Ashbery, John (Lawrence) 1927- (Jonas Berry)
ASHBERY, John (Lawrence) 1927-
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, Annandaleon-Hudson, NY 12504-5000. Agent—Georges Borchardt, Inc., 136 East 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; New York Magazine, art critic, 1975-80; Partisan Review, poetry editor, 1976-80; Newsweek, art critic, 1980-85. 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, 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.
Turandot and Other Poems (chapbook), Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1953.
Some Trees (poems), foreword by W. H. Auden, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1956, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1978.
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.
As We Know (poems), Viking (New York, NY), 1979.
Shadow Train: Fifty Lyrics, Viking (New York, NY), 1981.
(With others) R. B. Kitaj: Paintings, Drawings, Pastels, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC), 1981.
(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.
April Galleons, Penguin (New York, NY), 1987.
The Ice Storm, Hanuman Books, 1987.
Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987 (art criticism), edited by David Bergman, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
Three Poems (different text than 1972 volume with same title), Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1989.
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.
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.
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.
Chinese Whispers: Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.
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.
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) 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) 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.
(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.
(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.
(Translator) Pierre Martory, The Landscape Is behind the Door, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY), 1994.
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 twentieth-century 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 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." New York Times Book Review essayist Stephen Koch characterized Ashbery's voice as "a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with a weird pulsating rhythm that fluctuates like a wave between peaks of sharp clarity and watery droughts of obscurity and languor."
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, as Nicholas Jenkins suggested in the New York Times Book Review, Ashbery has been resistant to his canonization. "For him," the critic contended, "prizes and fame seem little more than sweetly scented warning signs that his strategies have become too easily legible, that his poems are in danger of being embalmed.… Certainly no other poet has been more diligent about finding new ways of 'starting out' again—of continuously emerging from the shadow of his own previous work."
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, 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." And in the New York Times Book Review, J. M. Brinnon maintained that Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is "a collection of poems of breathtaking freshness and adventure in which dazzling orchestrations of language open up whole areas of consciousness no other American poet has even begun to explore.…The influence of films now shows in Ashbery's deft control of just those cinematic devices a poet can most usefully appropriate. Crosscut, flashback, montage, closeup, fade-out—he employs them all to generate the kinetic excitement that starts on the first page of his book and continues to the last."
As Brinnon's analysis suggested, 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. "Modern art was the first and most powerful influence on Ashbery," Helen McNeil declared in the Times Literary Supplement. "When he began to write in the 1950s, American poetry was constrained and formal while American abstract-expressionist art was vigorously taking over the heroic responsibilities of the European avant garde.… Ashbery remarks that no one now thinks it odd that Picasso painted faces with eyes and mouth in the wrong place, while the hold of realism in literature is such that the same kind of image in a poem would still be considered shocking."
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." And Jonathan Holden believed that "Ashbery is the first American poet to successfully carry out the possibilities of analogy between poetry and 'abstract expressionist' painting. He has succeeded so well for two reasons: he is the first poet to identify the correct correspondences between painting and writing; he is the first poet to explore the analogy who has possessed the skill to produce a first-rate 'abstract expressionist' poetry, a poetry as beautiful and sturdy as the paintings of Willem de Kooning." In the American Poetry Review, Holden added that "it is Ashbery's genius not only to be able to execute syntax with heft, but to perceive that syntax in writing is the equivalent of 'composition' in painting: it has an intrinsic beauty and authority almost wholly independent of any specific context."
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 open-ended 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 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 of 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. As Ashbery explained in Poetry, a poem is "a hymn to possibility … a general, all-purpose model which each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars." In the New York Review of Books, Irvin Ehrenpreis commented on Ashbery's assessment of the participatory nature of poetry: "The poem itself must become an exercise in re-examining the world from which the self has become alienated. We must confront its language with the same audacity that we want when confronting the darkened world within us and without. To offer a clear meaning would be to fix the reader in his place, to turn him away from the proper business of poetry by directing him to an apparent subject.… The act of reading must become the purpose of the poem."
Calling the poet a "late Romantic," Adam Kirsch declared in New Republic: "Ashbery, like God, is most easily defined by negatives. His poems have no plot, narrative, or situation; no consistent emotional register or tone; no sustained mood or definite theme. They do not even have meaningful titles. So complete is Ashbery's abandonment of most of what we come to poetry for that his achievement seems, on first acquaintance, as though it must be similarly complete: a radical new extension of poetry's means and powers, or an audacious and wildly successful hoax." 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 re-engagement 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 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 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 National Review, 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, 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."
