiction and a handful of poems—including a sonnet about his frustrated love for a fellow student—in the school newspaper, the Deerfield Scroll. His first ambition was to be a painter: from the age of 11 until he was 15, Ashbery took weekly classes at the art museum in Rochester.

Ashbery at a 2007 tribute to W.H. Auden at Cooper Union in New York City. John Ashbery by David Shankbone.jpg
Ashbery at a 2007 tribute to W.H. Auden at Cooper Union in New York City.

Ashbery graduated in 1949 with an A.B., cum laude , from Harvard College, where he was a member of the Harvard Advocate , the university's literary magazine, and the Signet Society. He wrote his senior thesis on the poetry of W. H. Auden. At Harvard he befriended fellow writers Kenneth Koch, Barbara Epstein, V. R. Lang, Frank O'Hara and Edward Gorey, and was a classmate of Robert Creeley, Robert Bly and Peter Davison. Ashbery went on to study briefly at New York University before receiving an M.A. from Columbia University in 1951.

After working as a copywriter in New York from 1951 to 1955, [12] from the mid-1950s, when he received a Fulbright Fellowship, through 1965, Ashbery lived in France. He was an editor of the 12 issues of Art and Literature (1964–67) and the New Poetry issue of Harry Mathews' Locus Solus (# 3/4; 1962). To make ends meet he translated French murder mysteries, served as the art editor for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune and was an art critic for Art International (1960–65) and a Paris correspondent for ARTnews (1963–66), when Thomas Hess took over as editor. During this period he lived with the French poet Pierre Martory, whose books Every Question but One (1990), The Landscape is behind the Door (1994) and The Landscapist he translated (2008), as he did Arthur Rimbaud (Illuminations), Max Jacob (The Dice Cup), Pierre Reverdy (Haunted House), and many titles by Raymond Roussel. After returning to the United States, he continued his career as an art critic for New York and Newsweek magazines while also serving on the editorial board of ARTnews until 1972. Several years later, he began a stint as an editor at Partisan Review , serving from 1976 to 1980.

During the fall of 1963, Ashbery became acquainted with Andy Warhol at a scheduled poetry reading at the Literary Theatre in New York. He had previously written favorable reviews of Warhol's art. That same year he reviewed Warhol's Flowers exhibition at Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in Paris, describing Warhol's visit to Paris as "the biggest transatlantic fuss since Oscar Wilde brought culture to Buffalo in the nineties". Ashbery returned to New York near the end of 1965 and was welcomed with a large party at the Factory. He became close friends with poet Gerard Malanga, Warhol's assistant, on whom he had an important influence as a poet. In 1967 his poem Europe was used as the central text in Eric Salzman's Foxes and Hedgehogs as part of the New Image of Sound series at Hunter College, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. When the poet sent Salzman Three Madrigals in 1968, the composer featured them in the seminal Nude Paper Sermon, released by Nonesuch Records in 1989. [13]

In the early 1970s, Ashbery began teaching at Brooklyn College, where his students included poet John Yau. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983. [1] In the 1980s, he moved to Bard College, where he was the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Languages and Literature, until 2008, when he retired but continued to win awards, present readings, and work with graduate and undergraduates at many other institutions. He was the poet laureate of New York State from 2001 to 2003, [14] and also served for many years as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He served on the contributing editorial board of the literary journal Conjunctions . In 2008 Ashbery was named the first poet laureate of MtvU, a division of MTV broadcast to U.S. college campuses, with excerpts from his poems featured in 18 promotional spots and the works in their entirety on the broadcaster's website. [15]

Ashbery was a Millet Writing Fellow at Wesleyan University in 2010, and participated in Wesleyan's Distinguished Writers Series. [16] He was a founding member of The Raymond Roussel Society, with Miquel Barceló, Joan Bofill-Amargós, Michel Butor, Thor Halvorssen and Hermes Salceda.

Ashbery lived in New York City and Hudson, New York, with his husband, David Kermani. [17] He died of natural causes on September 3, 2017, at his home in Hudson, at the age of 90. [18] [19]


Ashbery's long list of awards began with the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956. The selection, by W. H. Auden, of Ashbery's first collection, Some Trees, later caused some controversy. [20] [21] [22] The volume was screened out in the contest's early stages and was given to Auden by Chester Kallman after Auden had decided not to award the prize that year because of the poor quality of the volumes he received. [23] Ashbery's early work shows the influence of Auden, along with Wallace Stevens, Boris Pasternak, and many of the French surrealists (his translations from French literature are numerous), though he claimed in a 1956 letter to "hate all modern French poetry, except for Raymond Roussel" and to like his own "wildly inaccurate translations of some of the 20th-century ones, but not the originals". [24]

