Poetry News

Happy Birthday, John Ashbery!

By Harriet Staff
John Ashbery

At Literary Hub, Adam Fitzgerald and Emily Skillings have organized a birthday celebration for John Ashbery, who is 90 years old this year. They've invited 90 of his dearest friends to each select a favorite line from his vast collected works and to explain what makes his poetry so compelling. As Fitzgerald and Skillings write in their introduction: "His work has profoundly shaped, influenced, irritated, vexed, puzzled and/or pleased its world of readers ever since little JA began writing. His very first poem was penned in 1935, when he was eight years old: 'The tall haystacks are great sugar mounds / These are the fairies’ camping grounds.'" More, from their introduction:

Below, we invite you to read line selections and contributions from some of his most devoted fans, readers that include preeminent artists, critics, editors, educators, filmmakers, scholars, translators, poets, and publishers. Of course, playing favorites with Ashbery’s poetry is harder than simply having too many choices. His poetics, arguably, push against the very idea of exclusivity, given his syntactic tendency to rush past the merely quotable and singular line unit. Ashbery’s poems reveal a biosphere of verbal affects, their idioms and dictions drawn from all over the literary, vernacular maps of American English, French, and other languages. 

Even so, Ashbery’s syntax has morphed over time, a mixture of elegance and radical experimentation that inaugurated his early career from Some Trees (1956) and The Tennis Court Oath (1962) to The Double Dream of Spring (1970); later becoming more pythonic and sprawling between 1972’s Three Poems and 1991’s Flow Chart; until finally arriving in its more collaged yet clipped form since 2007’s A Worldly Country.

We cherish the anecdotes and interpretations these readers bring to encountering, remembering, and even re-remembering his poems. Such abundance pays tribute to the many lives that books, poems, and phrases take on as they continue to live out their own strange meanings in our collective imaginations. Their staying power is not only a testament to one of our greatest poets, but to the very gifts that reading a poem, that time in its passing, are—to what we all may bring to such life-granting work as John Ashbery’s. Here’s to another century in the world for this poet’s work as it surprises and delights new readers, many of whom are surely not even born yet.

Read everyone's contributions at Literary Hub.

Originally Published: July 28th, 2017