John (Lawrence) Ashbery 1927–
American poet, novelist, dramatist, critic, and editor.
Ashbery is often considered by critics to be a "poet's poet," because of the difficulty his poetry presents to the average reader. The typical Ashbery poem thwarts the reader through its shifting viewpoint, non sequitur associations, and hyperconscious preoccupation with the writing process itself. Poetry, or poetry making, is the predominant theme of Ashbery's work.
Throughout his career, Ashbery, like others in the New York school of poetry with which he has been associated, has been strongly influenced by developments in other artistic media, particularly abstract painting and experimental music, notably that of John Cage, who inspired the long poem, "Litany."
Ashbery received three of poetry's highest honors in 1976: a National Book Award, a National Book Critics' Circle Award, and a Pulitzer Prize, for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In his recent book, Shadow Train, Ashbery adapts the tight structure of a sonnet sequence to demonstrate his elliptical poetics.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 13, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols, 5-8, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
[The observations in Shapiro's essay are based substantially on interviews with John Ashbery, 1964–72.]
Ashbery was a connoisseur of [the French author Raymond Roussel] and began a doctoral dissertation on him but decided not to go through with it, although characteristically he collected many minute particulars about that grand eccentric. Thus the modulated parodies of narration in Rivers and Mountains may be associated with the labyrinthine parentheses of Roussel's poems and novels; this contagion of the parodistic tone seems to lead structurally to a "chinese box" effect or play within a play…. [In later works] Ashbery wittily employed another device of Roussel: the specious simile, "The kind that tells you less than you would know if the thing were stated flatly."… In lieu of the organic and necessary simile, Ashbery learned from the French master an extravagance of connection that leads one nowhere…. Ashbery is also a master of the false summation, the illogical conclusion couched in the jargon of logic and reminiscent of the false but rich scholarship of Borges…. (p. 17)
John Ashbery can properly be called a child of the muse of Rimbaud. In the somewhat unenthusiastic tones of the introduction to Some Trees, W. H. Auden also placed him in the tradition of Rimbaud's dérèglement de tous les sens. Contrary to Auden's expectations, Ashbery denies French poetry as a major influence. He does, however, acknowledge the influence of Pierre Reverdy…. He admires "the completely relaxed, oxygen-like quality of Reverdy," whose cadences he likens to "breathing in big gulps of fresh air."… (p. 18)
[Raymond Roussel] is a very "prosy" poet, and Ashbery also is interested in the poetic possibilities of conventional and banal prose, the prose of newspaper articles. Many of his poems of the '60s and '70s are particularly works that function by proceeding from cliché to cliché, in a "seamless web" of banality transformed, by dint of combination and deformation, into a Schwitters-like composition in which the refuse of a degraded quotidian is fused into a new freshness…. The use of prose elements in poetry, as in William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, is so common a heritage and so diffused a technique as rarely to provoke sensations of novelty, but Ashbery's intense employment is an adventure. The prosaic elements in the early poetry of W. H. Auden influenced Ashbery, as did the touching qualities of ordinary speech, journalism, and old diaries in Auden's The Orators…. Collage elements for Ashbery's poem "Europe" were taken from a book for girls written at the time of the First World War. The book, William Le-Queux's Beryl of the Bi-Planes, which he picked up by accident on one of the quais of Paris, is one reason for much of the placid plane imagery of "Europe."… At the time, Ashbery was "collaging" a great deal as a symptom of an imagined "dead-end" period in his writing; living in France, he felt cut off from American speech…. He often received American magazines and manipulated their contents as a stimulus and pretext for further poetry. The grand collapses often noted in Ashbery's "Europe," its dashes and discontinuities, are one result of this collagiste direction. Though Ashbery's poetry leads most recently to a calm clearness, it truly began with the presentation of "objects" and "idioms" in explicitly dislocated form…. His dislocated poetry had something of the pathos of obscurity, and the "pathos of incomprehensibility" was very much part of the mystique of such writing, though Ashbery always pointed towards principles of cohesion by discontinuity…. Gertrude Stein furnished a specimen source for the opacities of "Europe."… But Ashbery has a very full palette, and one must distinguish between grammatical anomaly, unexpected dream imagery, and the nonsensical. Ashbery is one of the poets who senses an epoch's rule system for sense itself and revolts against it with wit. His theme of "unacceptability" is allied always to related concepts of absurdity, stupidity, and the unreal. (pp. 18-21)
The self-conscious mid-progress shifts of narration in Ashbery's collagiste poems … are distinctly and masterfully of the age in which Jackson Pollock threw himself on the canvas, a proof and permission. Even though Ashbery unexpectedly characterizes himself as more aural than visual, his participation in the art world as critic has been a constant source for his critical poetry.