In the late 1950s, John Bernard Myers, co-owner of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, categorized Ashbery's avant-garde poetry and that of Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Kenward Elmslie and others as a "New York School", despite their very different styles. [25] In 1953 Myers launched the magazine Semi-Colon, in which New York School poets appeared amid an eclectic mix of authors, such as Auden, James Ingram Merill and Saul Bellow. [26]

Ashbery published some work in the avant-garde little magazine Nomad at the beginning of the 1960s. He then wrote two collections while in France, the highly controversial The Tennis Court Oath (1962) and Rivers and Mountains (1966), before returning to New York to write The Double Dream of Spring, published in 1970. [27]

Paul Auster and Ashbery discussing their work at the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival. Paul Auster John Ashbery BBF 2010 Shankbone.jpg
Paul Auster and Ashbery discussing their work at the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival.

Increasing critical recognition in the 1970s transformed Ashbery from an obscure avant-garde experimentalist into one of America's most important poets (though still one of its most controversial). After the publication of Three Poems (1973) came Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror , for which he was awarded the three major American poetry awards: the Pulitzer Prize, [28] the National Book Award, [29] and the National Book Critics Circle Award. [30] The collection's title poem is considered one of the masterpieces of late 20th century American poetic literature.

His subsequent collection, the more difficult Houseboat Days (1977), reinforced Ashbery's reputation, as did 1979's As We Know, which contains the long, double-columned poem "Litany." In 1988, his "Bridge Poem" was installed, using metal letters, on the 375-foot-wide Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis; the poet was selected by the bridge's architect, artist Siah Armajani, and commissioned by the Walker Art Center. [31] By the 1980s and 1990s, Ashbery had become a central figure in American and more broadly English-language poetry, as his number of imitators attested. [32]

Ashbery's works are characterized by a free-flowing, often disjunctive syntax; extensive linguistic play, often infused with considerable humor; and a prosaic, sometimes disarmingly flat or parodic tone. The play of the human mind is the subject of a great many of his poems. He once said that his goal was "to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about". [33] Formally, the earliest poems show the influence of conventional poetic practice, yet by The Tennis Court Oath a much more revolutionary engagement with form appears. [34] Ashbery returned to something approaching a reconciliation between tradition and innovation with many of the poems in The Double Dream of Spring, [35] though his Three Poems are written in long blocks of prose. Although he never again approached the radical experimentation of The Tennis Court Oath poems or The Skaters and "Into the Dusk-Charged Air" from his collection Rivers and Mountains, syntactic and semantic experimentation, linguistic expressiveness, deft, often abrupt shifts of register, and insistent wit remained consistent elements of his work.

Ashbery's art criticism has been collected in the 1989 volume Reported Sightings, Art Chronicles 1957–1987, edited by the poet David Bergman. [36] He wrote one novel, A Nest of Ninnies, with fellow poet James Schuyler, [37] and in his 20s and 30s penned several plays, three of which have been collected in Three Plays (1978). [38] Ashbery's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University were published as Other Traditions in 2000. [39] A larger collection of his prose writings, Selected Prose, appeared in 2005. [6] In 2008, his Collected Poems 1956–1987 was published as part of the Library of America series. This made Ashbery the first living poet to have his work published by the LOA. [40]

Awards and honors





TitleYearFirst publishedReprinted/collected in
East February2014Ashbery, John (March 24, 2014). "East February". The New Yorker . Vol. 90, no. 5. p. 78. Retrieved February 26, 2015.
At North Farm 1984 [45]

