Ashbery, John 1927–
Ashbery, John 1927–
(John Lawrence Ashbery, Jonas Berry)
Born July 28, 1927, in Rochester, NY; son of Chester Frederick (a farmer) and Helen (a biology teacher) Ashbery. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1949; Columbia University, M.A., 1951; graduate study at New York University, 1957-58.
Office—Department of Languages and Literature, Bard College, P.O. Box 5000, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504-5000. Agent—Georges Borchardt, Inc., 136 E. 57th St., New York, NY 10022.
Writer, critic, and editor. Worked as reference librarian for Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn, NY; Oxford University Press, New York, NY, copywriter, 1951-54; McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, NY, copywriter, 1954-55; New York University, New York, NY, instructor in elementary French, 1957-58; Locus Solus, Lans-en-Vercors, France, editor, 1960-62; New York Herald-Tribune, European edition, Paris, France, art critic, 1960-65; Art International, Lugano, Switzerland, art critic, 1961-64; Art and Literature, Paris, editor, 1963-66; Art News, New York, NY, Paris correspondent, 1964-65, executive editor in New York, NY, 1965-72; Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Brooklyn, professor of English and codirector of M.F.A. program in creative writing, 1974-90, distinguished professor, 1980-90, distinguished emeritus professor, 1990; Harvard University, Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, 1989-90; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Languages and Literature, 1990—. Has read his poetry at the Living Theatre, New York, NY, and at numerous universities, including Yale University, University of Chicago, and University of Texas.
American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Academy of American Poets (chancellor, 1988-99).
Discovery Prize co-winner, Young Men's Hebrew Association, 1952; Fulbright scholarships to France, 1955-56 and 1956-57; Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, 1956, for Some Trees; Poets' Foundation grants, 1960 and 1964; Ingram-Merrill Foundation grants, 1962 and 1972; Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, Poetry, 1963; Union League Civic and Arts Foundation Prize, Poetry, 1966; National Book Award nomination, 1966, for Rivers and Mountains; Guggenheim fellowships, 1967 and 1973; National Endowment for the Arts grants, 1968 and 1969; National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, 1969; Shelley Memorial Award, Poetry Society of America, 1973, for Three Poems; Frank O'Hara Prize, Modern Poetry Association, 1974; Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, University of Chicago, 1975; Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award, all 1976, all for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; Levinson Prize, Poetry, 1977; Rockefeller Foundation grant in playwriting, 1978; D.Litt., Southampton College of Long Island University, 1979; Phi Beta Kappa Poet, Harvard University, 1979; English-Speaking Union Poetry Award, 1979; American Book Award nomination, 1982, for Shadow Train; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1982; Mayor's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture, City of New York, 1983; Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters, Bard College, 1983; National Book Critics Circle award nomination, and Los Angeles Times Book Award nomination, both 1984, both for A Wave; named Poet of the Year, Pasadena City College, 1984; Bollingen Prize (corecipient), 1985, for body of work; Wallace Stevens fellowship, Yale University, 1985; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1985-90; Los Angeles Times Book Award nomination, 1986, for Selected Poems; Common Wealth Award, Modern Language Association of America, 1986; Lenore Marshall Award, Nation, 1986, for A Wave; Creative Arts Award in Poetry, Brandeis University, 1989; Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Poetry, 1992; Robert Frost Medal, Poetry Society of America, 1995; Grand Prix, Biennales Internationales de Poesie, 1996; Gold Medal for Poetry, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1997; Walt Whitman citation of merit, New York State Writers Institute; Signet Society Medal for Achievement in the Arts, Harvard University, 2001; named New York State poet, 2001-02; Wallace Stevens Award, 2002; Légion d'Honneur of the Republic of France, by presidential decree, 2002; D. Litt., Pace University, New York, NY, 2003; Italian Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, awarded foreign membership, 2006; named MTV poet laureate for university channel, 2007.
Turandot and Other Poems (chapbook), Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1953.
The Poems, Tiber Press (New York, NY), 1960.
The Tennis Court Oath (poems), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1962.
Rivers and Mountains (poems), Holt (New York, NY), 1966.
Selected Poems, J. Cape (London, England), 1967.
Sunrise in Suburbia, Phoenix Bookshop (New York, NY), 1968.
Three Madrigals, Poet's Press, 1969.
(With James Schuyler) A Nest of Ninnies (novel), Dutton (New York, NY), 1969.
Fragment (poem; also see below), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1969.
Evening in the Country, Spanish Main Press, 1970.
The Double Dream of Spring (includes "Fragment," originally published in book form), Dutton (New York, NY), 1970.
The New Spirit, Adventures in Poetry, 1970.
(With Lee Hawood and Tom Raworth) Penguin Modern Poets 19, Penguin (New York, NY), 1971.
Three Poems, Viking (New York, NY), 1972.
The Serious Doll, privately printed, 1975.
(With Joe Brainard) The Vermont Notebook (poems), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1975, reprinted, Granary Books (Calais, VT), 2001.
