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.
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...
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