John Ashbery Ashbery, John (Vol. 125) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Ashbery 1927–

(Has also written under pseudonym Jonas Berry) American poet, playwright, novelist, critic, editor, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Ashbery's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 13, 15, 25, 41, and 77.

John Ashbery is considered among the most influential and challenging American poets of the postwar period. His highly inventive, often enigmatic verse defies the conventions of logic, linear thought, and realism in an effort to deconstruct language and the paradoxical limits of verbal expression. Drawing attention to the fragmentary quality of unconscious thought and the creative process itself, Ashbery's provocative linguistic experiments, narrative juxtapositions, and improvisational style illustrate the infinite possibility of multidimensional perspective and random experience. Associated with the "New York Poets" during the 1950s and 1960s, Ashbery established his reputation with the award-winning volumes Some Trees (1956), The Tennis Court Oath (1962), Three Poems (1972), and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975). He received subsequent acclaim with additional volumes such as A Wave (1984) and Flow Chart (1991). An innovative poet of remarkable intelligence, humor, and originality, Ashbery is recognized as one of the leading poets of his generation.

Biographical Information

Born in Rochester, New York, Ashbery was raised in Sodus, a small upstate New York town near Lake Ontario. His father was a fruit farmer and his mother a former high school biology teacher. Ashbery's maternal grandfather. Henry Lawrence, was a renowned physicist at the University of Rochester whose personal library became a resource for the precocious Ashbery. Though initially interested in painting and later music, Ashbery began writing poetry as a child. Upon graduation from Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts in 1945, Ashbery enrolled at Harvard University, where he majored in English literature, completed a senior thesis on W. H. Auden, and befriended poets Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara. After finishing his undergraduate degree at Harvard in 1949, Ashbery moved to New York City to begin study at Columbia University, where he earned a master's degree in French literature in 1951. While in New York, Ashbery entered the booming postwar arts scene with painters Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher and poets Koch, O'Hara, and James Schuyler—later labelled the "New York Poets" with Ashbery as their foremost representative. Ashbery's first volume of poetry, Turandot and Other Poems (1953), was a limited edition publication with illustrations by Freilicher. Between 1951 and 1955, Ashbery worked as copywriter for Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill. During the early 1950s, Ashbery also wrote two plays—The Heroes (1952) and The Compromise (1955). A third play, The Philosopher (1964), appeared in Art and Literature magazine and was later republished with his earlier two in Three Plays (1978), The manuscript of Ashbery's second volume of poetry, Some Trees, was selected by Auden as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 1956 and published the same year. The recipient of two Fulbright scholarships, Ashbery set off for Paris where he lived and worked for the next decade as a poet and art critic for several prominent periodicals, including the New York Herald Tribune, Art International, and ArtNews, for which he later served as executive editor from 1966 to 1972. While overseas, Ashbery produced The Tennis Court Oath, earning him the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award from Poetry magazine the next year. Upon his return to New York in 1965, Ashbery published Rivers and Mountains (1966), a National Book Award nominee. Sunrise in Suburbia (1968), Fragment (1969), and the novel A Nest of Ninnies (1969) with Schuyler. He also received several Guggenheim fellowships, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1969. Over the next decade, Ashbery published The Double Dream of Spring (1970), Three Poems (1972), recipient of a Shelley Memorial Award, and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He has since published additional volumes of poetry—Houseboat Days (1977), As We Know (1979), Shadow Train (1981), A Wave (1984), April Galleons (1987), Flow Chart (1991), Hotel Lautreamont (1992), And the Stars Were Shining (1994), and Can You Hear, Bird (1995)—and a collection of art criticism, Reported Sightings (1989). An art critic for Newsweek during the 1980s, Ashbery has also edited numerous anthologies of contemporary poetry, translated several French titles, and taught English and creative writing at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York from 1974 to 1990. He was awarded the Robert Frost medal from the Poetry Society of America in 1995.