The influence of psychoanalysis, also, permitting a more or less watery relationship with the unconscious and everyday mind, and corollary devices of "dipping into" an almost completely associational stream … is another common heritage of technique Ashbery shares with the abstract expressionists and surrealists. (p. 21)
Ashbery's work, begun with kinds of disjecta membra, coalesces at certain periods in big coherent works: "Europe," "The Skaters," "The New Spirit," "The System," and "The Recital." The development from collage of seemingly despairing fragments to unbroken paragraphs of de Chirico-like prose (Ashbery admits to de Chirico's prose and not painting as an influence …) is likened, by the author, to the development of one of Ashbery's favorite composers, Busoni. "Busoni wrote a piano concerto, entitled 'The Turning Point,' and all his subsequent music fittingly seems different from earlier pieces."… Similarly in Ashbery's poetry the disjointed and indecisive has the look, at least, of a highly unified music. Ashbery's larger compositions achieve this "look" of compositional unity while remaining what may be a "multeity." Composition in these works is not random but rather more a matter of parsimonious distribution of disparate images, tones, and parodies than of unifications and harmonizings. One may find a tone of Pope in "The Skaters," and the mock-heroic here does sometimes bear resemblance to the highly polished surface of The Rape of the Lock. The highly polished surface in Ashbery, however, is less a social hint than a memento mori of a world of manufactured objects and smooth, unbroken concrete. "The Skaters" may be thought of as a radiant porphyry of a variety of rhetorics, including imitations of Whitman, Baudelaire, science textbooks, translations of Tu Fu, Theodore Roethke, and John Ashbery. He has described his intentions in respect to "The Skaters" as trying "to see how many opinions I had about...
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It seems time to write about John Ashbery's subject matter…. It is Ashbery's style that has obsessed reviewers, as they alternately wrestle with its elusive impermeability and praise its power of linguistic synthesis. There have been able descriptions of its fluid syntax, its insinuating momentum, its generality of reference, its incorporation of vocabulary from all the arts and all the sciences. But it is popularly believed, with some reason, that the style itself is impenetrable, that it is impossible to say what an Ashbery poem is "about." An alternative view says that every Ashbery poem is about poetry—literally self-reflective, like his "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror." Though this may in part be true, it...
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[Shadow Train] is endearing and exasperating in the same ways that all of Ashbery's poetry is. It reflects his great strengths as a writer: endless inventiveness, superb mimicry, artistic transformations of the banal into the beautiful. And it demonstrates his weaknesses as well: a certain preciousness, an absence of self-criticism, an artistic program that allows the manufacture of poetry almost at will and without inspiration. The problem of excessive length that sometimes mars Ashbery's most ambitious efforts is here neatly solved: since each section of Shadow Train is a poem in its own right, as in a sonnet cycle, the reader who experiences tedium can pass on to the next poem without much loss or...
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[Shadow Train] is a sustained experiment with a new short form…. In the past, Ashbery's lyrical strengths were best exemplified by his long poems, but now he seems able to move just as freely in a briefer space. His work has an operatic air, entertaining us with a variety of cadenzas performed against pleasantly tacky backdrops. The actual sense of the action is elusive, as in opera, and one hardly cares, coming away with a comfortable feeling that the tone has somehow carried all the important meaning. Much has been said about Ashbery's polite evasion of any attempt to synopsize "plot" in his poems and certainly there are many mysterious passages in his verse….
Ashbery carries the old saw...
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If the New York poets are each as individual as New York taxi drivers, then with Frank O'Hara at the wheel we cruise through Greenwich Village with occasional side trips out to Fire Island. John Ashbery drives us down deserted back streets between huge locked warehouses with occasional glimpses of the harbor, then stops and soliloquizes about his driving, his poor sense of direction and the tricks perspective can play and asks us if we really want to go to the destination we had requested…. O'Hara is casual, open, revealing…. Ashbery can be formal, hermetic, secretive: he often slides a deliberate barrier between himself and his readers like the glass shield protecting a New York taxi driver from his passengers....
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Shadow Train will change no one's mind about Ashbery's merits as a poet. His admirers will praise the new-found discipline and concentration in this collection of sixteen line, "sonnet-like" poems. His detractors will grumble about the emperor's new briefs. And the rest will continue to play Pontius Pilate washing their hands of the whole matter. Yet Shadow Train is an interesting book that can give a careful reader a new understanding of Ashbery's strengths and weaknesses as a poet.
Part of the pleasure of reading Ashbery comes from the variety of words, images, moods, and styles he can fit so seamlessly into his work. He continually surprises one with things not usually found in a...
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Helen McNeil, a British critic writing in the Times Literary Supplement, has said that "since the death of Robert Lowell, the title of most important American poet has been on offer to John Ashbery." Countless other critics have registered similar judgments. And as if all that were not enough, the government of the United States commissioned Ashbery to write a poem for the bicentennial. Ashbery responded, with all due mockery, with "Pyrography."…
Ashbery's famous "difficulty" … has not seemed to pose an obstacle to his acclaim. This is partially due, no doubt, to the cachet difficult poems have had recently (the less one understands a poem, the better it must be), but mainly to his...
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[One] might caution the reader that Shadow Train is by no means the best place to start in reading Ashbery, as it occupies a curious position in the evolving body of his work. This collection … marks another peculiar twist in a protean career, another of the seemingly willful swerves from his natural pre-dispositions that discomfit his admirers almost as much as his detractors. Ashbery's previous book, As We Know, while it contained a number of poems as brief as one line apiece, nevertheless presented him in one of his freest, most expansive moods, particularly in "Litany," a poem long and discursive by almost any standards. Shadow Train comes then as something of a counter-move to the...
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