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1975.
Houseboat Days (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
(English text) Elliott Carter, Syringa: For Mezzo Soprano, Bass, and Guitar with 10 Instrumentalists, Associated Music Publishers (New York, NY), 1978.
As We Know (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1979.
(With Robert Maillard) La Peinture Abstraite, F. Hazan (Paris, France), 1980.
Shadow Train: Fifty Lyrics, Viking (New York, NY), 1981.
(With others) R.B. Kitaj: Paintings, Drawings, Pastels, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC), 1981, Thames and Hudson (New York, NY), 1983.
(With others) Apparitions (poems), Lord John Press (Northridge, CA), 1981.
Fairfield Porter: Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction, New York Graphic Society (New York, NY), 1983.
A Wave (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1984.
Selected Poems, Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
(With Judith E. Stein and Janet K. Cutler) Red Grooms, A Retrospective, 1956-1984, (essays), Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (Philadelphia, PA), 1985.
April Galleons, Penguin (New York, NY), 1987.
The Ice Storm, Hanuman Books, 1987.
(Contributor) Robert Doty, editor, Jane Freilicher: Paintings, (essays), Taplinger Pub. Co. (New York, NY), 1987.
Three Poems (different text than 1972 volume with same title), Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987 (art criticism), edited by David Bergman, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1991.
Haibun, illustrations by Judith Shea, Collectif Génération (Colombes, France), 1990.
Flow Chart (poem), Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
Hotel Lautreamont, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
Three Books (poems), Penguin (New York, NY), 1993.
And the Stars Were Shining, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.
Can You Hear, Bird, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
Pistils (essays), photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, Random House (New York, NY), 1996.
Wakefulness, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1998.
Girls on the Run, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
April Galleons: Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
(Poem text) Don Stewart Never Seek to Tell Thy Love: For Soprano, Flute, Clarinet/Bass Clarinet, Violin, Cello, Percussion, and Piano, Trillenium Music Company (Tunbridge, VT), 1999.
Other Traditions: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2000.
Your Name Here: Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
As Umbrellas Follow Rain, Qua Books (Lennox, MA), 2001.
Jane Hammond: The Ashbery Collection, Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art (Cleveland, OH), 2001.
(Contributor) Constance M. Lewallen, Joe Brainard: A Retrospective, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum (Berkeley, CA), 2001.
Chinese Whispers: Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.
Mark Ford, editor, The New York Poets: Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler (anothology), Carcanet (Manchester, VT), 2004.
Where Shall I Wander?, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
(Text) Giorgio Cavallon, 1904-1989: Paintings, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries (New York, NY), 2005.
Walt Whitman, Hom(m)age, 1855-1905, Turtle Point Press (New York, OK), 2005.
A Worldly Country: New Poems, Ecco (New York, NY), 2007.
Selected Poems, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale-On-Hudson, NY), 2008.
Works have been anthologized in New American Poetry, 1945-1960, Grove (New York, NY), 1960; A Controversy of Poets, edited by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly, Doubleday/Anchor (New York, NY), 1964; L'Avant-Garde aujourd'hui, [Brussels, Belgium], 1965; Anthology of New York Poets, Random House (New York, NY), 1969; The Voice That Is Great within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, Bantam (New York, NY), 1970; Contemporary American Poetry, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1971; Fifty Modern American and British Poets, 1920-1970, edited by Louis Untermeyer, McKay (New York, NY), 1973; and Shake the Kaleidoscope: A New Anthology of Modern Poetry, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1973.
Contributor of poetry to periodicals, including New York Review of Books, Partisan Review, Harper's, and New Yorker; contributor of art criticism to periodicals, including Art International and Aujourd'hui; contributor of literary criticism to New York Review of Books, Saturday Review, Poetry, Bizarre (Paris, France), and other periodicals. New York Magazine, art critic, 1975-80; Partisan Review, poetry editor, 1976-80; Newsweek, art critic, 1980-85.
The Heroes (one-act; also see below; produced Off-Broadway, 1952; produced in London, England, 1982), in Artists' Theater, edited by Herbert Machiz, Grove (New York, NY), 1969.
The Compromise (three-act; also see below; produced in Cambridge, MA, at the Poet's Theater, 1956), in The Hasty Papers, Alfred Leslie, 1960.
The Philosopher (one-act; also see below), in Art and Literature, number 2, 1964.
Three Plays (contains The Heroes, The Compromise, and The Philosopher), Z Press (Calais, VT), 1978.
(With others) The American Literary Anthology, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968.
(With Thomas B. Hess) Light, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.
(With Thomas B. Hess) Light in Art, Collier Books (New York, NY), 1969.
(With Thomas B. Hess) Painters Painting, Newsweek (New York, NY), 1971.
(With Thomas B. Hess) Art of the Grand Eccentrics, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1971.
(With Thomas B. Hess) Painterly Painting, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1971.
(With Thomas B. Hess) Avant-Garde Art, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1971.