Major Works

Ashbery's preoccupation with the indeterminate relationship between language, perception, time, and artistic expression is a prominent feature of his poetry. Influenced by French symbolist writers, modern abstract expressionist art, particularly the action paintings of Jackson Pollack and Robert Motherwell, and the avant-garde music of composer John Cage, Ashbery's poetry derives from the post-logical literary and artistic traditions of the early twentieth century. Some Trees, Ashbery's first major publication, displays his technical skill as well as early attempts to articulate multiple levels of reality in flights of imagination and word play. In one poem, "The Instruction Manual," the speaker is a disenchanted technical writer who daydreams about a faraway trip to Guadalajara, suggesting the ironic tension between order and the longing to escape. The Tennis Court Oath focuses on the incomprehensible totality of language in disjointed compositions resembling surrealist visual art. The collage poem "Europe," divided into 111 parts with cut-outs from the 1917 British detective novel Beryl of the Biplane, revolves around themes of postwar espionage, political paranoia, and the failure of technology and language. In another poem, "They Dream Only of America," Ashbery similarly evokes the disorienting simultaneity of lived experience in a random assemblage of non sequiturs and wide-ranging references to politics, literature, and popular culture. Rivers and Mountains is a transitional work that introduces the innovative roving perspective of Ashbery's mature style, particularly as revealed in the poem "Clepsydra," whose title refers to a water clock. This poem, characteristic of many of Ashbery's subsequent compositions, begins mid-thought and contains alternating first and second person observations, exposing the nonverbal interaction between conscious and unconscious reflection. The interchangeable use of first, second, and third person pronouns to portray shifting perspective would become a staple device in Ashbery's work. Another poem from this volume, "The Skaters," suggests the performativity of linguistic displays as a series of dissolving and surfacing activities and entities. Three Poems consists of a book length prose meditation divided into three parts. The middle poem, "The System," is among Ashbery's most important linguistic experiments in which he reflects on the living, open-ended qualities of poetry and posits that in the elusive malleability of language inheres the foundation for love, understanding, and interpersonal connectivity. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror signals the culmination of Ashbery's previous innovations, incorporating fragmentary digressions, crosscuts, irregular syntax, and dreamlike self-examination in evocative language and sensuous phrasing that denies logical comprehension. The title poem, inspired by the self-portrait of sixteenth century Italian painter Francesco Parmigianino, foregrounds the distortions of self-image and sensory perception to explore the limitations of form and the sprawling byways of conscious thought. In a final recital, a recurring feature of Ashbery's poetry, he summarizes the significance and affirmative power of poetry and art as a means to approach the "otherness" of language. "Litany" a notable poem from As We Know, further probes the ineffable gap between perception and language. Consisting of two columns of verse, one in roman the other in italic type, Ashbery illustrates the disharmonious intersection of experience, mood, and free association in a cacophony of competing voices. The lengthy title poem of A Wave, another significant work, explores the perpetual unfolding of experience and the preconditions for love, particularly as found in epiphany and replenishing moments of speechless withdraw and distraction. Ashbery's investigations into the essence and dimensions of expression is foremost in the book length poem Flow Chart. Divided into six sections, the lengthy composition is a pastiche of personal memory, literary allusion, extraneous fragments of daily experience, and internal dialogue that suggest the regenerative nature of language despite its inherent inadequacy and perpetual deconstruction. Subsequent volumes, including Hotel Lautreamont, And the Stars Where Shining, and Can You Hear, Bird, evince similar efforts to come to terms with the insufficiency and ambivalence of language in Ashbery's trademark amalgamation of meandering ruminations, semantic puzzles, deadpan rhetoric, artful solecisms, and moments of awestruck revelation.

Critical Reception

Ashbery is regarded as one of the most important American poets of the last half century. His demanding, idiosyncratic studies of perception, thought processes, and the mutability of language are consistently praised for their capacity to conjure disquieting verbal landscapes of exceptional depth and resonance. While Some Trees, The Tennis Court Oath, and Three Poems established Ashbery's reputation as a formidable emerging talent, he is best known for his acclaimed Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, generally considered his most significant work. Subsequent volumes, particularly Flow Chart, have also attracted considerable critical attention and esteem. Though some critics find fault in the opacity of Ashbery's solipsistic poetry, often oblique to the point of impenetrability, most focus on his remarkable ability to evoke the totality of being in accumulations of random observations, incongruous associations, and the fleeting sensations of awareness. Despite the daunting aspirations of his ambitious investigations into the limits of knowledge and expression, as many critics note, Ashbery counters hopelessness with irony, parody, and invigorating language that extracts nascent and residual meanings from seemingly disconnected musings and the mundane minutiae of everyday experience. Distinguished for his linguistic dislocations and capacious vision, critics frequently cite the influence of Wallace Stevens and Walt Whitman in Ashbery's poetry, as well as the aesthetic concerns of avant-garde art and music which informs so much of his work. A highly original and much honored poet, Ashbery is hailed as one of the most significant American poets of the twentieth century.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Heroes (drama) 1952
Turandot and Other Poems (poetry) 1953
The Compromise (drama) 1955
Some Trees (poetry) 1960
The Poems (poetry) 1960
The Tennis Court Oath (poetry) 1962
The Philosopher (drama) 1964
Rivers and Mountains (poetry) 1966
Selected Poems (poetry) 1967
Sunrise in Suburbia (poetry) 1968
Three Madigrals (poetry) 1968
Fragment (poetry) 1969
A Nest of Ninnies [with James Schuyler] (novel) 1969
The Double Dream of Spring (poetry) 1970
The New Spirit (poetry) 1970
Three Poems (poetry) 1972
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror...

