John Ashbery

b. 1927
John Ashbery

John Ashbery is recognized as one of the greatest twentieth-century American poets. He has won nearly every major American award for poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Griffin International Award, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Ashbery's poetry challenges its readers to discard all presumptions about the aims, themes, and stylistic scaffolding of verse in favor of a literature that reflects upon the limits of language and the volatility of consciousness. In the New Criterion, William Logan noted: "Few poets have so cleverly manipulated, or just plain tortured, our soiled desire for meaning. [Ashbery] reminds us that most poets who give us meaning don't know what they're talking about." The New York Times Book Review essayist Stephen Koch characterized Ashbery's voice as "a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with a weird pulsating rhythm that fluctuates like a wave between peaks of sharp clarity and watery droughts of obscurity and languor."

Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees (1956) won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The competition was judged by W.H. Auden, who famously confessed later that he hadn’t understood a word of the winning manuscript. Ashbery published a spate of successful and influential collections in the 1960s and ‘70s, including The Tennis Court Oath (1962), The Double Dream of Spring (1970), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) and Houseboat Days (1977). Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, considered by many to be Ashbery’s masterpiece, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, an unprecedented triple-crown in the literary world. Essentially a meditation on Francesco Parmigianino’s painting "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," the narrative poem showcases the influence of visual art on Ashbery’s style, as well as introducing one of his major subjects: the nature of the creative act, particularly as it applies to the writing of poetry. This is also, as Peter Stitt noted, a major theme of Houseboat Days, a volume acclaimed by Marjorie Perloff in Washington Post Book World as "the most exciting, most original book of poems to have appeared in the 1970s." Stitt maintained in the Georgia Review that "Ashbery has come to write, in the poet's most implicitly ironic gesture, almost exclusively about his own poems, the ones he is writing as he writes about them." Roger Shattuck made a similar point in the New York Review of Books: "Nearly every poem in Houseboat Days shows that Ashbery's phenomenological eye fixes itself not so much on ordinary living and doing as on the specific act of composing a poem…Thus every poem becomes an ars poetica of its own condition."

Critics have noted how Ashbery's verse has taken shape under the influence of abstract expressionism, a movement in modern painting stressing nonrepresentational methods of picturing reality. "Modern art was the first and most powerful influence on Ashbery," Helen McNeil declared in the Times Literary Supplement. "When he began to write in the 1950s, American poetry was constrained and formal while American abstract-expressionist art was vigorously taking over the heroic responsibilities of the European avant garde." True to this influence, Ashbery's poems, according to Fred Moramarco in the Journal of Modern Literature, are a "verbal canvas" upon which the poet freely applies the techniques of expressionism. Ashbery's experience as an art critic in France during the 1950s and ‘60s, and in New York for magazines like New York and the Partisan Review strengthened his ties to abstract expressionism. But Ashbery's poetry, as critics have observed, has evolved under a variety of influences besides modern art, becoming in the end the expression of a voice unmistakably his own. Ashbery’s influences include the Romantic tradition in American poetry that progressed from Whitman to Wallace Stevens, the so-called "New York School of Poets" featuring contemporaries such as Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch, and the French surrealist writers with whom Ashbery has dealt in his work as a critic and translator.


Ashbery's style—self-reflexive, multi-phonic, vaguely narrative, full of both pop culture and high allusion—has become "so influential that its imitators are legion," Helen Vendler observed in the New Yorker. Although even his strongest supporters admit that his poetry is often difficult to read and willfully difficult to understand, many critics have commented on the manner in which Ashbery's fluid style conveys a major concern in his poetry: the refusal to impose an arbitrary order on a world of flux and chaos. In his verse, Ashbery attempts to mirror the stream of perceptions of which human consciousness is composed. His poetry is open-ended and multi-various because life itself is, he told Bryan Appleyard in the London Times: "I don't find any direct statements in life. My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness come to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don't think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation. My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life." His poems move, often without continuity, from one image to the next, prompting some critics to praise his expressionist technique and others to accuse him of producing art that is unintelligible, even meaningless.

Ashbery’s poetry—and its influence on younger poets—remains controversial because of just this split in critical opinion: some critics laud what Paul Auster described in Harper’s as Ashbery’s “ability to undermine our certainties, to articulate so fully the ambiguous zones of our consciousness,” while others deplore his obscurantism and insist that his poems, made up of anything and everything, can mean anything and everything. Reflecting upon the critical response to his poem, "Litany," Ashbery once told Contemporary Authors, "I'm quite puzzled by my work too, along with a lot of other people. I was always intrigued by it, but at the same time a little apprehensive and sort of embarrassed about annoying the same critics who are always annoyed by my work. I'm kind of sorry that I cause so much grief."

