John Ashbery Ashbery, John

Start Your Free Trial


(Poetry Criticism)

Download John Ashbery Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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...

(The entire section is 65,365 words.)