Major American poet of the first rank. John Ashbery's mostly farm-bound childhood in upstate New York was lonely and ordinary, excepting the tragic loss of his older brother from leukemia when Ashbery was 13. Ashbery attended Deerfield Academy, then matriculated at Harvard, where he wrote poems, served on the Harvard Advocate, and became friends with fellow poets Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch. (Ashbery, O'Hara, and Koch, along with James Schuyler and Barbara Guest, would later be tagged as poetry's “New York School.”) Ashbery's first major book of poems, Some Trees (1956), was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, chosen over O'Hara's manuscript. O'Hara, however, held no grudge and later reviewed the book generously in Poetry magazine, calling it “the most beautiful first book to appear in America since Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium” (313). The comparison was apt; Ashbery's greatest supporter, literary critic Harold Bloom, has called the second half of the twentieth century the age of Ashbery, as the first half had been the age of Stevens.
Ashbery is now so celebrated, it is difficult to imagine a time when he wrote in obscurity. Yet the austere sonorities, surreal tableaux, and illogical associative leaps of Some Trees mostly befuddled readers (including Auden, who in introduction for the book expressed reservations about Ashbery's surrealism). Ashbery's second book, The Tennis Court Oath (1962), written while Ashbery was living in Paris, was even more off-putting. The book's centerpiece, the long poem “Europe,” was composed largely from fragments from an English-language children's book. Ashbery has said that with The Tennis Court Oath, he was attempting to reexamine poetry by taking it apart. Ashbery's expatriation in France had the effect of making him see language as something by turns foreign yet intimate (in the case of French), as familiar yet estranged (in the case of English). The Tennis Court Oath would finally provide inspiration to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, such as Charles Bernstein, for whom Ashbery's use of collage foreground language's material properties, much as Pollock's paintings emphasize painterliness over any recognizable figure or subject matter. (Indeed, parsing “subject matter” in Ashbery's elusive work is often fruitless; it is better to listen for the “how said” than the “what said.”)
Though Ashbery has to some degree disowned the extreme experimentalism of The Tennis Court Oath, he would continue to develop “other realities,” marrying his surrealist impulses to a wistful, occasionally ironic romanticism. Ashbery's third book, Rivers and Mountains (1966), was seen as a return to form and was nominated for a National Book Award. “Soonest Mended,” from Ashbery's fourth book, The Double Dream of Spring (1970), is the single poem that best crystallizes the early Ashbery idiom. Allegedly written for Frank O'Hara, who died in 1966, “Soonest Mended” is elegiac in tone and, though abstract in overview, is braided with memorable Keatsian phrases and moving particulars. Three Poems (1972), Ashbery's fifth major book, provided the poet with another departure. The length of a short novel, the eponymous three poems are in fact prose meditations, drier and more discursive in tone—akin to Darwin's prose—than the rich, condensed lyricism typical of, say, Arthur Rimbaud's prose poetry. Here and elsewhere, Ashbery's finds poetic power in his deviation from genre conventions, even within a genre—prose poetry—already seen as experimental or marginal.
Ashbery's breakthrough would finally come in 1976 with his book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Ashbery's book-award hat trick transformed him, seemingly overnight, into a literary celebrity. The book's long title poem concerns Parmigianino's 1524 self-portrait, which the painter made by gazing on his reflection in the titular convex mirror. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is more essayistic in tone and ostensibly logical in structure—as if Ashbery were impersonating an unusually sensitive cicerone—without sacrificing any of Ashbery's felicities of phrase or feeling. Poets, it has often been said, write about painters to test precepts about their own art making. Thus, Ashbery's choice of a painter as realistic as Parmigianino to reflect and refract his own artistic practice is a surprising move, though his choice of such a canonical, conservative subject may account for the wider readership and acceptance this poem garnered Ashbery.
Ashbery's next volume, Houseboat Days (1977), is perhaps his most consistently excellent, interesting, and representative volume and is thus an ideal starting point for the reader unfamiliar with his work. (Ashbery's 1984 Selected Poems is also indispensable in this regard.) Houseboat Days also contains a number of small masterpieces: “Wet Casements,” “Syringa,” “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” and two ars poetica (poems that address the writer's own practice): “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name” and “What Is Poetry.” Ashbery, even at his peak, refused to rest on his laurels. His next volume, As We Know (1979), contains his most experimental and impossible work: the long poem “Litany,” written in two columns meant to be read simultaneously. The volume also contains “My Erotic Double,” one of the few poems of this period to take up and pursue homosexuality as a subject—though treated, as always, with Ashbery's customary irony.
At least one critic, John Shoptaw, has tied Ashbery's evasive poetic style to his sexual discretion, forged in the formative McCarthyism of the early 1950s, when homosexuality was publicly condemned and self-identified homosexuals feared government retribution (Ashbery had registered as homosexual to avoid the draft). Ashbery's early poem, “The Thinnest Shadow,” obliquely addresses the poet's need, at this time, to banish gay subject matter to the shadows. Only in the 1970s would Ashbery begin incorporating more explicit gay subject matter, and even then in coded form, as with “The Fairies’ Song,” in The Vermont Notebook (1976). Because Ashbery is not a directly autobiographical poet, such omissions do not seem notable in themselves—they are typical of Ashbery's mode, which is generally untethered from narrative and more interested in the movement of thought than in the calcification of identity. Yet it seems likely that Ashbery developed this aesthetic approach—writing “anybody's autobiography” rather than his own—in response to the virulent homophobia of his early adulthood.
In his last decades, Ashbery has continued to be a strong and prolific writer. Though Flow Chart (1998), Ashbery's 215-page book-length magnum opus was a divisive work—some critics find it unmoored and tiresome—it is nevertheless an important testament to Ashbery's restless need to innovate. In his late 70s and now 80s, Ashbery has increased his rate of productivity, writing shorter, more accessible poems that are alternately parodic and tender. The ebbing of life and love are Ashbery's growing concerns in these works, collected in Notes from the Air (2007), which offers a generous collection of the writing done between 1984, when Ashbery's Selected Poems was assembled, and the poet's 80th year. Though many readers continue to reject Ashbery's work as “nonsense” or “gibberish,” his influence on the culture has been vast and transformative, even beyond the borders of poetry. Many musicians and filmmakers have cited Ashbery as a seminal influence, and in 2007 Ashbery was chosen, at the age of 80, as Music Television's (MTV) first poet laureate.
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1927- ♦ US poet, critic and novelist Born in Rochester, New York, he attended Harvard, where he became close friends with the poets Kenneth Koch, Fra