John Ashbery (1927–2017)

Jill Krementz
John Ashbery, New York City, March 1995

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,…

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