John Ashbery 1927–
(Full name John Lawrence Ashbery; also wrote under the pseudonym Jonas Berry) American poet, critic, editor, novelist, dramatist, and translator.
Ashbery is considered one of the most influential contemporary American poets. Much of his verse features long, conversational passages in which he experiments with syntactical structure and perspective, producing poems that seem accessible yet resist interpretation. Although some critics fault Ashbery's works for obscurity and lack of thematic depth, many regard him as an innovator whose works incorporate randomness, invention, and improvisation to explore the complex and elusive relationships between existence, time, and perception.
Born in Rochester, New York, Ashbery attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Graduating from Harvard in 1949, he went on to earn a M.A. in English from Columbia University in 1951. He enjoyed early success as a poet when Some Trees, his first major publication, was recognized by the Yale Younger Poets series in 1956. After having worked in publishing in New York City for several years, he studied in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship. He remained in Paris for ten years, supporting himself as a poet, translator, and art critic for the Herald Tribune, among other publications. He returned to New York in 1966 and was Executive Editor of Art News until 1972. In 1974 he began teaching at Brooklyn College where he served as Distinguished Professor of English from 1980-1990. Ashbery has been awarded many of poetry's highest honors, including a NEA grant, a National Book Award, a National Book Critics' Circle Award, a Mac-Arthur Foundation Fellowship, and a Pulitzer Prize. Ashbery currently teaches at Bard College, a post he has held since 1991.
Ashbery received immediate critical recognition with the publication of his first volume Some Trees in 1956; early in his career he was frequently linked by critics to the avant-garde "New York School" of poetry which included such surrealist and abstract impressionist poets as Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch. Although many critics rejected the experimental nature of Ashbery's works during the 1960s, his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, published in 1975, is widely regarded as a masterpiece in the realm of contemporary poetry. The long title work is based on a
painting by Francesco Parmigianino, an Italian Renaissance artist who painted a portrait of himself at work in his studio reflecting his observations while peering into a convex mirror. Like the painting, the poem offers a distorted and subjective view of reality, leading many critics to assert that this is Ashbery's representation of the human condition. The poet meditates on the painting and his personal life while creating images of himself at work on the poem. The volume established Ashbery as a highly original poet whose works subvert traditional concepts of structure, content, and theme.
In his 1978 collection As We Know, Ashbery explores themes that thread through many of his verses: the instability of personal identity, the passage of time, and the intriguing relationship between art and life. His recent works, including April Galleons and his book-length poem Flow Chart, have continued to demonstrate his sense of humor and his penchant for bizarre juxtapositions of words and phrases and experimentation with poetic form. These last volumes, as well as his 1994 collection And the Stars Were Shining, explore and celebrate Ashbery's experience as a poet.
Ashbery is considered a prominent and influential figure in the mainstream of American poetry and is among the most highly honored poets of his generation. Critics frequently note the influence of visual art and film in his verse, observing that the poet's experience as an art critic has instilled him with sensitivity to the interrelatedness of visual and verbal artistic mediums. The Abstract Expressionist movement in modern painting, which stresses non-representational methods of picturing reality, is a particularly important presence in his poems, which are often viewed as "verbal canvases." Although some critics have faulted the seemingly rambling and disconnected quality of such works as The Tennis Court Oath and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, supporters of Ashbery's art assert that his poetry reflects the open-ended and multifarious quality of sensory perception. Although his poetry is occasionally faulted for obscurity, many commentators argue that traditional critical approaches often lead to misinterpretations of Ashbery's works, which are concerned with the process of creating art rather than the final product.
Turandot and Other Poems 1953
Some Trees 1956
The Poems 1960
The Tennis Court Oath 1962
Rivers and Mountains 1966
Selected Poems 1967
Three Madrigals 1968
Sunrise in Suburbia 1968
Evening in the Country 1970
The Double Dream of Spring 1970
The New Spirit 1970
Three Poems [With James Brainard] 1972
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror 1975
The Vermont Notebook 1975
Houseboat Days 1977
As We Know: Poems 1979
Shadow Train: Fifty Lyrics 1981
A Wave 1984
Selected Poems 1985
April Galleons 1987
Flow Chart 1991
Hotel Lautréamont 1992
And the Stars Were Shining 1994
Can You Hear Me, Bird 1995
Other Major Works
The Heroes (drama) 1952
The Compromise (drama) 1956
The Philosopher (drama) 1964
A Nest of...