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 contended 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." Dubbing him "a poet of our time," World Literature Today reviewer Ashley Brown found Ashbery's writing "disarmingly colloquial," but possessing a "rhythmic pattern … as unpredictable as his images." Lauding the poet's contribution to American letters, Jenkins characterized Ashbery's work as "a poetry whose beauties are endless."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Ashton, Dore, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, Viking (New York, NY), 1973.
Blasing, Mutlu Konuk, Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry: O'Hara, Bishop, Ashbery, and Merrill, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Bloom, Harold, John Ashbery, Chelsea House (New York, NY), 1985.
Carroll, Paul, The Poem in Its Skin, Follett (New York, NY), 1968.
Cazé, Antoine, John Ashbery, Belin (Paris, France), 2000.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 25, 1983, Volume 41, 1988, Volume 77, 1993.
Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.
Herd, David, John Ashbery and American Poetry: Fit to Cope with Our Occasions, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2001.
Hoeppner, Edward Haworth, Echoes and Moving Fields: Structure and Subjectivity in the Poetry of W. S. Merwin and John Ashbery, Bucknell University Press (Lewisburg, PA), 1994.
Howard, Richard, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1969.
Kelly, Lionel, editor, Poetry and the Sense of Panic: Critical Essays on Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery, Rodopi (Atlanta, GA), 2000.
Kermani, David K., John Ashbery: A Comprehensive Bibliography, Garland Publishing (New York, NY), 1976.
Koch, Kenneth, Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, Random House (New York, NY), 1973.
Kostelanetz, Richard, editor, The New American Arts, Horizon Press (New York, NY), 1965.
Leary, Paris and Robert Kelly, editors, A Controversy of Poets, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1965.
Lehman, David, editor, Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1980.
Lehman, David, editor, John Ashbery, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1979.
Lehman, David, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1999.
Lieberman, Laurence, Unassigned Frequencies: American Poetry in Review, 1964-1977, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1977.
Meyers, John Bernard, editor, The Poets of the New York School, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1969.
Molesworth, Charles, The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1979.
Packard, William, editor, The Craft of Poetry, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1964.
Perloff, Marjorie, Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1990.
Ross, Andrew, The Failure of Modernism: Symptoms of American Poetry, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1986.
Schultz, Susan M., editor, The Tribe of John Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1995.
Shapiro, David, John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1979.
Shaw, Robert B., editor, American Poetry since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 1973.
Shoptaw, John, On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1994.
Stepanchev, Stephen, American Poetry since 1945: A Critical Survey, Harper (New York, NY), 1965.
Sutton, Walter, American Free Verse: The Modern Revolution in Poetry, New Directions (New York, NY), 1973.
Ward, Geoff, Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1993.
American Poetry Review, August, 1973; September, 1978; July, 1979; July, 1981; May-June, 1984, pp. 29-33; March, 2002, Donald Revell, "Invisible Green V," p. 23; March-April, 2004, Fred Moramarco, "Across the Millennium: The Persistence of John Ashbery," p. 39.
Architectural Digest, June, 1994, p. 36.
Art in America, February, 2000, Raphael Rubinstein, review of Girls on the Run, p. 37.
Booklist, May 1, 1981; March 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Girls on the Run, p. 1271; October 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Your Name Here, p. 313.
Chicago Tribune Book World, January 27, 1980; July 26, 1981.
Christian Science Monitor, September 6, 1962; March 9, 1970; October 12, 1977; December 3, 1979.
Commentary, February, 1973.
Confrontation, fall, 1974, pp. 84-96.
Contemporary Literature, winter, 1968; spring, 1969; summer, 1992, pp. 214-242.
Encounter, April, 1980.
Esquire, January, 1978.
Georgia Review, winter, 1975; winter, 1978; summer, 1980.
Harper's, April, 1970; November, 1975.
Hudson Review, spring, 1970; autumn, 1975; autumn, 1976; spring, 1978; autumn, 1980; winter, 1981.
Journal of Modern Literature, September, 1976.
Library Journal, January 1, 1970; August, 2000, Graham Christian, review of Your Name Here, p. 109; August, 2001, Laurie Selwyn, review of John Ashbery, p. 186; October 15, 2002, Barbara Hoffert, review of Chinese Whispers, p. 77.
Listener, August 18, 1977.
London Review of Books, April 23, 1992, p. 20.
