John Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, to Chester Frederick and Helen (Lawrence) Ashbery. He spent much of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm in northern New York, close to the shores of Lake Ontario. He attended Deerfield Academy and went on to Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1949; his undergraduate thesis examined the poetry of the British writer W. H. Auden. During Ashbery’s early years he had wanted to be a painter, but he studied English literature at college, and in 1951 he was granted an M.A. by Columbia University for his study of English novelist Henry Green. He did further graduate work at New York University, and later in France, on the experimental writer Raymond Roussel.
Between 1951 and 1954, Ashbery worked as a copywriter for the Oxford University Press in New York City and at McGraw-Hill in 1954 and 1955. During the 1950’s he associated with a small group of young writers, including James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara, who attempted to bring the theories of abstract Impressionistic painting into literature and who came to be known as the New York school of poetry. Ashbery, however, has always rejected the suggestion that they were ever so cohesively organized as to be a “school.”
In 1953, Ashbery published his first volume of verse, Turandot, and Other Poems. From the beginning critics were skeptical about the lack of clarity in his poems, although his enormous sophistication, his use of allusion, and his wittiness were quickly appreciated. In 1955, still pursuing his academic interests, he received a Fulbright scholarship to study in France at the university in Montpellier. In the following year he moved to Paris; he also published his second volume of poetry, Some Trees (1956). While in Paris, his interest in art, which had led to his enthusiasm for abstract Impressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, drew him into writing art criticism for the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune, and he continued to do that work until 1965. He also formed a connection with Art News.
In 1962, Ashbery’s poems in The Tennis Court Oath brought the skepticism about his work to its sharpest response, and this book has retained a reputation for being the least sensible of all of his works. Despite formidable opposition, however, Ashbery began to win prizes. As early as 1960, he won the Poets’ Foundation Award; in 1962, he won the Ingram-Merrill Foundation award; in 1963, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize and the Union League Civic and Arts Foundation Prize. This pattern of public recognition and critical praise, tempered by considerable critical disdain from certain quarters, was to continue.
Ashbery reached his highest point of acceptance with Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The books of new poetry he has published since then have had his usual critical ups and downs over the matter of the poetry often not making sense. Ashbery seems unrepentant about this, and it is often a major theme in his work, as he wants his poems to reflect a world which he sees as lacking in coherence. He also wants his poems to have the formlessness, the nonrational element, which is common to abstract Impressionist painting.
In 1966, Ashbery returned from Paris to New York and took up the post of executive editor with Art News. In the 1970’s, he broadened his activities to include teaching English at Brooklyn College and the poetry editorship of the Partisan Review. In 1978, he joined New York magazine as its art critic, and from 1980 to 1985, he reached an even wider audience as the art critic for Newsweek. He has continued to teach and to write both art criticism and poetry. In 1985, he received a MacArthur Prize fellowship and the Lenore Marshall/Nation Poetry Prize. In 1987, he published April Galleons , a...
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