Penguin Modern Poets 24: Ken Ward Elmslie, Kenneth Hoch, James Schuyler, Penguin (New York, NY), 1974.
Richard F. Sknow, The Funny Place, O'Hara (Chicago, IL), 1975.
Bruce Marcus, Muck Arbour, O'Hara (Chicago, IL), 1975.
(And translator from the French) Max Jacob, The Dice Cup: Selected Prose Poems, SUN (New York, NY), 1979.
(With David Lehman) The Best American Poetry, 1988, Scribner (New York, NY), 1989.
Coeditor, One Fourteen, 1952-53.
(Translator) Jean-Jacques Mayoux, Melville, Grove (New York, NY), 1960.
(Translator, as Jonas Berry, with Lawrence G. Blochman) Murder in Montmartre, Dell (New York, NY), 1960.
(Translator, as Jonas Berry, with Lawrence G. Blochman) Genevieve Manceron, The Deadlier Sex, Dell (New York, NY), 1961.
(Contributor) Dore Ashton, A Joseph Cornell Album, Da Capo Press (New York, NY), 1974.
(Translator) Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantomas, Morrow (New York, NY), 1986.
(Translator) Pierre Martory, Every Question but One, Groundwater Press/InterFlo Editions, 1990.
(Translator, with others) Pierre Reverdy, Selected Poems, Wake Forest University Press (Winston-Salem, NC), 1991.
Poets in Person: John Ashbery with David Bromwich (sound recording), Modern Poetry Association (Chicago, IL), 1991.
(Foreword) Joan Mitchell, Joan Mitchell, 1926-1996, Robert Miller Gallery (New York, NY), 1993.
(Translator) Pierre Martory, The Landscape Is behind the Door, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY), 1994.
(Contributor) Whitney Museum of American Art 1995 Biennial Exhibition, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1995.
John Ashbery in Conversation with Mark Ford, Dufour Editions (Chester Springs, PA), 2003.
Collaborator with Joe Brainard on C Comic Books; collaborator with Elliott Carter on musical setting Syringa, produced in New York, NY, 1979. Poetry recordings include Treasury of 100 Modern American Poets Reading Their Poems, Volume 17, Spoken Arts; Poetry of John Ashbery, Jeffrey Norton, and John Ashbery ("Voice of the Poet" series), Random Audio, 2001. Translator, from the French, of the works of Raymond Roussel, Andre Breton, Pierre Reverdy, Arthur Cravan, Max Jacob, Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud, Noel Vexin, and others.
Ashbery's verse has been set to music by Ned Rorem, Eric Salzman, Paul Reif, and James Dashow.
Award-winning poet John Ashbery is recognized as one of the leading lights of twentiethcentury American letters. Ashbery's poetry challenges its readers to discard all presumptions about the aims, themes, and stylistic scaffolding of verse in favor of a literature that reflects upon the limits of language and the volatility of consciousness. In the New Criterion, William Logan noted: "Few poets have so cleverly manipulated, or just plain tortured, our soiled desire for meaning. [Ashbery] reminds us that most poets who give us meaning don't know what they're talking about." Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Raymond Carney likewise contended that Ashbery's work "is a continuous criticism of all the ways in which literature would tidy up experience and make the world safe for poetry."
Ashbery's style, once considered avant-garde, has since become "so influential that its imitators are legion," Helen Vendler observed in the New Yorker. Although even his strongest supporters admit that his poetry is often difficult to read and willfully difficult to understand, Ashbery has become, as James Atlas noted in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, "the most widely honored poet of his generation." Ashbery's position in American letters is confirmed by his unprecedented sweep of the literary "triple crown" in 1976, when Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Prize. However, Ashbery has been resistant to his canonization.
A key element of Ashbery's success is his openness to change; it is both a characteristic of his development as a writer and an important thematic element in his verse. "It is a thankless and hopeless task to try and keep up with Ashbery, to try and summarize the present state of his art," Carney observed, adding, "He will never stand still, even for the space (or time) of one poem. Emerson wrote that ‘all poetry is vehicular,’ and in the case of Ashbery the reader had better resign himself to a series of unending adjustments and movements. With each subsequent book of poetry we only know that he will never be standing still, for that to him is death." In a Washington Post Book World review of Shadow Train: Fifty Lyrics, David Young noted: "You must enjoy unpredictability if you are to like John Ashbery…. We must be ready for anything in reading Ashbery because this eclectic, dazzling, inventive creator of travesties and treaties is ready to and eager to include anything, say anything, go anywhere, in the service of an esthetic dedicated to liberating poetry from predictable conventions and tired traditions."
