John Ashbery Ashbery, John (Lawrence)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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.)

David Shapiro

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(The entire section is 12,541 words.)