John Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, to Chester Frederick and Helen (Lawrence) Ashbery. He spent much of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm in northern New York, close to the shores of Lake Ontario. He attended Deerfield Academy and went on to Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1949; his undergraduate thesis examined the poetry of the British writer W. H. Auden. During Ashbery’s early years he had wanted to be a painter, but he studied English literature at college, and in 1951 he was granted an M.A. by Columbia University for his study of English novelist Henry Green. He did further graduate work at New York University, and later in France, on the experimental writer Raymond Roussel.
Between 1951 and 1954, Ashbery worked as a copywriter for the Oxford University Press in New York City and at McGraw-Hill in 1954 and 1955. During the 1950’s he associated with a small group of young writers, including James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara, who attempted to bring the theories of abstract Impressionistic painting into literature and who came to be known as the New York school of poetry. Ashbery, however, has always rejected the suggestion that they were ever so cohesively organized as to be a “school.”
In 1953, Ashbery published his first volume of verse, Turandot, and Other Poems. From the beginning critics were skeptical about the lack of clarity in his poems, although his enormous sophistication, his use of allusion, and his wittiness were quickly appreciated. In 1955, still pursuing his academic interests, he received a Fulbright scholarship to study in France at the university...
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