Michigan Quarterly Review, summer, 1981, pp. 243-255.
Nation, December 12, 1966; April 14, 1969; September 3, 1977; November 11, 1978; May 29, 1989; April 20, 1992, p. 531; June 1, 1998, Calvin Bedient, review of Wakefulness, p. 27.
National Review, February 15, 1993, p. 50.
New Criterion, June, 1998, William Logan, "Soiled Desires," p. 61.
New Leader, May 26, 1975; November 7, 1977; January 29, 1981.
New Republic, June 14, 1975; November 29, 1975; November 26, 1977; December 29, 1979; October 16, 1989; June 17, 1991; September 28, 1998, Adam Kirsch, review of Wakefulness, p. 38; January 1, 2001, Mark Ford, "Life without End," p. 30.
New Statesman, June 16, 1967; January 4, 1980; April 24, 1981; July 22, 1994, p. 45.
Newsweek, September 26, 1977.
New York, May 20, 1991, pp. 46-52.
New York Arts Journal, November, 1977.
New Yorker, September 1, 1956; March 24, 1969; March 16, 1981; August 3, 1992; December 13, 1993; February 14, 1994; February 28, 1994.
New York Quarterly, winter, 1972.
New York Review of Books, April 14, 1966; December 14, 1973; October 16, 1975; March 23, 1978; January 24, 1980; July 16, 1981.
New York Times, April 15, 1956.
New York Times Book Review, July 15, 1962; February 11, 1968; May 4, 1969; June 8, 1969; July 5, 1970; April 9, 1972; August 2, 1975; November 13, 1977; January 6, 1980; September 6, 1981; May 23, 1993; October 23, 1994, p. 3; January 4, 1998, Nicholas Jenkins, review of The Mooring of Starting Out: The First Five Books of Poetry; April 11, 1999, David Kirby, review of Girls on the Run, p. 24; November 12, 2000, Taylor Antrim, review of Other Traditions.
New York Times Sunday Magazine, May 23, 1976; February 3, 1980.
Observer (London, England), December 9, 1979; December 16, 1979.
Paris Review, winter, 1983, pp. 30-59.
Parnassus, fall-winter, 1972; fall-winter, 1977; spring-summer, 1978; fall-winter, 1979.
Partisan Review, fall, 1972; summer, 1976.
Poet and Critic, Volume 11, number 3, 1979.
Poetry, July, 1957; September, 1962; December, 1966; October, 1970; August, 1972; October, 1980; May, 1988; December, 1991, p. 169; October, 1994, p. 44; May, 2002, p. 107.
Poetry Review, August, 1985, pp. 20-25.
Publishers Weekly, March 28, 1994; September 25, 1995, p. 49; January 21, 2002, review of As Umbrellas Follow Rain, p. 87; August 19, 2002, review of Chinese Whispers, p. 81.
Saturday Review, June 16, 1956; May 5, 1962; August 8, 1970; July 8, 1972; September 17, 1977.
Sewanee Review, April, 1976; April, 1978; July, 1980.
Southern Review, April, 1978.
Spectator, November 22, 1975.
Time, April 26, 1976.
Times (London, England), August 23, 1984.
Times Literary Supplement, September 14, 1967; July 25, 1975; September 1, 1978; March 14, 1980; June 5, 1981; October 8, 1982; February 12, 1993, p. 10; May 17, 1996, p. 26.
Twentieth-Century Literature, summer, 1992, pp. 125-151.
Verse, spring, 1991, pp. 61-72.
Village Voice, January 19, 1976; October 17, 1977; December 26, 1977.
Village Voice Literary Supplement, October, 1981.
Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1970; winter, 1973; spring, 1976; spring, 1979; spring, 1980.
Washington Post Book World, May 11, 1975; October 30, 1977; December 11, 1977; November 25, 1979; June 7, 1981; December 10, 1995, p. 8.
Western Humanities Review, winter, 1971.
World Literature Review, autumn, 1996, p. 961.
World Literature Today, autumn, 1999, Michael Leddy, review of Girls on the Run, p. 740; July-September, 2003, Ashley Brown, review of Chinese Whispers, p. 101, John Boening, review of The Vermont Notebooks, p. 111.
Yale Review, October, 1969; June, 1970; winter, 1981; spring, 1990; April, 1993; January, 1996.
Men's Journal Online,http://www.mensjournal.com/ (November 6, 2000), Mark Levine, "Lingo Here Awhile."*