Ashbery's verse has taken shape under the influence of films and other art forms. The abstract expressionist movement in modern painting, stressing nonrepresentational methods of picturing reality, is an especially important presence in his work. True to this influence, Ashbery's poems, according to Fred Moramarco, are a "verbal canvas" upon which the poet freely applies the techniques of expressionism. Moramarco, writing in the Journal of Modern Literature, felt that Ashbery's verse, "maligned by many critics for being excessively obscure, becomes less difficult to understand when examined in relation to modern art. The Tennis Court Oath is still a book that arouses passions in critics and readers, some of whom have criticized its purposeful obscurity. For me it becomes approachable, explicable, and even downright lucid when read with some of the esthetic assumptions of Abstract Expressionism in mind…. [Jackson] Pollock's drips, Rothko's haunting, color-drenched, luminous, rectangular shapes, and Gottlieb's spheres and explosive strokes are here, in a sense, paralleled by an imagistic scattering and emotional and intellectual verbal juxtaposition."
In reviewing "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," a long poem inspired by a painting by the Renaissance artist Francesco Parmigianino, Moramarco was "struck by Ashbery's unique ability to explore the verbal implications of painterly space, to capture the verbal nuances of Parmigianino's fixed and distorted image. The poem virtually resonates or extends the painter's meaning. It transforms visual impact to verbal precision."
Ashbery's experience as an art critic in France and America has strengthened his ties to abstract expressionism and instilled in his poetry a sensitivity to the interrelatedness of artistic media. His poetry is openended and multivarious because life itself is, he told Bryan Appleyard in the London Times: "I don't find any direct statements in life. My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness come to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don't think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation. My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life."
Ashbery's verbal expressionism has attracted a mixed critical response. James Schevill, in a Saturday Review article on The Tennis Court Oath, wrote: "The trouble with Ashbery's work is that he is influenced by modern painting to the point where he tries to apply words to the page as if they were abstract, emotional colors and shapes…. Consequently, his work loses coherence…. There is little substance to the poems in this book." In the New York Times Book Review, X.J. Kennedy praised the same title: "‘Attempt to use words abstractly,’ [Ashbery] declares, ‘as an artist uses paint.’ … If the reader can shut off that portion of the brain which insists words be related logically, he may dive with pleasure into Ashbery's stream of consciousness." Appleyard related the view of some critics that, "however initially baffling his poetry may seem, it is impossible to deny the extraordinary beauty of its surface, its calm and haunting evocation of a world of fragmentary knowledge." Moramarco contended that Ashbery's technique has an invigorating effect: "We become caught up in the rich, vitalized verbal canvas he has painted for us, transported from the mundane and often tedious realities of our daily lives to this exotic, marvelous world…. Literature and art can provide these moments of revitalization for us, and although we must always return to the real world, our esthetic encounters impinge upon our sensibilities and leave us altered."
Many critics have commented on the manner in which Ashbery's fluid style has helped to convey a major concern in his poetry: the refusal to impose an arbitrary order on a world of flux and chaos. In his verse, Ashbery attempts to mirror the stream of perceptions of which human consciousness is composed. His poems move, often without continuity, from one image to the next, prompting some critics to praise his expressionist technique and others to accuse him of producing art that is unintelligible, even meaningless.
"Reality, for Ashbery, is elusive, and things are never what they seem to be. They cannot be separated from one another, isolated into component parts, but overlap, intersect, and finally merge into an enormous and constantly changing whole," Paul Auster suggested in Harper's. "Ashbery's manner of dealing with this flux is associative rather than logical, and his pessimism about our ever really being able to know anything results, paradoxically, in a poetry that is open to everything."
In the American Poetry Review, W.S. Di Piero stated that Ashbery "wonders at the processes of change he sees in people, in the seasons, in language, but his perception of the things about him also persuades him that nothing has ever really changed. If all things, all thought and feeling, are subject to time's revisions, then what can we ever know? What events, what feelings can we ever trust? In exploring questions such as these, Ashbery has experimented with forms of dislocated language as one way of jarring things into order; his notorious twisting of syntax is really an attempt to straighten things out, to clarify the problems at hand." David Kalstone, in his book Five Temperaments, commented: "In his images of thwarted nature, of a discontinuity between past and present, Ashbery has tuned his agitation into a principle of composition. From the start he has looked for sentences, diction, a syntax which would make these feelings fully and fluidly available." "Robbed of their solid properties, the smallest and surest of words become part of a new geography," Kalstone wrote of The Double Dream of Spring in the New York Times Book Review. To explore this "new geography," Kalstone added, the reader must immerse himself in Ashbery's language and "learn something like a new musical scale."
Closely related to Ashbery's use of language as a "new musical scale" is his celebration of the world's various motions and drives. Under the poet's care, the most ordinary aspects of our lives leap into a new reality, a world filled with the joyous and bizarre. In his book, The Poem in Its Skin, Paul Carroll found that "one quality most of Ashbery's poems share is something like the peculiar excitement one feels when stepping with Alice behind the Looking Glass into a reality bizarre yet familiar in which the ‘marvelous’ is as near as one's breakfast coffee cup or one's shoes. His gift is to release everyday objects, experiences and fragments of dreams or hallucinations from stereotypes imposed on them by habit or preconception or belief: he presents the world as if seen for the first time." In a review of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror for Harper's, Paul Auster contended that "few poets today have such an uncanny ability to undermine our certainties, to articulate so fully the ambiguous zones of our consciousness. We are constantly thrown off guard as we read his poems. The ordinary becomes strange, and things that a moment ago seemed clear are cast into doubt. Everything remains in place, and yet nothing is the same." Edmund White, appraising As We Know in the Washington Post Book World, observed: "As David Shapiro has pointed out in his critical study, all [of Ashbery's] long poems tend to end on a joyful note, though one harmonized with doubt and anguish." In the conclusion of "Litany" he "rejects the equation of life and text in order to acknowledge the rich messiness of experience."
