Ashbery, John (Lawrence)

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ASHBERY, John (Lawrence)

Also known as Jonas Berry. Nationality: American. Born: Rochester, New York, 28 July 1927. Education: Deerfield Academy, Massachusetts; graduated 1945; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (member of the editorial board, Harvard Advocate), A.B. in English 1949; Columbia University, New York, M.A. in English 1951; New York University, 1957–58. Career: Copywriter, Oxford University Press, New York, 1951–54, and McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1954–55; co-editor, One Fourteen, New York, 1952–53; art critic, European edition of New York Herald Tribune, Paris, 1960–65, and Art International, Lugano, Switzerland, 1961–64; editor, Locus Solus magazine, Lans-en-Vercors, France, 1960–62; editor, Art and Literature, Paris, 1963–66; Paris correspondent, 1964–65, and executive editor, 1965–72, Art News, New York; professor of English, 1974–80, and distinguished professor of English, 1980–90, Brooklyn College. Since 1991 professor of English, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Poetry editor, Partisan Review, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1976–80; art critic, New York magazine, 1978–80; art critic, Newsweek, New York, 1980–85. Awards: Fulbright fellowship, 1955, 1956; Poets foundation grant, 1960, 1964; Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, 1962, 1972: Harriet Monroe memorial prize, 1963, 1974; Guggenheim fellow-ship, 1967, 1973; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1968, 1969; American Academy award, 1969; Shelley memorial award, 1973; Frank O'Hara prize, 1974; National Book Critics Circle award, 1976; Pulitzer prize, 1976; National Book award, 1976; Rockefeller grant, for playwriting, 1979–80; English Speaking Union prize, 1979; Bard College Charles Flint Kellogg award, 1983; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1983; Mayor's award (New York), 1983; Bollingen prize, 1984, 1985; Lenore Marshall-Nation award, 1985; Wallace Stevens fellowship, 1985; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1985; MLA Common Wealth award in literature, 1986; Creative Arts award, Brandeis University, 1989; Ruth Lilly Poetry prize, Poetry magazine, 1992; Robert Frost medal, Poetry Society of America, 1995; Grand prize, Biennales Internationales de Poesie, Belgium, 1996; Gold medal, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1997. D. Litt.: Long Island University, Southampton, New York, 1979. Member: American Academy, 1980; American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1983. Agent: Georges Borchardt Inc., 136 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.



Turandot and Other Poems. New York, Tibor de Nagy, 1953.

Some Trees. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, and London, Oxford University Press, 1956.

The Poems. New York, Tiber Press, 1960.

The Tennis Court Oath. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1962.

Rivers and Mountains. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1966.

Selected Poems. London, Cape, 1967.

Three Madrigals. New York, Poet's Press, 1968.

Sunrise in Suburbia. New York, Phoenix Book Shop, 1968.

Fragment. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1969.

Evening in the Country. San Francisco, Spanish Main Press, 1970.

The Double Dream of Spring. New York, Dutton, 1970.

The New Spirit. New York, Adventures in Poetry, 1970.

Penguin Modern Poets 19, with Lee Harwood and Tom Raworth. London, Penguin, 1971.

Three Poems. New York, Viking Press, 1972; London, Penguin, 1977.

The Vermont Notebook. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1975.

The Serious Doll. Privately printed, 1975.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. New York, Viking Press, 1975.

Houseboat Days. New York, Viking Press, 1977.

As We Know. New York, Viking Press, 1979; Manchester, Carcanet, 1981.

Shadow Train. New York, Viking Press, 1981; Manchester, Carcanet, 1982.

A Wave. New York, Viking Press, and Manchester, Carcanet, 1984.

Selected Poems. New York, Viking, 1985; Manchester, Carcanet, 1986; revised edition, London, Paladin, 1987.

The Ice Storm. New York, Hanuman, 1987.

April Galleons. New York, Viking, 1987; Manchester, Carcanet, 1988.

Three Poems. New York, Ecco Press, 1989.

Flow Chart. New York, Knopf, and Manchester, Carcanet, 1991.

Hotel Lautreamont. New York, Knopf, and Manchester, Carcanet, 1992.

And the Stars Were Shining. New York, Farrar Straus, and Manchester, Carcanet, 1994.