W.S. Di Piero described the reaction of critics to Ashbery's style as "amusing. On the one hand are those who berate him for lacking the Audenesque 'censor' (that little editing machine in a poet's head which deletes all superfluous materials) or who accuse him of simply being willfully and unreasonably perverse. On the other hand are those reviewers who, queerly enough, praise the difficulty of Ashbery's verse as if difficulty were a positive literary value in itself, while ignoring what the poet is saying."  Helen Vendler offered her summary of the debate in the New Yorker: "It is Ashbery's style that has obsessed reviewers, as they alternately wrestle with its elusive impermeability and praise its power of linguistic synthesis. There have been able descriptions of its fluid syntax, its insinuating momentum, its generality of reference, its incorporation of vocabulary from all the arts and sciences. But it is popularly believed, with some reason, that the style itself is impenetrable. . . . An alternative view says that every Ashbery poem is about poetry."

Ever prolific, Ashbery has published over eighteen books of poetry since Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. His critically acclaimed collection A Wave (1984) won both the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the Bollingen Prize. The long title poem was regarded as his finest since “Self-Portrait.” Ashbery's second epic poem, Flow Chart, was published in 1991. Lawrence Joseph declared in Nation that the poem, "more than any of his other books, portrays the essence of Ashbery's process. . . . Flow Chart is a catalogue, which Ashbery presents as endlessly expansive and open to interpretation, encompassing within its subject matter—well, as much as the poet may imagine." Ashbery’s next collection, Hotel Lautréamont (1992), was met with mixed critical response. Nicholas Everett noted in the Times Literary Supplement, "Those who expect poetry to evoke a specific experience or event, real or fictional, will always find Ashbery's work frustrating or just dull." He added, "Besides, the essential subjects of Ashbery's poetry—subjectivity and time . . .—are themselves general and elusive; and though in passing it says a good deal about them, its means are in the end mimetic rather than discursive."

In more recent Ashbery works, such as Girls on the Run (1999), Chinese Whispers (2002), Where Shall I Wander? (2005) and A Worldly Country (2007), critics have noted an infusion of elegy as the poet contemplates aging and death. In the Nation, Calvin Bedient stated: "For all his experimentation, Ashbery writes (as the important writers have always done) about happiness and woe. If the woe he knows is treated comically, it's still woe." While praising the poems in Chinese Whispers for their "light touch and consistent pacing," Library Journal reviewer Barbara Hoffert noted that in "these autumnal pieces a sense of calm predominates" as "things repeatedly fall, ebb, dissipate, or descend." In the Times Literary Supplement, Stephen Burt compared late-Ashbery to Wallace Stevens, another poet of old age: “if [Ashbery’s poems] do not even seek the kinds of formal completion we find in Stevens, they make up for it in their range of tones—befuddled, affectionate, bubbly, chastened, sombre, alarmed, and then befuddled again.” But, Burt declares, “Ashbery seems more contemporary, more topical, now than when he started writing, though the culture has changed around him more than he has changed: he has become the poet of our multi-tasking, interruption-filled, and entertainment-seeking days.”

Mark Ford, also writing in the Times Literary Supplement, compared Ashbery's poetry to Walt Whitman's. "Like Whitman's, it is essentially a means of involving the reader in the poem on what Whitman calls 'equal terms'. . . . Ashbery's evasions might be seen as motivated by a similar desire to achieve a greater—and more democratic—intimacy by short-circuiting conventional modes of address." Nicholas Jenkins concluded in the New York Times Book Review that Ashbery's poetry "appeals not because it offers wisdom in a packaged form, but because the elusiveness and mysterious promise of his lines remind us that we always have a future and a condition of meaningfulness to start out toward." In 2008, the Library of America published John Ashbery: Collected Poems, 1956-1987, the first collection of a living poet ever published by the series.

Ashbery’s art criticism was collected in Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987 (1989). His series of Norton lectures at Harvard covered six poets who had “probably influenced” his own work, including John Clare, Raymond Roussel and Laura Riding. It was published as Other Traditions: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 2000. His Selected Prose was published in 2005. He has translated numerous French poets, most recently Pierre Martory’s The Landscapist (2008). In addition to his numerous awards, John Ashbery was the poet laureate of New York State from 2001 to 2003. He also served as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and has been the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College.