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SOURCE: A review of Three Poems, in The New York Times Book Review, April 9, 1972, pp. 4, 18, 20.
[In the following essay, Zweig commends Ashbery's use of hermetic language.]
I read each new book by John Ashbery with the same puzzlement and fascination. Ashbery's finely tuned style never lapses into the commonplace. Every poem creates a mood of density and discretion, which is almost magical. And yet one never knows quite what the poems are about. His fine elaboration of images and arguments forms a concealing net, a sort of camouflage that works not so much by covering over as by fascinating, so that one forgets to pursue one's hunger for logic amid the glories of pure language. Not since Hart Crane has an American poet made difficulty so thoroughly into a means of expression.
Here are the opening lines of "The Skaters," from Ashbery's collection Rivers and Mountains:
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Prod out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way...
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SOURCE: "John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara: The Painterly Poets," in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. X, No. 3, September, 1976, pp. 436-72.
[In the following excerpt, Moramarco discusses the poetry of John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara in light of the Abstract Expressionist movement in American painting]
"Insight, if it is occasional, functions critically; if it is casual, insight functions creatively."
Frank O'Hara, Jackson Pollock
The title poem in John Ashbery's new collection, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, begins with a precise de scription of the remarkable painting by Parmigianino which inspired it. Looking at the poem and painting together,1 one is struck by Ashbery's unique ability to explore the verbal implications of painterly space, to capture the verbal nuances of Parmigianino's fixed and distorted image. The poem virtually resonates or extends the painting's meaning. It transforms visual impact to verbal precision. I am reminded of an antithetical statement by the Abstract Expressionist painter Adolph Gottlieb, whose haunting canvases juxtaposing luminous spheres and explosive brush strokes have all sorts of suggestive connections with Ashbery's poetry. Gottlieb writes about his own painting:
I frequently hear the question "What do these images mean?"...
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SOURCE: "Reading John Ashbery's Poems," in The Denver Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 4, Winter, 1976, pp. 6-34.
[In the following essay, Kalstone traces the thematic and stylistic development of Ashbery's verse.]
In 1972 John Ashbery was invited to read at Shiraz, in Iran, where for several years the Empress had sponsored a festival gathering music, art, and drama remarkable, even notorious, for its modernity: Peter Brook's Orghast, Robert Wilson's week-long production Ka Mountain and GUARDenia Terrace, Merce Cunningham's dances, the music of Stockhausen and John Cage. Ashbery and another visitor, David Kermani, reported that "to a country without significant modern traditions, still under the spell of its own great past, where a production of Shaw or Ibsen would count as a novelty, such an effort even might seem quixotic". Taking into consideration Iranian critics who demanded Shakespeare first or Chekhov first, Ashbery's own response was delighted and characteristic: "The important thing is to start from the beginning, that is, the present. Oscar Wilde's 'Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves' might well have been the motto of the festival, and its justification." That oversimplifies his view of tradition and modernism, this poet who has rich and felt connections, for example, to Traherne and Marvell as well as to recent poets like Wallace Stevens and...
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SOURCE: "To Create the Self," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. XXIII, No. 3, October, 1977, pp. 299-313.
[In the following excerpt, Schulman explores the defining characteristics of Ashbery's visionary poetry]
"From this I shall evolve a man,"1 Wallace Stevens wrote of the mind's efforts to integrate the self by controlling a swarm of external phenomena. And in our time there are poets whose work is built on the awareness of disorder, confusion, and change, and for whom those very conditions generate the discovery of an interior life through powers above the level of reason. That self-discovery is attained by revelation that is not ultimate, as is the mystic's or the saint's; it is, however, genuine, in that the poet has broken through the limitations of conventional vision to see and to proclaim the truth of what has been seen.
The poetry of Arthur Gregor, John Ashbery, and Jean Garrigue is, each in its own way, based on genuine vision and on revelation through clouds of distress and exile. Each has developed a method of meditation through which the soul may strive toward unity of being. Central to the work of each poet is a vision of the integrated self, as well as the unification of all people and the union of people and things. Each poet dramatizes the belief in the power of art to reveal a continuous present and to cut through the limiting divisions of days, hours,...