Can You Hear, Bird: Poems. New York, Farrar Straus, 1995.

The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1997.

Wakefulness: Poems. New York, Farrar Straus, 1998.

Girls on the Run: A Poem. New York, Farrar Straus, 1999.

Recording: The Songs We Know Best, Watershed, 1989; Music, Text, Capstone Records, 1999.


The Heroes (produced New York, 1952; London, 1982). Included in Three Plays, 1978.

The Compromise (produced Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1956). Included in Three Plays, 1978.

The Philosopher (produced London, 1982). Included in Three Plays, 1978.

Three Plays (includes The Heroes, The Compromise, The Philosopher). Calais, Vermont, Z Press, 1978; Manchester, Carcanet, 1988.


A Nest of Ninnies, with James Schuyler. New York, Dutton, 1969; Manchester, Carcanet, 1987.


John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch (A Conversation). Tucson, Interview Press, 1966.

R.B. Kitaj: Paintings, Drawings, Pastels, with others. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, 1981; London, Thames and Hudson, 1983.

Fairfield Porter: Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction. Boston, New York Graphic Society, 1983.

Rodrigo Moynihan: Paintings and Works on Paper, with Richard Shone. London, Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957–1987, edited by David Bergman. New York, Knopf, 1989; Manchester, Carcanet, 1990.

Haibun. Colombes, France, Collectif Generation, 1990.

Editor, Penguin Modern Poets 24. London, Penguin, 1973.

Editor, Muck Arbour, by Bruce Marcus. Chicago, O'Hara, 1975.

Editor, The Funny Place, by Richard F. Snow. Chicago, O'Hara, 1975.

Editor, The Best American Poetry 1988. New York, Macmillan, 1988.

Editor, Pistils, by Robert Mapplethorpe. London, Cape, and New York, Random House, 1996.

Translator (as Jonas Berry), with Lawrence G. Blochman, Murder in Montmartre, by Noël Vexin. New York, Dell, 1960.

Translator, Melville, by Jean-Jacques Mayoux. New York, Grove Press, 1960.

Translator (as Jonas Berry), with Lawrence G. Blochman, The Deadlier Sex, by Geneviève Manceron. New York, Dell, 1961.

Translator, Alberto Giacometti, by Jacques Dupin. Paris, Maeght, 1963(?).

Translator, Fantomes, by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. New York, Morrow, 1986.


Bibliography: John Ashbery: A Comprehensive Bibliography by David K. Kermani, New York, Garland, 1976.

Critical Studies: John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry by David Shapiro, New York, Columbia University Press, 1979; Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery edited by David Lehman, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1980; The Tribe of John Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry edited by Susan M. Schultz, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, University of Alabama Press, 1995; Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry: O'Hara, Bishop, Ashbery, and Merrill by Mutlu Konuk Blasing, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1995; Political Poetics: Revisionist Form in Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Charles Wright, and Jorie Graham (dissertation) by Phyllis Jean Franzek, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1995; "Echoes and Moving Fields: Structure and Subjectivity in the Poetry of W.S. Merwin and John Ashbery" by Luke Spencer and Edward Haworth Hoeppner, in American Literature, 68(1), 1996; Dynamics of Being, Space, and Time in the Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz and John Ashbery by Barbara Malinowska, New York, P. Lang, 1997.

*  *  *

John Ashbery is increasingly taken to be the outstanding American poet of his generation, indeed, perhaps the outstanding poet writing in English today. With the publication of Flow Chart in 1991 (and there have been further collections since), Ashbery has been recognized, on the one hand, as a worthy successor to the romantics (see Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom on this connection) and, on the other, as a kind of protolanguage poet. If the more experimental younger poets have preferred the Ashbery of The Tennis-Court Oath and Flow Chart, while establishment critics opt for the Ashbery of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, there is nevertheless a strong consensus on Ashbery's ability to produce memorable representations, however elliptical, enigmatic, and campy their "shifting sands" may be, of what it has meant to be alive in the late twentieth century.