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Kevin Clark (essay date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Ashbery's 'A Wave': Privileging the Symbol," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 271-9.

[In the following essay, Clark offers critical analysis of the poem "The Wave." According to Clark, "Ashbery's poetry is distinguished by an enigmatic style which privileges indeterminacy rather than the traditional symbolist style practiced by most modernist and postmodernist poets."

… [long poems] are in a way diaries or logbooks of a continuing experience that continues to provide new reflections and therefore [a long poem] gets to be much closer to a whole reality than the shorter ones do.


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Mutlu Konuk Blasing (essay date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The American Sublime, C. 1992: What Clothes Does One Wear?," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 425-41.

[In the following review, Blasing offers favorable assessment of Flow Chart. Drawing parallels to the Romantic poetry of William Wordsworth, Blasing concludes, "Flow Chart is a very entertaining book, which moves us practically to tears."]

Flow Chart is John Ashbery's latest experiment; he continues to do his thing, but he knows better than anyone that experimental techniques play differently in 1992 than in 1962, let alone 1912. "One is doomed, / repeating oneself, never to repeat oneself, you know...

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Harriet Zinnes (essay date June 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Ashbery: The Way Time Feels As It Passes," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, June, 1992, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Zinnes discusses Ashbery's literary career, poetic style, central motifs, and the influence of avant-garde music and art on his work.

Writing about John Ashbery is difficult, not because his work is itself difficult or obscure or elusive. It frequently is not. Yet from the beginning he was a puzzle. In a panel on postmodernism as early as December 1979, the poet David Antin could declare, in seemingly contradictory terms, that the poet "brought grandeur to Pop" and that his poems are "sublime claptrap." Yet the puzzle of John...

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Evelyn Reilly (review date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Afloat," in Parnassus, Vol. 17, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 40-51.

[In the following review, Reilly offers tempered praise for Flow Chart. According to Reilly, Flow Chart represents "an endless flow of disrupted ruminations, literary fragments, pseudo-conversations, pieces of argument, and other language objects, inviting us to look for patterns but not guaranteeing that there are any."]

At a time when all the big themes—the gods, the hero, the artist-hero, truth, the imagination, the past redeemed, the utopian dream—are definitely lowercase, it would seem to require a certain hubris to write a very long poem. Yet John Ashbery's new book-length...

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Martin Kevorkian (essay date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Ashbery's Flow Chart: John Ashbery and the Theorists on John Ashbery Against the Critics Against John Ashbery," in New Literary History, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 459-76.

[In the following essay, Kevorkian explores the interactive relationship between Ashbery and his critics. According to Kevorkian, Ashbery's poetry reveals a pattern of "revenge" and "linguistic parasitism" through which he both engages and subtly responds to his critical audience.]

That's a phrase I've been saying and hearing for so many years—the people against. Nan Patterson—the people against Harry K. Thaw, and now the People against Mary Dugan. I...

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Calvin Bedient (review date October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of And the Stars Were Shining, in Poetry, Vol. 165, No. 1, October, 1994, pp. 44-7.

[In the following review, Bedient offers tempered praise for And the Stars Were Shining, though he notes that this volume is "not one of his strongest."]

John Ashbery famously has all the humor omitted by Eavan Boland, and then some. As is well known, disappointment leavened by humor, pathos gussied up in tinker-toy hats and cow-belled shoes, is his theme. "The afternoon / will fold you up," he promises in "Like a Sentence," "along with preoccupations / that now seem so important, until only a child / running around on a unicycle occupies center stage."...

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Joshua Clover (review date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Act: John Ashbery's And the Stars Were Shining," in Iowa Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 177-83.

[In the following review, Clover offers favorable assessment of And the Stars Were Shining.]

The risk of falling into oneself, of disappearing inside the welter of strategies and signifiers aggregately known as individual style, is endemic among those gifted enough to have such a style in the first place; the more cultural weight that style achieves, the greater the risk. In the case of the greatest poet of our time the risk becomes enormous making the consistency of Mr. Ashbery's poetic achievement since Some Trees all the more...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Costello, Bonnie. "John Ashbery and the Idea of the Reader." Contemporary Literature XXIII, No. 4 (Fall 1982): 493-514.

Examines strategies for establishing meaningful communication between writer and reader in Ashbery's poetry.

Edelman, Lee. "The Pose of Imposture: Ashbery's 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.'" Twentieth Century Literature 32, No. 1 (Spring 1986): 95-114.

Discusses problematic aspects of self-reflexivity and representation in "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror."

Fink, Thomas A. "The Comic Thrust of Ashbery's...

(The entire section is 349 words.)