Career

Writer, critic, and editor. Worked as reference librarian for Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn, NY; Oxford University Press, New York, NY, copywriter, 1951-54; McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, NY, copywriter, 1954-55; New York University, New York, NY, instructor in elementary French, 1957-58; Locus Solus, Lans-en-Vercors, France, editor, 1960-62; New York Herald-Tribune, European edition, Paris, France, art critic, 1960-65; Art International, Lugano, Switzerland, art critic, 1961-64; Art and Literature, Paris, editor, 1963-66; Art News, New York, NY, Paris correspondent, 1964-65, executive editor in New York, NY, 1965-72; New York Magazine, art critic, 1975-80; Partisan Review, poetry editor, 1976-80; Newsweek, art critic, 1980-85. Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Brooklyn, professor of English and codirector of M.F.A. program in creative writing, 1974-90, distinguished professor, 1980-90, distinguished emeritus professor, 1990; Harvard University Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, 1989-90; Bard College, Charles P. Stevenson, Jr. Professor of Languages and Literature, 1990—. Has read his poetry at the Living Theatre, New York, NY, and at numerous universities, including Yale University, University of Chicago, and University of Texas.

Bibliography

  • Turandot and Other Poems (chapbook), Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1953
  • Some Trees (poems), foreword by W. H. Auden, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1956, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1978.
  • The Poems, Tiber Press (New York, NY), 1960.
  • The Tennis Court Oath (poems), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1962.
  • Rivers and Mountains (poems), Holt (New York, NY), 1966.
  • Selected Poems, J. Cape (London, England), 1967.
  • Sunrise in Suburbia, Phoenix Bookshop (New York, NY), 1968.
  • Three Madrigals, Poet’s Press, 1969.
  • (With James Schuyler) A Nest of Ninnies (novel), Dutton (New York, NY), 1969.
  • Fragment (poem; also see below), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1969.
  • Evening in the Country, Spanish Main Press, 1970.
  • The Double Dream of Spring (includes “Fragment,” originally published in book form), Dutton (New York, NY), 1970.
  • The New Spirit, Adventures in Poetry, 1970.
  • (With Lee Hawood and Tom Raworth) Penguin Modern Poets 19, Penguin (New York, NY), 1971.
  • Three Poems, Viking (New York, NY), 1972.
  • The Serious Doll, privately printed, 1975.
  • (With Joe Brainard) The Vermont Notebook (poems), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1975, reprinted, Granary Books (Calais, VT), 2001.
  • Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1975.
  • Houseboat Days (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
  • As We Know (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1979.
  • Shadow Train: Fifty Lyrics, Viking (New York, NY), 1981.
  • (With others) R. B. Kitaj: Paintings, Drawings, Pastels, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC), 1981.
  • (With others) Apparitions (poems), Lord John Press (Northridge, CA), 1981.
  • Fairfield Porter: Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction, New York Graphic Society (New York, NY), 1983.
  • A Wave (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1984.
  • Selected Poems, Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
  • April Galleons, Penguin (New York, NY), 1987.
  • The Ice Storm, Hanuman Books, 1987.
  • Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987 (art criticism), edited by David Bergman, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
  • Three Poems (different text than 1972 volume with same title), Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1989.
  • Haibun, illustrations by Judith Shea, Collectif Génération (Colombes, France), 1990.
  • Flow Chart (poem), Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
  • Hotel Lautreamont, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
  • Three Books (poems), Penguin (New York, NY), 1993.
  • And the Stars Were Shining, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.
  • Can You Hear, Bird, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
  • Pistils (essays), photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, Random House (New York, NY), 1996.
  • Wakefulness, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
  • The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1998.
  • Girls on the Run, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
  • Other Traditions: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2000.
  • Your Name Here: Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
  • As Umbrellas Follow Rain, Qua Books (Lennox, MA), 2001.
  • Chinese Whispers: Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.
  • Where Shall I Wander?, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
  • Selected Prose, edited by Eugene Richie, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2005.
  • A Worldly Country, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 2007.
  • Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 2007.
  • John Ashbery: Collected Poems, 1956-1987, Library of America, No. 187 (New York, NY), 2008

Works have been anthologized in New American Poetry, 1945-1960, Grove (New York, NY), 1960; A Controversy of Poets, edited by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly, Doubleday/Anchor (New York, NY), 1964; L’Avant-Garde aujourd’hui, [Brussels, Belgium], 1965; Anthology of New York Poets, Random House (New York, NY), 1969; The Voice That Is Great within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, Bantam (New York, NY), 1970; Contemporary American Poetry, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1971; Fifty Modern American and British Poets, 1920-1970, edited by Louis Untermeyer, McKay (New York, NY), 1973; and Shake the Kaleidoscope: A New Anthology of Modern Poetry, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1973.