Several critics have suggested that this joyful quality is sometimes contradicted by an intellectualism and obscurity present in Ashbery's verse. Victor Howes, reviewing Houseboat Days for the Christian Science Monitor, recognized the rich diversity of the poet's work, but asked, "does he touch the heart? Does he know the passions? My dear. My dear. Really, sometimes you ask too much." J.A. Avant, writing for Library Journal, argued that in The Double Dream of Spring, "emotion has been intellectualized to the extent that it is almost nonexistent." And Pearl K. Bell commented in the New Leader: "Long stretches of Self-Portrait read like the bland prose of an uninspired scholar, complete with references and quotations. Bleached of feeling and poetic surprise, the words gasp for air, stutter, go dead." In a New York Review of Books article on The Double Dream of Spring, Robert Mazzocco asserted that "in Ashbery there has always been a catlike presence, both in the poems themselves and in the person these poems reveal: tender, curious, cunning, tremendously independent, sweet, guarded. Above all, like a cat, Ashbery is a born hunter…. But the one prime act of the cat—to spring, to pounce, to make the miraculous leap—Ashbery, for me, has yet to perform."
In The Poem in Its Skin, Carroll examined Ashbery's "Leaving the Atocha Station," and felt that "several close readings fail to offer a suspicion of a clue as to what it might be all about." Carroll admitted his annoyance: "The poem makes me feel stupid…. [The] narrative skeleton is fleshed out by skin and features made from meaningless phrases, images and occasional sentences. In this sense, ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ out-Dadas Dada: it is totally meaningless…. The most obvious trait is the general sense that the reader has wandered into somebody else's dream or hallucination." After suggesting several ways to read the poem, Carroll concluded that "the reader should feel free to do whatever he wants with the words in this poem…. I also suspect some readers will respond to Ashbery's invitation that the reader too become a poet as he rereads" the poem.
In a review of As We Know for the Chicago Tribune Book World, Joseph Parisi granted that Ashbery's "‘subject matter’ remains incomprehensible, to be sure," but the critic nevertheless insisted: "As these streams of everyday and extraordinary objects flow past us in no apparent order, but always in wondrously lyrical lines, the poems make their own curious kind of sense. After all, isn't this how we perceive ‘reality’? … Ashbery's poems imply the improbability of finding ultimate significance amid the evanescence and transience of modern life. If, however, in the process of these poems the old order is lost or irrelevant, the longing for it or some kind of meaning is not." Reflecting upon the critical response to his poem, "Litany," Ashbery once told CA: "I'm quite puzzled by my work too, along with a lot of other people. I was always intrigued by it, but at the same time a little apprehensive and sort of embarrassed about annoying the same critics who are always annoyed by my work. I'm kind of sorry that I cause so much grief."
Di Piero described the reaction of critics to Ashbery's style as "amusing. On the one hand are those who berate him for lacking the Audenesque ‘censor’ (that little editing machine in a poet's head which deletes all superfluous materials) or who accuse him of simply being willfully and unreasonably perverse. On the other hand are those reviewers who, queerly enough, praise the difficulty of Ashbery's verse as if difficulty were a positive literary value in itself, while ignoring what the poet is saying." Vendler offered this summary in the New Yorker: "It is Ashbery's style that has obsessed reviewers, as they alternately wrestle with its elusive impermeability and praise its power of linguistic synthesis. There have been able descriptions of its fluid syntax, its insinuating momentum, its generality of reference, its incorporation of vocabulary from all the arts and sciences. But it is popularly believed, with some reason, that the style itself is impenetrable…. An alternative view says that every Ashbery poem is about poetry." Kirsch commented: "Ashbery proves, better than any other poet, that a certain style of ‘difficulty’ is not at all as difficult as it may seem…. Difficulty is only possible within a system of conventions, including the convention of meaning…. When a poet leaves conventions behind (which is not the same thing as playing with them or transcending them), a vast territory of verbiage is opened up, and he can journey anywhere."
