Remembering John Ashbery

Celebrating the career and legacy of one of our greatest poets.
Black and white image of John Ashbery.

Critics and poets widely acknowledge that American poet John Ashbery (1927-2017) was one of the most important and influential poets of the past 70 years. His first poems were published in Poetry magazine in 1945, when Ashbery was just a teenager, but his name didn't appear next to his poems. Instead, one of his high school classmates took Ashbery's poems and submitted them to the magazine as his own, committing what would become one of the most remembered acts of plagarism in 20th-century poetry. Ashbery became involved in the arts as an undergraduate at Harvard University, and his work was associated with the New York School of Poets—which included friends Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, among others—but Ashbery's contributions to American letters far exceeds any literary schools, styles, or labels.

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). The collection 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.

The author of over 40 collections of poetry, his predominate and defining poetic style—self-reflexive, multi-phonic, vaguely narrative, full of both pop culture and high allusion—soon became "so influential that its imitators are legion," Helen Vendler observed in the New Yorker, over 35 years ago. Although even his strongest supporters recognize 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. 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. The trademark impermeability of his poetry has confused readers and either frustrated or mesmerized critics for decades. Over seven decades, his poetry expands the potential for poetry to resist traditional senses of logic and reductive or simple meanings.

Ashbery was also an accomplished art critic, a translator of numerous French poets, and a long-time teacher and lecturer. He won more awards than can be recounted in this space, virtually every award available to poets today. We hope that the following offerings of articles by and about Ashbery, as well as a selection of his poems—some of them from his 70 years as a contributor to Poetry magazine—begin to demonstrate his wide and significant contributions to English-language poetry in his time.