Contributor of poetry to periodicals, including New York Review of Books, Partisan Review, Harper’s, and New Yorker; contributor of art criticism to periodicals, including Art International and Aujourd’hui; contributor of literary criticism to New York Review of Books, Saturday Review, Poetry, Bizarre (Paris, France), and other periodicals.

 


PLAYS

  • The Heroes (one-act; also see below; produced Off-Broadway, 1952; produced in London, England, 1982), in Artists’ Theater, edited by Herbert Machiz, Grove (New York, NY), 1969.
  • The Compromise (three-act; also see below; produced in Cambridge, MA, at the Poet’s Theater, 1956), in The Hasty Papers, Alfred Leslie, 1960.
  • The Philosopher (one-act; also see below), in Art and Literature, number 2, 1964.
  • Three Plays (contains The Heroes, The Compromise, and The Philosopher), Z Press (Calais, VT), 1978.

EDITOR

  • (With others) The American Literary Anthology, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968.
  • (With Thomas B. Hess) Light, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.
  • (With Thomas B. Hess) Painters Painting, Newsweek (New York, NY), 1971.
  • (With Thomas B. Hess) Art of the Grand Eccentrics, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1971.
  • (With Thomas B. Hess) Avant-Garde Art, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1971.
  • Penguin Modern Poets 24: Ken Ward Elmslie, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Penguin (New York, NY), 1974.
  • Richard F. Sknow, The Funny Place, O’Hara (Chicago, IL), 1975.
  • Bruce Marcus, Muck Arbour, O’Hara (Chicago, IL), 1975.
  • (Translator from the French) Max Jacob, The Dice Cup: Selected Prose Poems, SUN (New York, NY), 1979.
  • (With David Lehman) The Best American Poetry, 1988, Scribner (New York, NY), 1989.

Coeditor, One Fourteen, 1952-53.

OTHER

  • (Translator) Jean-Jacques Mayoux, Melville, Grove (New York, NY), 1960.
  • (Translator, as Jonas Berry, with Lawrence G. Blochman) Murder in Montmartre, Dell (New York, NY), 1960.
  • (Translator, as Jonas Berry, with Lawrence G. Blochman) Genevieve Manceron, The Deadlier Sex, Dell (New York, NY), 1961.
  • (Translator) Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantomas, Morrow (New York, NY), 1986.
  • (Translator) Pierre Martory, Every Question but One, Groundwater Press/ InterFlo Editions, 1990.
  • (Translator, with others) Pierre Reverdy, Selected Poems, Wake Forest University Press (Winston-Salem, NC), 1991.
  • (Translator) Pierre Martory, The Landscape Is behind the Door, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY), 1994.
  • John Ashbery in Conversation with Mark Ford, Dufour Editions (Chester Springs, PA), 2003.
  • (Translator) Pierre Martory, The Landscapist, Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 2008.

Collaborator with Joe Brainard on C Comic Books; collaborator with Elliott Carter on musical setting Syringa, produced in New York, NY, 1979. Poetry recordings include Treasury of 100 Modern American Poets Reading Their Poems, Volume 17, Spoken Arts; Poetry of John Ashbery, Jeffrey Norton, and John Ashbery ( “Voice of the Poet” series), Random Audio, 2001. Translator, from the French, of the works of Raymond Roussel, Andre Breton, Pierre Reverdy, Arthur Cravan, Max Jacob, Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud, Noel Vexin, and others.

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  • Listen John Ashbery
    Live readings of two John Ashbery poems by Billy Collins and David Shapiro, from a celebration of Ashbery's poetry put on by The New School in New York City.
Poetry Off the Shelf Essential American Poets Poetry Lectures The Poetry Magazine Podcast
  • Listen Stitched to a Wish
    Ashbery translations of Rimbaud, plus poems from Laura Kasischke, Atsuro Riley, and C.K. Williams.
The Poetry Magazine Podcast
  • Listen You're Always Moving Toward Silence
    The editors discuss a new John Ashbery poem from the March issue. Plus, Seth Abramson, Katy Didden, and Fanny Howe on her memoir The Winter Sun.

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NewsHour Poetry Series

Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

SCHOOL / PERIOD New York School

LIFE SPAN 1927–

John Ashbery

Biography

John Ashbery is recognized as one of the greatest twentieth-century American poets. He has won nearly every major American award for poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Griffin International Award, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Ashbery's poetry challenges its readers to discard all presumptions about the aims, themes, . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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