This alternative view emphasizes Ashbery's concern with the nature of the creative act, particularly as it applies to the writing of poetry. This is, Peter Stitt noted, a major theme of Houseboat Days, a volume acclaimed by Marjorie Perloff in Washington Post Book World as "the most exciting, most original book of poems to have appeared in the 1970s." Ashbery shares with the abstract expressionists of painting "a preoccupation with the art Process itself," Stitt maintained in the Georgia Review. "Ashbery has come to write, in the poet's most implicitly ironic gesture, almost exclusively about his own poems, the ones he is writing as he writes about them. The artist becomes his own theoretical critic, caught in the critical lens even at the moment of conception." Roger Shattuck made a similar point in the New York Review of Books: "Nearly every poem in Houseboat Days shows that Ashbery's phenomenological eye fixes itself not so much on ordinary living and doing as on the specific act of composing a poem. Writing on Frank O'Hara's work, Ashbery defined a poem as ‘the chronicle of the creative act that produces it.’ Thus every poem becomes an ars poetica of its own condition." Ashbery's examination of creativity, according to Paul Breslin in Poetry, is a "prison of self-reference" which detracts from the poet's "lyrical genius." New Leader reviewer Phoebe Pettingell commented that Ashbery "carries the saw that ‘poetry does not have subject matter because it is the subject’ to its furthest limit. Just as we feel we are beginning to make sense of one of his poems, meaning eludes us again…. Still, we are somehow left with a sense that the conclusion is satisfactory, with a wondering delight at what we've heard…. Houseboat Days is evidence of the transcendent power of the imagination, and one of the major works of our time."
Ashbery's poetry, as critics have observed, has evolved under a variety of influences besides modern art, becoming in the end the expression of a voice unmistakably his own. Among the influences seen in his verse are the Romantic tradition in American poetry that progressed from Whitman to Wallace Stevens, the so-called "New York School of Poets" featuring contemporaries such as Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch, and the French surrealist writers with whom Ashbery has dealt in his work as a critic and translator. In The Fierce Embrace, Charles Molesworth traced Ashbery's development: "The first few books by John Ashbery contained a large proportion of a poetry of inconsequence…. Subject matter, or rather the absence of it, helped form the core of his aesthetic, an aesthetic that refused to maintain a consistent attitude toward any fixed phenomena. The poems tumbled out of a whimsical, detached amusement that mixed with a quizzical melancholy…. Slowly, however, it appears as if Ashbery was gaining confidence for his true project, and, as his work unfolds, an indulging reader can see how it needed those aggressively bland ‘experiments’ in nonsense to protect its frailty." Ashbery's "true project," Molesworth believed, is Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Many reviewers agreed with Molesworth that this volume, especially the long title poem, is Ashbery's "masterpiece."
Essentially a meditation on the painting "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," the narrative poem focuses on many of the themes present in Ashbery's work. "I have lived with John Ashbery's ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ as with a favorite mistress for the past nine months," Laurence Lieberman declared in his Unassigned Frequencies. "Often, for whole days of inhabiting the room of its dream, I have felt that it is the only poem—and Ashbery the only author—in my life. It is what I most want from a poem. Or an author." Lieberman enthused that "when I put this poem down I catch myself in the act of seeing objects and events in the world as through different—though amazingly novel other eyes: the brilliantly varied other life of surfaces has been wonderfully revivified, and I take this transformation to be an accurate index of the impact of Ashbery's poetry upon the modus operandi of my perception." Like Molesworth, Lieberman believed that Ashbery's early work, though "unreadable," was an "indispensable detour that precipitated, finally, the elevated vision of Ashbery's recent work…. Following his many years of withdrawal and seclusion, a period of slow mellowing, this exactly appointed occasion has been granted to him."
Like other critics, Lieberman felt that Ashbery was once overly concerned with examining the nature of art and creativity, with escaping into his poems and "producing forms that achieved a semblance of ideal beauty." In "Self-Portrait," Lieberman contended, "Ashbery forecloses irrevocably on the mortgage of an ars poetica which conceives the poem as ‘exotic refuge,’ and advances to an aesthetic which carries a full burden of mirroring the age's ills." Unlike Parmigianino, who retreated into his hermitage, Ashbery ventures out from "the comfortable sanctuary of the dream" to confront the world. "His new art achieves a powerful reengagement with the human community," Lieberman concluded. "That is his honorable quest."
Ashbery's second epic poem, Flow Chart, was published in 1991. One might assume, as Alfred Corn noted in Poetry, that "such a poet might … [now] reflect the golden serenity that comes in the latter years of a life that has achieved its aims. No. Or not simply, yes. In fact, Flow Chart shows us a John Ashbery at his most achingly vulnerable." Corn continued: "It is impossible to be certain this early on, but the reach of Flow Chart suggests that it is Ashbery's most important book, and certainly his most human." Lawrence Joseph declared in the Nation that the poem, "more than any of his other books, portrays the essence of Ashbery's process…. Flow Chart is a catalogue, which Ashbery presents as endlessly expansive and open to interpretation, encompassing within its subject matter—well, as much as the poet may imagine." Helen Vendler, writing in the New Yorker, attempted to capture the poem in its entirety: "What is John Ashbery's … Flow Chart? A two-hundred-and-fifteen-page lyric; a diary; a monitor screen registering a moving EEG; a thousand and one nights; Penelope's web unraveling; views from Argus' hundred eyes; a book of riddles; a ham-radio station; an old trunk full of memories; a rubbish dump; a Bartlett's Familiar Quotations; a Last Folio; a vaudeville act…. It makes Ashbery's past work (except for those poems in The Tennis Court Oath …) seem serenely classical, well ordered, pure, shapely, and above all, short."
