Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
How is John Ashbery’s interest in art reflected in his poetry?
Ashbery says his poetry is about a world lacking in coherence. Explain how one or more poems explore this theme.
Ashbery is strongly influenced by W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens. Compare one of his poems to a work by one of these poets.
Explain how Ashbery introduces an important question about life without answering it. Within the context of his poetry, is such an answer necessary?
Explain how Ashbery ignores logic in the structure of his poetry.
How does “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” address the nature of reality?
How does Ashbery use geographical locations to suggest something other than themselves?
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Although known mainly as a poet, John Ashbery has produced a number of works in various genres. A Nest of Ninnies (1969) is a humorous novel about middle-class American life written by Ashbery in collaboration with James Schuyler. His plays include The Compromise: Or, Queen of the Carabou (pr. 1956) and Three Plays (1978). He also produced a volume of art criticism, Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987 (1989). His Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (given at Harvard University) were collected as Other Traditions (2000), an engaging volume of literary criticism about six eccentric poets.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
John Ashbery won three major literary awards for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: the National Book Award in Poetry, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Ashbery is a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (since 1980) and served as chancellor for the Academy of American Poets (1988-1999). He has been honored with two Guggenheim Fellowships, two Fulbright Fellowships, and two National Endowment for the Arts grants. He won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award (1955) for Some Trees, Union League Civic and Arts Poetry Prize (1966), an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1969), the Shelley Memorial Award (1973), the Levinson Prize (1977), the Jersome J. Shestack Poetry Award (1983), and the Bollingen Prize from Yale University (1985). In 1982, Ashbery was awarded the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets. In 1985, he was named a winner of both a MacArthur Prize Fellowship and a Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He received the Commonwealth Award in Literature (1986), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (1992), the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America (1995), the Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1997), the prestigious Antonio Feltrinelli Prize from the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome (1992), the Bingham Poetry Prize (1998), the Wallace Stevens Award (2001), and the Griffin Poetry Prize (2008). In 2002, he was made an officer of the French Legion of Honor by presidential decree.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. John Ashbery: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Overview of Ashbery’s published work, discussing his form, complex linguistics, and vision.
Carroll, Paul. The Poem in Its Skin. Chicago: Follett, 1968. One of the first books of poetry criticism to include a chapter on the poetry of Ashbery, Carroll’s study contains a brilliant chapter entitled “If Only He Had Left the Finland Station,” which explores one of the poet’s early surrealist poems, “Leaving the Atocha Station.” Carroll guides the reader through many possible responses to Ashbery.
Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry. New York: Palgrave, 2000. Herd chronicles Ashbery’s poetic career, analyzing his continuities, differences, and improvements over time.
Jackson, Richard. Acts of Mind: Conversations with Contemporary Poets. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1983. Interviews with contemporary poets including Ashbery, who discusses his revelation processes and self-referential voice.
Keller, Lynn. Re-making It New: Contemporary Poetry and the Modernist Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. “’We Must, We Must Be Moving On’: Ashbery’s Divergence from Stevens and Modernism” is the title of the very clearly written and cogently argued chapter in which Keller shows both Ashbery’s debt to and divergence from Stevens, as well as his use of surrealism....
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