Ashbery, John Lawrence

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ASHBERY, John Lawrence

(b. 28 July 1927 in Rochester, New York), prolific poet who led the avant-garde New York school of poets during the 1960s and whose work is known for being somewhat abstract, even "difficult"; he is regarded as a leader in American letters.

Ashbery was one of two children of Chet Ashbery, a farmer, and Helen Lawrence, a biology teacher, and grew up on a fruit farm near Lake Ontario, where he worked in the orchards during the summers. In his teens Ashbery read such poets as W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Wallace Stevens, but his first ambition was not to write, but to paint. Nevertheless, he won spelling bees and went on a national radio show as a "quiz kid." He wrote poems good enough to be published in Poetry while in prep school, but they were stolen and published under a pseudonym by a former roommate. He graduated from Harvard University in 1949 and moved to New York City, where he worked in publishing from 1951 to 1955. Ashbery received a master's degree from Columbia University in New York in 1951. Ashbery's first volume, Turandot and Other Poems, appeared in 1953.

W. H. Auden had enormous importance for Ashbery, who wrote an undergraduate honors thesis on the elder poet, and Ashbery's second collection of poems, Some Trees (1956), was chosen by Auden for inclusion in a Yale University young poets' series. Ashbery left that summer to spend a year in France on a Fulbright scholarship. He remained in Paris for the next ten years, except for the 1957 to 1958 school year, when he returned to New York City as a graduate student of French literature at New York University. He published The Poems in 1960.

The New York school of poets was an intensely creative and prolific band of friends and artistic collaborators during the 1960s, and was considered "the last authentic avant-garde movement that we have had in American poetry." The four core members were Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler. According to his peers, Ashbery came closest to approaching the ideal: "John's the poet," O'Hara once declared. With their start in the early 1950s, during the Korean War and the era of McCarthyism, these poets bucked the literary establishment. They fought the anxieties of the age by fully investing their energies in their work. They also were aligned with the second generation of the New York school painters, which included the abstract expressionists of New York's Tibor de Nagy Gallery: Fair-field Porter, Jane Freilicher, Nell Blaine, and Larry Rivers. John Bernard Myers, the gallery's director, named the New York school of poets in 1961, teamed them with the artists of his gallery, and promoted and published them.

In 1960, while still in Paris, Ashbery accepted a friend's offer to replace her as the weekly art critic for the Paris Herald Tribune. At the time, he saw the job as little more than a paycheck in a city where finding work was difficult for Americans. The job developed into a career, and Ashbery worked as an art critic for the next twenty-five years for publications such as ArtNews, Newsweek, and New York. The editorial freedom Ashbery enjoyed at the Herald Tribune allowed him to determine his own subject matter, style, and approach. In his first year alone he wrote about Brazilian painting, Bulgarian art, Italian sculpture, Japanese photography, American abstractions, Flemish primitives, Barbizon landscapes, and the Gustave Moreau Museum. He wrote not as an expert, but as an informed observer who was interested in what was worth seeing, ignoring issues of theory, practice, or methodology.

Ashbery may have fallen into his career as a critic, but it was nonetheless significant in his development as a poet. The regular deadlines associated with journalism, the obligation to "grind out several pages" and "produce an article … rain or shine, exhibition or no exhibition" built his discipline as a poet. It showed him that he could "sit down the same way with a poem." It is interesting, too, that the painters Ashbery has been most interested in, including Giorgio De Chirico, Fairfield Porter, and R. B. Kitaj, are either particularly literary artists, or have written extensively about themselves. Ashbery borrowed freely from the traditions of the French surrealist movement. His writings on art attempted to encourage cross-pollination between art and poetry.

