Poetry News

RIP John Ashbery (1927-2017)

By Harriet Staff
John Ashbery

Yesterday, we received the devastating news of the death of John Ashbery, a poet whose seemingly boundless imagination opened more avenues of exploration for generations of poets and readers alike than possibly any other writer of his generation or poet since. Beyond the honors bestowed upon Ashbery during his life, essentially all possible honors a poet might be awarded, his body of work created the paradigm for writing poetry in America during the latter half of the twentieth century and continuing on through to the current moment. We can expect further possibilities for the art of poetry to be found in Ashbery's verse for a long time to come.  Many news outlets have noted Ashbery's passing, but we'll begin with word from The Guardian:

John Ashbery, an enigmatic genius of modern poetry whose energy, daring and boundless command of language raised American verse to brilliant and baffling heights, died early Sunday at age 90.

Ashbery, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and often mentioned as a Nobel candidate, died at his home in Hudson, New York. His husband, David Kermani, said his death was from natural causes.

Few poets were so exalted in their lifetimes. Ashbery was the first living poet to have a volume published by the Library of America dedicated exclusively to his work. His 1975 collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, was the rare winner of the American book world’s unofficial triple crown: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize. In 2011, he was given a National Humanities Medal and credited with changing “how we read poetry”.

Among a generation that included Richard Wilbur, WS Merwin and Adrienne Rich, Ashbery stood out for his audacity and for his wordplay, for his modernist shifts between high oratory and everyday chatter, for his humor and wisdom and dazzling runs of allusions and sense impressions.

“No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery,” Langdon Hammer wrote in the New York Times in 2008. “Ashbery’s phrases always feel newly minted; his poems emphasize verbal surprise and delight, not the ways that linguistic patterns restrict us.”

But to love Ashbery, it helped to make sense of Ashbery, or least get caught up enough in such refrains as “You are freed/including barrels/heads of the swan/forestry/the night and stars fork” not to worry about their meaning. 

Writing for Slate, the critic and poet Meghan O’Rourke advised readers “not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music”. Writer Joan Didion once attended an Ashbery reading simply because she wanted to determine what the poet was writing about.

“I don’t find any direct statements in life,” Ashbery once explained to the Times in London. “My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness comes to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don’t think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation.”

Interviewed by the Associated Press in 2008, Ashbery joked that if he could turn his name into a verb, “to Ashbery”, it would mean “to confuse the hell out of people”.

Ashbery had a long history with Poetry magazine, beginning in the 1950s and continuing into every decade of his life. Of particular note was the publication of "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," the titular poem to the collection that would go on to win Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976, which originally appeared in the August 1974 issue. More recently, in the April 2011 issue, Ashbery contributed a portfolio of translations to the magazine from Rimbaud's Illuminations. In 2015, Ashbery's "The Mauve Notebook" was featured on the then new podcast for the Foundation, PoetryNow. Even until a year ago, Ashbery continued to contribute poems, with his now final appearance in the magazine with four poems from the March 2016 issue. We encourage you to head over to our new collection, "Remembering John Ashbery," to read a poem and celebrate John's life and legacy.

Originally Published: September 4th, 2017
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