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SOURCE: A review of As We Know, in The American Poetry Review, Vol. X, No. 1, January-February, 1981, pp. 34-6.
[In the following positive review, Yeaton praises linguistic aspects of "Litany."]
Imagine, a sixty-five page poem written in two columns to be read simultaneously. That means you can't read it—alone, anyway. You'll need two readers, male and female for the difference in pitch, but even then, as my friends and I found after taping "Litany," you can't really say you've heard the poem. Concentrating on one of the readers means ignoring the other; listening for the interplay between voices means missing the sense of each. At times they seem to overhear each other, to respond by echoing or by shifting to an aspect of the other's topic. Or one voice stops and the other, filling the silence left, assumes the power of both. Inevitably, they compete for attention, and this is nothing new for followers of Ashbery, though in "Litany" he has discovered a form which is perhaps his clearest expression to date of the fact that:
Sometimes a pleasant, dimpling
Stream will seem to flow so slowly all of a
Sudden that one wonders if it was this
Rather than the other that one was supposed to read.
When the two monologues click, when for example we hear "materialize" and "dematerialize" pronounced...
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SOURCE: "On the Virtues of Modesty: John Ashbery's Tactics against Transcendence," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XLII, No. 1, March, 1981, pp. 65-84.
[In the following essay, Fite analyzes the opaque nature of Ashbery's verse, viewing it as an important aspect in the development of the poet's "aesthetic strategy."]
John Ashbery provides our belated time an ars poetica most notable for its determined modesty. Poetry may be "grace," as our mild-mannered poet comes to assert in his recent long poem, "Litany," but it is a grace that neither seeks nor delivers that chimerical Romantic transcendence which remains the preoccupation of many of our best poets and critics alike today. Writing cannot "transcend life, " Ashbery tells us in "Litany," precisely because "it is both / Too remote and too near. " Writing is at the same time removed from life, from "what continues," and yet part of it, part of the ongoingness of things. "The Wrong Kind of Insurance" makes the writer's dilemma explicit:
We too are somehow impossible, formed of so many different things,
Too many to make sense to anybody.
We straggle on as quotients, hard-to-combine
Ingredients, and what continues
Does so with our participation and consent.
It is important to note that this is a dilemma that destroys...
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SOURCE: "John Ashbery and the Idea of the Reader," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, Fall, 1982, pp. 493-514.
[In the following essay, Costello explores the relationship between author and reader in Ashbery's verse.]
"My way is, to conjure you"
—Epilogue, As You Like It
It has been fashionable in the last decade to discuss separately the writer's attention to his act of composition and the reader's experience of that composition. But rather little has been said about the writer's idea of the reader, about his dependence on the reader, his sense of the gap between fictive and actual reader, his efforts to overcome or deny that gap. Reading is as much Ashbery's subject as writing is, and it is through his idea of reading that his self-reflexiveness escapes banal solipsism and opens onto larger questions of communication. In Rivers and Mountains Ashbery first uses the reader as his model for the experience of otherness and he continues this habit throughout the seventies, increasingly inscribing the reader in the text to the point of a second column in "Litany." Such reflections on the reader do not reduce the meaning of the text, but on the contrary give immediacy to its great themes. Here is not the image of experience but experience itself, not the record of a relationship but the establishment of one....
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SOURCE: "The Comic Thrust of Ashbery's Poetry," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 1-14.
[In the following essay, Fink explores the role of humor in Ashbery's verse.]
Although John Ashbery's poems seldom cause even his most devoted readers to double over in laughter, his work is persistently humorous. Perhaps the most salient aspect of this humor can be defined in negative terms: a relatively high number of sentences in the poetry seem to "ask" not to be taken seriously as the direct expression of information that matters. For the seasoned reader of Ashbery, invisible (sometimes visible) quotation marks form around any statement that is the slightest bit portentous. Noticing that a poem in the recent Shadow Train (1981)1 begins with the exhortation, "Trust me," one chuckles and realizes that this poet's language can, most of the time, only be trusted to be untrustworthy. And even when an Ashbery poem ends with a solemn, lyrical tone, all of the playfulness invariably preceding it tends to make the reader suspect that the coda, too, should be interpreted ironically.
Many of Ashbery's readers have pointed to his refusal to make "serious" statements as a central feature of the poetry, but none have fully explored the essentially comic attitude that stems from that choice or the full range of humorous effects that largely...