Visual art was a profound influence on the New York school of poets, which was named so in 1961. But it can be said that it began in 1948, when Ashbery, just through his junior year at Harvard, wrote "The Painter" and mailed it to his friend, Harvard graduate and fellow poet Kenneth Koch, then living in New York. "The Painter," a sestina, was the first of many poems in which these poets aligned themselves with modern painters in their personal and artistic crises and conflicts, and their sense of artistic and romantic possibility. The group gelled in 1951. During his Paris years, Ashbery often regretted being so far away from the thriving New York art scene, but he was proud that he stayed away. He saw Paris as a "neutral climate" that allowed him to work as he chose.

Ashbery's poetry and "experiments with language" during this era were less influenced by his studies in French literature than they were by the work of Gertrude Stein, the avant-garde American writer whose Paris home was a salon for leading artists and writers of the period between the two World Wars. In a 1957 review of Stein's Stanzas in Meditation, Ashbery virtually described the poetry he later came to write, though he was describing Stein's work. He said Stein's poetry was "comforting or annoying or brilliant or tedious. Like people, [her poems] sometimes make no sense and sometimes make perfect sense.…" Stein could not have described his own work more precisely. His work was rarely autobiographical; rather, his poems fit anyone's biography. Some analysts see this as Ashbery's escape from the details of his own daily and professional lives. His early published poems took the form, cadence, and look of traditional poems, but did not serve their stated subjects. "The Portrait of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers" would seem, by its title, to be autobiographical, but Ashbery reveals nothing about himself in the work.

At the time, Ashbery described the poems in his 1962 collection The Tennis Court Oath as having parallels with abstract expressionism, a statement that came to haunt him. He later became known for his evasiveness; he was convinced that he was bound to be misinterpreted, and resisted being labeled in any way. The poems in The Tennis Court Oath were syntactically, grammatically, and metaphorically disjointed. Ashbery put these poems together like a collage painter might; stray bits from newspapers, broken phrases from children's books, lines from bad poetry, and loose phrases floating in his own mind went into the poems of The Tennis Court Oath. About the poem "Europe," Ashbery once commented, "I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I did know what I didn't want to do." The book found favor with young, experimental poets, while establishment critics preferred his later work. For poets coming of age in the 1960s, the Ashbery of The Tennis Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains (1966) was the initiating experience, while the critical reaction to Ashbery during these years was almost reflexively hostile. His subsequent works of the era include Selected Poems (1967), Three Madrigals (1968), Sunrise in Suburbia (1968), and Fragment (1969).

Ashbery is a dense and intricate poet. His metaphors can be elusive, even frustrating. For Ashbery, poems are made not of ideas, but of words and names. He often found titles and phrases for his work in snippets of overheard conversations. Ashbery's work has been compared to abstract painting—fractured and indistinct. He contorts syntax, changes tense or person, uses endless parenthetical remarks and ellipses; his style has been likened to a roller coaster of associative thoughts. Ashbery's admirers admit they can find him undecipherable when they are tired or impatient, but that when "the frequencies meet … it is a form of trance." He is comfortable using the everyday language of the street, of advertising, of nursery rhymes. Ashbery's language is more familiar to most readers than that of the typical poet, though he never ventures into the realm of conversation; the reader never forgets he is reading poetry. Ashbery once claimed that he rarely rewrites; he believed that the meaning of his poems is automatically "there" when the words are put to paper. He often begins writing with a title. Ashbery is open about his homosexuality, although some critics claim he has evaded his gay identity in his work.

The 1975 publication of Ashbery's Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror established him as the preeminent poet of the United States. It won the "triple crown" of American poetry prizes: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Among countless other grants and fellowships, Ashbery earned the MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 1985. In 1995, Ashbery received the Poetry Society of America's Robert Frost Medal, and in 1997, he received the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Gold Medal for poetry. He has written over twenty books of poetry and teaches at Bard College.

Further readings on Ashbery include the collection of art criticism by John Ashbery, Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957–1987 (1989), and David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (1998). Criticism of his work includes Robert Richman, "Our Most Important Living Poet," Commentary (July 1982), and Steven Meyer, "Ashbery: Poet for All Seasons," Raritan (fall 1995).

Brenna Sanchez