John Ashbery, a long-standing contributor to and friend of The New York Review, died on September 3, aged ninety, at his house in Hudson, New York. He was the author of twenty-eight books of poems (not counting Selecteds or Collecteds) as well as one novel, three plays, three volumes of essays and criticism, and three of translations from French. Over the course of his career he received just about every major prize, including the triple crown: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975). At the time of his death he was considered, by general acclaim, the greatest living American poet.
He was often referred to as a member of the New York School of poets, a term that he and the other putative members—principally Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler—all rejected with varying degrees of vehemence. Ashbery met Koch and O’Hara at Harvard, and Schuyler in New York City soon after graduating. The four shared many interests and inclinations: modern painting, French literature, the everyday, humor, and spontaneous composition. In their urbanity, wit, social ease, and avoidance of political and spiritual rhetoric they could seem the polar opposites of the Beat poets with whom they often shared podiums and magazine pages, and they had little in common with the more established poets of their early years. But their four styles were very individual.
Ashbery’s was marked above all by a calm, discursive voice, going along at a walking pace, often seeming to have been caught in midstream, maybe half-heard from outside through the curtains. That voice could occasionally sound explicitly poetic or expressionistically fractured, but more often—and more consistently as time went by—it sounded conversational, demotic, mild, even-toned, deep-dish American. Its apparent placidity allowed for all sorts of things to appear bobbing happily in its current: recondite allusions, philosophical asides, foreign idioms, schoolyard jokes, forgotten cultural detritus of all sorts, even the occasional narrative or analysis or argument.
Much of his work gives the impression of having been piped straight to the surface from his unconscious, although it certainly passed through a powerful poetic engine that determined line breaks and measured flow and regulated music. His reading voice maintained that imperturbable meandering pace, never succumbing to declamation or melodrama or the pregnant pauses of needier poets but issuing a steady stream of words in unexpected patterns, so that young poets would attend his readings not just to hear him but to furtively scribble the images and lines his had touched off in their own fugue states.
Ashbery was born on July 28, 1927, in Rochester, New York, and grew up in the nearby village of Sodus, where his parents, Chester and Helen, ran a fruit farm. Helen’s parents, Henry and Adelaide Lawrence, were nurturing influences, in particular Henry, a retired professor of physics at the University of Rochester, who read widely and kept a library stocked with nineteenth-century classics. The young John was a bookworm, a wit, and a radio Quiz Kid—he made it to the finals in Chicago. In 1935, immediately after seeing Max Reinhardt’s screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he wrote his first poem, a playful and remarkably accomplished six-stanza account of a battle in the snow between fairies and bushes. Despite or maybe because of the praise it received—it made its way through a chain of relatives to the mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, who read it aloud at a literary party—he did not write another poem for seven years.
When he began again as an adolescent, he had in the meantime absorbed much, including the contents of Louis Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry, Modern British Poetry: A Critical Anthology (1942), which he won in a current events contest sponsored by Time magazine. His technical facilities were immediately impeccable, his voice self-assured and indicative of where he would later go:
Now, in the windy sunset-glow
The leafless maple trees join hands
To dance demented sarabands
And weave strange patterns on the snow.*
He quickly outgrew the limited rural schools in his area (which did manage to instruct him in Latin and French) and was afforded a chance to attend the venerable Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts for the last years of his secondary education. There, despite the prevailing culture of athletic masculinity, he began writing poetry in earnest, and also found outlets, however intermittently satisfactory, for the homosexual desires he had been tentatively exploring since the onset of puberty. His poetic career was nearly derailed by a fellow student who stole two of his poems and presented them as his own, first to an adviser and then to Poetry magazine, which published them under a pseudonym.
But the thief faded into the woodwork as Ashbery went on to Harvard, where his fellow students included Robert Creeley, Robert Bly, Donald Hall, and John Hawkes, and more significantly Kenneth Koch, who became a close friend right away, as did Radcliffe student Barbara Zimmerman, who under her married name of Epstein was a founder and, until her death in 2006, an editor of this magazine. Ashbery and Koch joined the editorial board of the Advocate, and in his junior year Ashbery published “Some Trees,” which eight years later would become the title poem of his first real collection. He studied Wallace Stevens with F.O. Matthiessen and Proust with Harry Levin, began making collages, and, six weeks before graduating, met Frank O’Hara. Each felt to the other like a long-lost twin.
In 1949, Ashbery moved to New York City, where he was quickly caught up in a social and artistic scene, meeting the artists Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, and Nell Blaine; acting in a movie by Rudy Burkhardt; and writing plays, in addition to a number of important poems. Most notable of the poems was “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” which nominally takes off on a similarly titled poem by Andrew Marvell but achieves something very new: collaged and memoiristic, high-dictioned and slangy, modern-urban-disjunctive and arcadian: “In a far recess of summer/Monks are playing soccer.” But then, the following year, he slid into a period of writer’s block that lasted some nineteen months, a drought ended by a John Cage concert on New Year’s Day, 1952, which struck him, road-to-Damascus-style, with the power of chance.
His first stand-alone publication, Turandot and Other Poems, with drawings by Freilicher, was published in 1953 by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery; it inaugurated a decades-long series of collaborations with artists. He wrote more plays, began to translate French poems, finally appeared in Poetry under his own name (ten years after the purloined publication). He nevertheless felt himself drifting, uncertain of his future—until he returned from a Mexican vacation to discover simultaneously that he had been awarded a Fulbright to France and had won the Yale Younger Poets prize, judged that year by W.H. Auden (who seems to have given him the award more or less randomly and wrote for Some Trees an introduction Ashbery described as “evasive,” but maybe this further cemented his belief in chance).
He spent much of the following decade in France, lived with the poet Pierre Martory, became fascinated with the work of the rogue eccentric proto-surrealist visionary Raymond Roussel, began writing reviews for ArtNews, published the wildly experimental and rather ill-received The Tennis-Court Oath (1962), coedited the important journals Locus Solus and Art and Literature. With his mother ailing, he moved back to the United States in 1965, in time for O’Hara’s tragic early death the following summer. He published Rivers and Mountains (1966), with its crucial long poem “The Skaters,” and then The Double Dream of Spring (1970), with some of his first headlong dives into Americana. He met his future husband, David Kermani, now his sole survivor. He wrote the austere-seeming Three Poems (1972)—three big blocks of prose, or “three rectangular boxes,” as he put it.
In the mid-1970s Ashbery began teaching at Brooklyn College, where he would remain until moving to Bard College in 1990. In 1975 came the annus mirabilis of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which finally broke the generalized resistance to the alleged obscurity of his work. Because poets don’t make any money, he continued to write art criticism in addition to teaching, to make ends meet—a problem alleviated only by a five-year MacArthur Fellowship in 1985. His productivity increased with age: he published a new book almost every couple of years for his last three decades. He was lionized, imitated, studied, analyzed, enshrined, revered. He outlived nearly all his contemporaries, settling gently into eminence in his Victorian manse (bought cheaply and restored slowly) in Hudson. Now he joins the marble busts of American literature.
From his diary, May 10, 1943; quoted in Karin Roffman’s The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), p. 96. ↩