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SOURCE: An interview in New Orleans Review, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 59-63.
[In the following interview, Ashbery discusses influences on his work, his creative process, and his poetic philosophy.]
[Munn]: Besides writing poetry, what are your current projects?
[Ashbery]: I was fortunate enough to get a Mac Arthur fellowship, which has relieved me of the necessity of earning a living for five years at least. But during this time it seems that have agreed to write a number of articles, essays, art reviews, and so on, all of which procrastinate about, and can't seem to do anything with the time I am procrastinating about these other things. Basically I have written more or less the same amount of poetry I normally would have if I had been working at a job. I'm trying to get out from under these other commitments, and when I do that I would like to try to write some different kinds of things. I wrote some plays years ago in the fifties which I never really did anything with, although I still like them. And I would like to go back and do something in that form. And also I would like to write some fiction, which I haven't really done, except for a novel I collaborated on with the poet James Schuyler, called A Nest of Ninnies, which was published—which I don't really consider to be a novel. It was really a kind of game we played to amuse ourselves, never expecting...
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SOURCE: "Ashbery: Poet for All Seasons," in Raritan, Vol. XV, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 144-61.
[In the following review, Meyer provides a laudatory assessment of Hotel Lautréamont and And the Stars Were Shining.]
For upwards of two decades now, since the acclaim that greeted his 1975 collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, John Ashbery has been the United States' preeminent poet, with books selling in the tens of thousands, both at home and abroad. In a recent issue of the British journal PN Review, two dozen poets and critics set out to "appraise the mark this American writer" has made and continues to make in Britain—a mark, we are told, that differs appreciably from his influence in the United States. Among the sources of Ashbery's widespread popularity is a feature of his work that he does not share with other contemporary writers and which might therefore account for some of his individual appeal. This is a quite exceptional openness to the influence of earlier writers, especially the first two generations of this century's English-speaking poets. It is this continuity with the poets largely responsible for making modern poetry consequential for readers today that makes Ashbery so recognizably a poet of consequence himself.
Along with his receptivity to the work of other poets, Ashbery exhibits an equal willingness to draw on the unexpected turns of...
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SOURCE: '"Whispers out of Time': The Syntax of Being in the Poetry of John Ashbery," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. XLI, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 281-305.
[In the following essay, Norton analyzes Ashbery's verse in relationship to the major modes of linguistic theory and philosophy, in particular contemporary gay theory.]
The meaning of a word is its use in the language.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
The poem is you.
—John Ashbery, Shadow Train
In describing John Ashbery's poetry, Paul Breslin speaks of a contemporary attenuation of the sense of an occasion for poetry, "since all occasions are really only the one occasion of consciousness meditating on its own frustrations." He continues,
As Ashbery writes in "The Painter," "Finally all indications of a subject / Began to fade, leaving the canvas / Perfectly white" (Some). With very few exceptions, Ashbery's poems are meditations on an epistemological blankness, portraits of the whale's forehead.
But if Breslin is right about the blankness of the episteme, he is describing no more than the point (after the deconstraction of epistemology) where Ashbery's poetry—and all other...
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Altieri, Charles. "John Ashbery and the Challenge of Postmodernism in the Visual Arts." Critical Inquiry XIV, No. 4 (Summer 1988): 805-30.
Contends that critics should view Ashbery as an innovative modern artist rather than as a poet working solely within literary tradition.
Applewhite, James. "Painting, Poetry, Abstraction and Ashbery." The Southern Review XXIV, No. 2 (Spring 1988): 272-90.
Places Ashbery's A Wave among the work of twentieth-century painters and poets.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: John Ashbery. New York: Chelsea House, 1985, 264 p.
Critical essays on Ashbery's work written by such critics as Bloom, Helen Vendler, Richard Howard, Douglas Crase, Charles Berger, and David Kalstone.
——. "John Ashbery: The Chanty of the Hard Moments." Salmagundi, Nos. 22-23 (Spring-Summer 1973): 103-31.
Overviews Ashbery's work at mid-career.
Keeling, John. "The Moment Unravels: Reading John Ashbery's 'Litany'." Twentieth Century Literature XXXVIII, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 125-51.
Analyzes the role of recognition/misrecognition in Ashbery's...
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