As with Ashbery's other poetry, Hotel Lautreamont, was met with mixed critical response. In the NationalReview, James Gardner qualified his criticism by noting: "The appreciation of a poem by John Ashbery Requires an act of faith, a surrender of the ordinary faculties of judgment. What you are to admire is a certain deposit of psychic life in each of these poems, a shifting, disengaged record of the poet's spiritual state at the moment of setting the words down on paper." Gardner concluded: "There was a time when I had more patience for this sort of thing than I now have. It is no longer enough." As Nicholas Everett noted in the Times Literary Supplement: "Those who expect poetry to evoke a specific experience or event, real or fictional, will always find Ashbery's work frustrating or just dull." He added: "Besides, the essential subjects of Ashbery's poetry—subjectivity and time … are themselves general and elusive; and though in passing it says a good deal about them, its means are in the end mimetic rather than discursive." Tom Sleigh in the New York Times Book Review found Ashbery "extremely forgiving, a poet, like Wordsworth, of superb passages who doesn't insist that one dig out the gold in every line." However, Sleigh admitted: "This isn't to say that he's wired like other poets."
Can You Hear, Bird was Ashbery's seventeenth volume of poetry. According to John Boening in World Literature Review, "the poems in Can You Hear, Bird range across all manner of forms and styles, moods and voices. Some are more engaging than others (almost all Ashbery poems, even those which ‘do’ nothing for us or leave us disoriented, are engaging)." Stephen Yenser raved in the Yale Review: "There is nowhere that Ashbery's poetry can't sail, one feels, and nothing it can't do, apart of course from ‘doing’ anything." Yenser continued: "Reading Ashbery—like reading the Gertrude Stein of Tender Buttons—is a continually surprising, exciting venture that proves the endlessness of the resources that we call ‘language.’" Mark Ford, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, compared Ashbery's poetry to Walt Whitman's. "Like Whitman's, it is essentially a means of involving the reader in the poem on what Whitman calls ‘equal terms’…. Ashbery's evasions might be seen as motivated by a similar desire to achieve a greater—and more democratic—intimacy by short-circuiting conventional modes of address."
The poems in Girls on the Run were inspired by the art work and writings of Henry Darger (1892-1973), a mentally ill recluse whose fantastic sketches and paintings of little girls only came to light after his death. Once again, Ashbery uses Darger's work only as a point of departure for his own vivid and free-flowing imaginings, described by David Kirby in the New York Times Book Review as "a tank of literary laughing gas that exhilarates and confounds in roughly equal measures." The "characters" in Girls on the Run include Tidbit, Rags the Dog, Uncle Margaret, and Dimples, but these creations come and go through the pieces with no discernable plot or motivation to compel them onward. As Art in America contributor Raphael Rubinstein saw it, Girls on the Run "is, in an odd way, closer in spirit to Ashbery's earlier work…. Despite expressing a degree of nostalgia for childhood diversions, this new poem is perhaps more radical in its unpredictability than anything Ashbery has yet written." Calling the volume "beautiful, comic, and mysterious" in his review for World Literature Today, Michael Leddy cited references to Homer and classical myth that run through both Darger's work and Ashbery's poem, and notes that the work's "large cast gives a good sense of the poem's many dimensions." Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman felt that the work in Girls on the Run "has captured the peculiar energy of Darger's disturbing creation" in "a virtuoso interpretative performance."
In more recent Ashbery works, such as Girls on the Run, Wakefulness, and Chinese Whispers: Poems, some critics have noted an infusion of elegy as the poet contemplates aging and death. In Nation, Calvin Bedient stated: "For all his experimentation, Ashbery writes (as the important writers have always done) about happiness and woe. If the woe he knows is treated comically, it's still woe." The critic added: "Ashbery's brilliantly eccentric images are bees released to find a hidden (mythic) hive. His humor is the knowledge that they will perish en route…. Even if his pathos is by now well worn, it's no fuzzy pair of slippers. His poetry is almost as full of strange voices as Caliban's island, and as full of magic, a gracefully humorous pathos, a pathetic humor like no other shuddering laughter in the world." While praising the poems in Chinese Whispers for their "light touch and consistent pacing," Library Journal reviewer Barbara Hoffert noted that in "these autumnal pieces a sense of calm predominates" as "things repeatedly fall, ebb, dissipate, or descend." However, autumnal does not mean lackluster. Characterizing Ashbery's work after the late 1990s as "equal parts cracked drawing-room dialogue, 4-H Americana, withering sarcasm, and sleeve-worn pathos," a Publishers Weekly contributor noted that in Chinese Whispers Ashbery's poems seem "brilliantly tossed off."
