John Ashbery Ashbery, John - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


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

Fragment 1969

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 Ninnies [with James Schuyler] (novel) 1969

Penguin Modern Poets [editor] (poetry) 1974

Three Plays* (drama) 1978

The Best American Poetry, 1988 [editor] (poetry) 1988

Reported Sightings: Art Chronicle, 1957-1987 (criticism) 1989

* Contains The Heroes, The Compromise and The Philosopher

Paul Zweig (review date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

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:

These decibels
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 as to contrast funnily with the unexpectedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.

Long before one has made sense of lines like these—I'm still not sure I have—one has consented to them. Ashbery's muted language creates a lyric of analysis and abstraction that is incredibly precise, but impenetrable.

No poet in America resembles Ashbery, although a number of contemporary French poets, such as Michel Deguy, Marcelin Pleynet and Denis Roche, possess a similar gift for lyric abstraction. Ashbery lived for almost 10 years in Paris, and knew these poets well. Yet they are, in fact, more likely to be his disciples than the reverse, since Ashbery's hermetic style began to develop with his first book, and came fully blown almost 10 years ago in The Tennis Court Oath.

Difficulties normally are made to be solved; they are subjects for exegesis. But difficulty can also become a way to broaden the energy of language, arresting the emotions, catching the reader in sudden gaps of meaning, the way exotic images do in another sort of poetry. Instead of analyzing the obstacles of language, one can set oneself afloat on them; not fishing for meanings, but launched in a medium of elusive argument. There is a surrealism of ideas, far different from the florid imagery of André Breton, closer perhaps to the strangely argumentative poetry of Tristan Tzara.

This is the mode John Ashbery, alone among American poets, has created for himself. It has permitted him the triumph of poems like "Civilisation and its Discontents" (also in Rivers and Mountains), with passages like the following:

There is no longer any use in harping on
The incredible principle of daylong silence, the dark sunlight
As only the grass is beginning to know it,
The wreath of the North Pole,
Festoons for the late return, the shy pensioners
Agasp on the lamplit air. What is agreeable
Is to hold your hand. The gravel
Underfoot. The time is for coming close. Useless
Verbs shooting the other words far away.

Perhaps this is what Ashbery has always meant to do with his dense, almost elegiac language: to defend the "day-long silence" by "shooting the other words far away"; to reshape the connected words of everyday speech (what Mallarmé called "the words of the tribe") into a new, wholly suggestive medium.


(The entire section is 1637 words.)

Fred Moramarco (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7422 words.)

David Kalstone (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8219 words.)

Grace Schulman (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2388 words.)

Dana Yeaton (review date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2773 words.)

David Fite (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7774 words.)

Bonnie Costello (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8568 words.)

Thomas A. Fink (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5459 words.)

John Ashbery with Paul Munn (interview date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3573 words.)

Steven Meyer (review date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 6387 words.)

Jody Norton (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9907 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 420 words.)