Prose, plays and translations

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  1. 1 2 "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved April 25, 2011.
  2. 1 2 Ryzik, Melena (August 27, 2007). "80-Year-Old Poet for the MTV Generation". New York Times . Retrieved August 21, 2007. It is John Ashbery, the prolific 80-year-old poet and frequent award winner known for his dense, postmodern style and playful language. One of the most celebrated living poets, Mr. Ashbery has won MacArthur Foundation and Guggenheim fellowships and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his collection "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror."
  3. Bayley, John (August 15, 1991). "Richly Flows Contingency". New York Review of Books. ISSN   0028-7504 . Retrieved September 10, 2019.
  4. Hammer, Langdon, "‘But I Digress’", review of Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, by John Ashbery, New York Times Book Review, April 20, 2008, accessed same day.
  5. Burt, Stephen (March 26, 2008). "John Ashbery a poet for our times". The Times. London. Retrieved May 6, 2010.
  6. 1 2 3 NPR interview with Ashbery about his collection Where Shall I Wander – including poem audio. March 19, 2005
  7. Ashbery, John. "On Elizabeth Bishop." Selected Prose. 2005.
  8. "John Ashbery". Academy of American Poets. February 4, 2014. Retrieved August 26, 2014.
  9. Curry, Jennifer; Ramm, David; Rich, Mari, eds. (2007). World Authors, 2000–2005. H.W. Wilson. p. 14. ISBN   978-0-8242-1077-9.
  10. "Video: The Other Twenty-Three Hours". Academy of American Poets. 2008. Retrieved August 26, 2014.
  11. "Remembering John Ashbery". Poetry Foundation. September 11, 2017. Retrieved September 12, 2017.
  12. "John Ashbery". Encyclopædia Britannica . Retrieved August 26, 2014.
  13. "Ashbery Research Center archive". Archived from the original on December 14, 2014. Retrieved September 3, 2017.
  14. "New York". US State Poet Laureates. Library of Congress. Retrieved May 8, 2012.
  15. Ryzik, Melena (August 27, 2007). "John Ashbery – mtvU". The New York Times.
  16. John Ashbery Visits, Presents His Poetry, Wesleyanargus. By Marjorie Rivera, Contributing Writer. February 19, 19, 2010. Retrieved October 14, 2012.
  17. Orr, David; Smith, Dinitia (September 3, 2017). "John Ashbery is Dead at 90; a Poetic Voice Often Echoed, Never Matched". The New York Times.
  18. "John Ashbery, regarded as one of the world's greatest poets, dies at age 90, his husband confirms". ABC News . Archived from the original on September 4, 2017. Retrieved September 3, 2017.
  19. "John Ashbery, celebrated and challenging poet, dies at 90". Archived from the original on September 4, 2017. Retrieved September 3, 2017.
  20. "Jascha Kessler – ArtsBeat Blog – The New York Times". Retrieved September 3, 2017.
  21. "The Times & The Sunday Times". Retrieved September 3, 2017.
  22. "The Times & The Sunday Times". Retrieved September 3, 2017.
  23. Shetley, Vernon Lionel (1993). After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America. Durham & London: Duke University Press. p. 109. ISBN   978-0-8223-1342-7.
  24. McGuinness, Patrick (November 15, 2014). "Collected French Translations: Poetry by John Ashbery – review". The Guardian. Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  25. "The Meaning of All This: Talking to John Ashbery About His Past, Present and Future". Observer. January 1, 2013. Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  26. Diggory, Terence (2013). Encyclopedia of the New York School Poets. New York: Infobase Learning. ISBN   978-1-4381-4066-7.
  27. Jordan, Perrin Robert (December 2013). "Rivers and mountains" : the conceptual wedding of the temporal and spatial in the early volumes of John Ashbery. University of Texas Electronic Theses and Dissertations (Thesis).
  28. "Winners in Poetry: Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, by John Ashbery (Viking)". Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  29. 1 2 "National Book Awards – 1976". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-25.
    (With acceptance speech by Ashbery and essay by Evie Shockley from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  30. "National Book Critics Circle: In Retrospect: Maureen N. McLane on John Ashbery's "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror" – Critical Mass Blog". Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  31. Schmelzere, Paul (September 12, 2017). "Not a Conduit but a Place: John Ashbery Reads his Poem for Siah Armajani's Bridge" via Walker Reader.
  32. "Let Us Now Praise John Ashbery – Open Source with Christopher Lydon". September 8, 2017. Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  33. O'Rourke, Meghan (March 9, 2005). "The Instruction Manual" . Retrieved September 3, 2017 via Slate.
  34. Straub, Peter (2007). "The Oath Unbroken: The Tennis Court Oath (1962)". Conjunctions (49): 259–262. JSTOR   24516471.
  35. Longenbach, James (September 3, 1997). "Ashbery and the Individual Talent". American Literary History. 9 (1): 103–127. doi:10.1093/alh/9.1.103. JSTOR   490097.
  36. Brunet, Elena (September 24, 1989). "REPORTED SIGHTINGS: Art Chronicles, 1957–1987 by John Ashbery edited by David Bergman (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 417 pp.)". Los Angeles Times. ISSN   0458-3035 . Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  37. "The Making of John Ashbery and James Schuyler's A Nest of Ninnies | Dalkey Archive Press". Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  38. Ashbery, John (1988). Three Plays. Carcanet. ISBN   978-0-85635-745-9.
  39. "Other Traditions — John Ashbery | Harvard University Press". Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  40. "The second volume of John Ashbery's collected poems is a tribute". The Economist . Retrieved January 26, 2018.
  41. "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". American Academy of Achievement.
  42. "John Ashbery: The existential loneliness of a brilliant poet". America Magazine. September 8, 2017. Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  43. "Robert Creeley Award". Retrieved March 19, 2015.
  44. "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters". National Book Foundation. Retrieved March 11, 2012.
    (With acceptance speech by Ashbery.)
  45. Ashbery, John (April 9, 1984). "At North Farm". The New Yorker.

Further reading