Your Name Here: Poems was not a particularly groundbreaking volume of poetry, offering readers a collection of poems in typical Ashbery style, making use of word play and distinctive cadence, but not striving for new poetic territory. Stephen Whited, in a review for Book, pointed out that, while this may be the case, that is no reason to dismiss the book, as "in spite of the numbing sameness of Ashbery's poetic mannerisms, the sounds and images add up to much more than the surreal juxtapositions to which most commentators point." Whited went on to compare Ashbery to playwrights such as Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco in his use of stream of consciousness, making his poems require work on the part of the reader. Donna Seaman, reviewing for Booklist, agreed, noting "such seemingly freeassociative work can be taxing; it can feel indulgent," and concluding that the only the reader can decide whether to put forth the effort. Library Journal contributor Graham Christian commented that while no doubt the poems themselves are not to everyone's taste, "Ashbery is a great poet, and there are many delights in this new collection."
Where Shall I Wander? is a collection of poems that features Ashbery's trademark play upon words and rhythmic, delightful meter. However, some reviewers questioned the overall meaning of the poems, positing that while imminently quotable, the poems as a whole do not make much sense. This is a criticism that has followed Ashbery over the course of his career, and seems to vary by critic. However, R. Andrew Newman, reviewing for the Weekly Standard, remarked that "these are the fine-tuned poems of an old man, even if we can't hum unfailingly along with the soundtrack…. a haunting quality pervades the collection. We listen as the speaking voice sifts through memories, trying to make sense of what happened. All the while present and past refuse to remain still." Newman commented that segments of Ashbery's poems provide the reader with great flashes of insight into the human condition and the constant war between adult and the inner childlike nature. Donna Seaman, in a review for Booklist, opined that "these mind-bending and beautifully haunting poems are the knowing work of a virtuoso." In a review for the Economist, one contributor called the collection "vintage Ashbery." The reviewer went on to state that "the ease and the seeming casualness of the voice works in direct opposition to the complexity of the message. Readers are drawn into tiny fragments of storylines which are forever thwarted by the poet's unexpected veerings off in entirely different directions."
In Selected Prose, published in 2005, Ashbery collects a series of essays that focus on the minutia of existence while looking at the lives and work of various writers and other artists. He applies the same attention to detail to his observations as he does to his poetry. Jack Kimball, reviewing the book for Verse Online, noted that Ashbery appears to avoid reaching any in-depth conclusions over the course of his essays, observing that "the writing here is altogether less conclusive and less variegated a set of aesthetic propositions than in Ashbery's art chronicles."
At the age of eighty, Ashbery released A Worldly Country: New Poems. As with so much of Ashbery's poetry over the course of his career, the poems in this volume focus on answering a question, though they never do succeed in doing so. Facing a sea of rubble and destruction, the narrator of the poems questions what has happened to cause the scene. Instead of providing easy answers, Ashbery imbues his work with a feeling of menace or threat, something all encompassing that pervades each poem, yet never quite comes clear for the reader. As Mark Ford noted, reviewing the volume for the Financial Times, "Ashbery's poems often present the reader with a paradigmatic range of the sorts of choice available at any given moment, but avoid committing to any particular course of action." Ilya Kaminsky, in a review for the Library Journal, commented that "the poems in Ashbery's latest collection are able to entertain—a word rarely used these days to describe contemporary American poetry," noting that, while Ashbery is as sharp and observant as always, and critical of the world around him, he is able to remain playful at the same time. Booklist contributor Donna Seaman remarked: "Poem by poem, Ashbery's attunement to time's passing sharpens, as does his query, Has one used time wisely?"
Ashbery has received numerous awards over the course of his career, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 and being named Poet Laureate of New York State from 2001 to 2003. In 2007, MTV announced that Ashbery was once again to be Poet Laureate, though this time for their university network, MtvU. The channel, which is aiming to encourage college students to read more poetry, will air segments of Ashbery's poetry over the course of eighteen different commercials for the medium, both on television and over their web site, with the latter featuring the complete poems. As part of the program, MTV also announced a poetry contest for college students, with publication for the winner as a part of the HarperCollins National Poetry Series.
Much as he has throughout his career, Ashbery continues to foster a variety of reactions among readers. In an online review for Men's Journal, Mark Levine con- tended that Ashbery "remains the most outrageously daring verbal mapmaker of the modern imagination. Bawdy, feverish, irreverent, and beset by melancholy, his poems inhabit a range of textures and emotions you won't find in another living writer." Nicholas Jenkins concluded in the New York Times Book Review that Ashbery's poetry "appeals not because it offers wisdom in a packaged form, but because the elusiveness and mysterious promise of his lines remind us that we always have a future and a condition of meaningfulness to start out toward." Lauding the poet's contribution to American letters, Jenkins characterized Ashbery's work as "a poetry whose beauties are endless."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
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Poetry, December, 1991, Alfred Corn, review of Flow Chart, p. 169.
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