Ashbery's is a style born of the conviction that the world in which we now operate is so strange, so absurd, so heavily sedimented with mediaspeak and characterized by what Umberto Eco calls the "hyperreal," that the poet can hardly present consistent or coherent accounts of subjectivity and individual experience. The romantic lyric of gradual self-revelation, moving toward epiphany and judgment, seems, so Ashbery implies, no longer able to negotiate the slippery slopes of "the familiar interior which has always been there" and that is nevertheless "unknowable." Hence, his version of Wordsworth's The Prelude is Flow Chart, the title referring to those schematic diagrams used to show the progress of materials through the various stages of a manufacturing process. Flow Chart begins with the lines

   Still in the published city but not yet
   overtaken by a new form of despair …

and charts the course whereby the "I" fends off these new forms of despair, sometimes successfully, often not, all the while navigating the shoals of friendship and sexual love, even as he taps "the bloodstream / of our collective memory: here a chicken coop, there a smokestack, / farther on an underground laboratory."

From the first Ashbery's poetry has presented the reader with what he has called, with reference to Gertrude Stein, "an open field of narrative possibilities." Again and again in Ashbery's poems an unspecified "I" (who may just as well be designated as "you") begins an account of something that has happened, only to have his story interrupted by seemingly irrelevant and disparate detail. Or again, as in the fifty-page "Litany," there are two columns of verse (the prayer-and-response form of the genre), and although each column is to be read independently as one moves from page to page, it is often possible to move from left to right (or right to left), creating alternate plots or thought processes, each equally tantalizing and equally possible.

Such indeterminacy has no real precedent in Anglo-American poetry. Wallace Stevens is regularly cited as Ashbery's central precursor, and the early poetry does have the phrasing and accent of the late Stevens, but the two poets have very different sensibilities. A closer model is the Auden of the "Bucolics" and "In Praise of Limestone" ("Rivers and Mountains," for example, echoes Auden's "Mountains"), but Ashbery's landscape is like a comic strip version of Auden's. Indeed, the early modernist closest to Ashbery may well be Eliot, the Eliot of "Prufrock" and The Waste Land, those perspectivist poems whose self dissolves into an urban landscape in which pop songs and the classics, pub slang and elevated diction send the reader contradictory and confusing signals. The ominous narrative of "They Dream Only of America," for example, can be read as a postmodern version of Eliot's "Sweeney among the Nightingales." But Eliot's hunger for knowledge is defused in Ashbery's pastiche and parody poems, poems that make no claim to know what a transcendental truth is, much less how the human consciousness can attain the true and the good.

In his introduction to the Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, Ashbery describes the New York climate of the early 1960s, in which O'Hara came of age, as "Picasso and French poetry, de Kooning and Guston, Cage and Feldman …" This was also Ashbery's own artistic climate; Cage, for instance, is surely a source for the two-column strategy of "Litany." Having lived in Paris for a decade, Ashbery cast a cold eye on the neosymbolism of his American contemporaries, their mania for what he called "over-interpretation" or "objective correlativitis." In an essay written in French for the special Reverdy issue of Mercure de France (1962), he argued that, whereas Eliot and his followers insisted on endowing each word or phrase with symbolic significance, Reverdy's images existed in their own right as "living phenomena," their main characteristic being "transparency."

What we find in Ashbery's enigmatic texts is language on the point of revealing its secret without ever actually doing so. Symbolist poetry, we know, is difficult, but it is not impossible to decode; behind the intricate collage of, say, The Waste Land, there is, after all, a coherent core of relational images. In Ashbery's poetry, however, the connections are as likely to be phonemic or graphemic as referential. Thus, we read in the prose text rather perversely called Three Poems,

There are some old photographs which show the event. It makes sense to stand there, passing. The people who are there—few, against this side of the air. They made a sign, were making a sign. Turning on yourself as a leaf, you miss the third and last chance. They don't suffer the way people do. True. But it's your last chance, this time, the last chance to escape the ball of contradictions, that is heavier than gravity bringing all down to the level. And nothing to be undone.

The passage begins as a kind of ekphrasis, drawing out the meaning of a particular set of photographs. But we are never told what "the event" in question is or where the "there" where it "makes sense to stand" is. By the third sentence the prominence of rhyme ("there"/ "air") all but distracts us from the reality that it is impossible for people to exist "this side of the air." And further, the story now takes on a fairy-tale cast as the poet refers to the "people" making a "sign" and tells the unspecified "you" (himself? a friend?) that he is "miss[ing] the third and last chance." "They don't suffer the way people do. True" sounds like a popular song, and the rhyme-refrain makes it hard to take the "suffer[ing]" too seriously. In the next sentence we shift back to the language of "last chance[s]," the "ball" to be escaped turning out to be, after the interruption of white space, the cliché "ball of contradictions," even as the familiar words "nothing to be done" become, with the addition of two little phonemes, the parodic "nothing to be undone."

Such rapid-fire tonal, syntactic, and semantic shifts are by no means without "meaning." On the contrary, the passage is concerned with the way we "read" photographs, using them to justify or to explain away particular events, reading into them portentous signs, third and last chances, and so on. Foolish as our constructions of reality are, Ashbery suggests, we continue to indulge in them, to take ourselves too seriously for our own good. As the poet puts it in "October at the Window" (from April Galleons),

   "My eyes are bigger than my stomach."
   And so life goes on happening
   As in a frontier novel. One must always
   Be quite conscious of the edges of things
   And then how they meet will cease
   To be an issue, all other things
   Being equal, as in fact they are.

The consciousness of the "edges of things," even in the face of "all other things / Being equal," has produced a remarkable body of poetry, in which dream and reality, Walt Disney World T-shirts and Arthur Rackham fairy tales, medieval romance and Elizabethan pageants, Verdi opera and James Dean films coalesce to form Ashbery's distinctive poetic universe. "Pyrography" (the title of one of his finest poems, appearing in the 1977 volume Houseboat Days), which is "the process of burning designs on wood and leather with a heated tool," becomes the process of imprinting burning traces of memory and vision on a consciousness so fluid and amorphous that the "heated tool" is likely to slip on its surface. The scene of this particular poem is Cottage Grove (Chicago), the heart of the nation ("This is America calling"), but curiously it is also a fairy-tale world in which "the carriages / Are drawn forward under a sky of fumed oak."

In the second stanza the "we" who are also "they" set out on a journey across the great American continent, first by boxcar through the "gyrating fans of suburbs" and "the darkness of cities," and then the scene suddenly dissolves as the travelers are moving up the Pacific coast to Bolinas, where "the houses doze and seem to wonder why." As the journey continues, one proceeds, not westward or north to Canada, but into an imaginary world. A city has evidently been erected, "built … Partly over with fake ruins in the image of ourselves: / An arch that terminates in mid-keystone, a crumbling stone pier / For laundresses, an open-air theater, never completed / And only partially designed." Where are we? As with Rimbaud's "Villes" or Ashbery's own "lacustrine cities," these places cannot be specified even as they seem strangely familiar; they emerge as part of a theater decor upon which the curtain may fall any minute. So the poet asks,

        How are we to inhabit
   This space from which the fourth wall is invariably missing,
   As in a stage-set or dollhouse, except by staying as we are,
   In lost profile, facing the stars …

This question has haunted Ashbery from the beginning. He has known all along that, as he puts it in the 1956 "Two Scenes," "Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is," the difficulty being that one cannot find out. Just so, the question posed in "Pyrography" is rhetorical, for the poet knows that the only way to inhabit a "space from which the fourth wall is invariably missing" is to accept it as the "stage-set or dollhouse" it really is.

In the twenty-five years since "Pyrography" Ashbery's poetry has not so much changed dramatically as it has revealed its scaffolding, has shown us, more limpidly than in the past, how much of the past—poetic, artistic, operatic—goes into the making of the present. A sense of impending death has become increasingly present, although Ashbery treats the theme with his usual indirection, as in "Many Colors" from Wakefulness, which begins,

   There's a chastening in it,
   A hymnlike hemline.
   Hyperbole in another disguise.
   Dainty foresters walk through it.

And in another poem from this volume the poet thinks ruefully that "once upon a time everybody was here. Then the pellets started to go."

Increasingly, the Proustian search for lost time has become Ashbery's subject; the emphasis is now on those moments when "easing through the night we felt scoops / of clay like tired ice cream." Dazzling as were Ashbery's early experiments, the later poetry has a poignancy and depth just short of heartbreak. But the poet always pulls back with a wry smile as he contemplates "the cartoon era of my early life," whose imprint "gasps like a fish on a line." No use, in other words, making a big fuss about it all, for "there is no way to transcribe it." It is this undefined "it," poised on the edge of transcription, that continues to haunt us.

—Marjorie Perloff