John Ashbery

John Lawrence Ashbery (1927-2017) was one of the most influential poets of his time. His poetry was simultaneously elegant, original, and obscure. Ashbery's skillful play with words, his creative use of diction with multiple meanings, and the arresting images in his poetry are often met with confusion and admiration. Despite writing pieces generally difficult to understand, he is one of the most recognized poets of the twentieth century. He won many awards for his poetry and was a well-respected art critic. Ashbery's collection of poetry, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), garnered him worldwide recognition winning multiple awards for it in the same year.

John Ashbery John Ashbery

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    John Ashbery, John Ashbery Speaking at Book Festival, StudySmarterFig. 1 - John Ashbery spoke at the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival.

    John Ashbery: Biography

    John Lawrence Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York on, July 28, 1927. His mother, Helen Lawrence, was a biology teacher, while his father, Chester Frederick Ashbery, worked as a farmer. Ashbery grew up on a fruit farm as a shy, sensitive, and gifted boy. His childhood was marked by a distant relationship with his father, who was prone to bouts of rage. Ashbery's father was often critical of his son's gentle nature and favored John Ashbery's younger sibling, Richard, for his athleticism and inclination toward more stereotypical manly activities such as sports and farming.

    Ashbery's childhood was further complicated by the stresses of the Great Depression, small-town boredom, and being bullied by local children. His confusion and shame over his sexual identity resulted in Ashbery's very secluded life and childhood.

    Tragedy hit Ashbery's life at twelve years old when his brother died from leukemia. It was an event that would mark his formative years and remain with him throughout his life. Much of his older poetry lingers with sentiments of sadness and loss. To find solace from the teasing his peers dealt him and from the loneliness, young Ashbery turned to books. He was a voracious reader and movie enthusiast and found refuge in a small group of friends.

    Ashbery went off to a boarding school called Deerfield Academy. This elite educational facility was located in western Massachusetts. Although ever the outsider, even at Deerfield, Ashbery saw the opportunity to learn and was introduced to some of the earlier figures that would influence his life's work and writing. He read works of poets like Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), W. H. Auden (1907-1973), and Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). It was here that Ashbery began writing poetry. Although he initially aspired to become a painter and even took weekly classes for a few years, Ashbery managed to also publish a few poems and a short fiction piece in the school newspaper.

    John Ashbery, Harvard College Building, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Ashbery attended Harvard College and graduated in 1949.

    Ashbery then attended Harvard College, where he met two friends who would alter his life's course, Frank O'Hara (1926-1966) and Kenneth Koch (1925-2002). While at Harvard, Ashbery was a member of the college's literary magazine and even wrote his senior thesis paper on W. H. Auden's poetry. Soon after graduating from Harvard in 1949, Ashbery completed a graduate degree from Columbia University in 1951. Ashbery would often gather in Manhattan with Koch and O'Hara, creating the center of what is now known as the New York School of Poets.

    The New York School was a group of artists, painters, and poets who lived and worked in downtown Manhattan. They were a community of acquaintances who bonded over their similar styles and methods. These creators invented experimental, philosophical, witty, and wry pieces. The poets, which primarily included O'Hara, Koch, Ashbery, Barbara Guest (1920-2006), and James Schuyler (1923-1991), often covered daily moments, pop culture, and humor in their poetry. The writers sought to express the immediacy of life, capture experiences as they happened, and show the written word as spontaneous. The New York School often collaborated and met with artists whose pieces were abstract. Painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), an abstract expressionist artist, was one.

    Ashbery later moved to Paris, where he spent time as an editor for Art and Literature Magazine, was a critic for Art International, and would also translate French murder mystery manuscripts for extra money. In 1970, when Ashbery was 42, he met his longtime partner and husband, David Kermani. Then in the 1970s and 1980s, Ashbery taught at Brooklyn College and Bard College. Although he retired from Bard College in 2008, he continued to work with both graduates and undergraduates at various institutions.

    Throughout his career, Ashbery developed a particular writing style that is uniquely his and instantly identifiable. His works mixed the classical and contemporary, tradition and pop culture, and utilized abstractions to give meaning. He resonated so well with current generations that he was selected as the first Poet Laureate for MtvU, a station that would broadcast exclusively to college campuses. In 2008, 18 of Ashbery's poems were used in promotional material and featured on mtvu.com.1 Ashbery also gained the respect of his peers and often garnered praise from the likes of other poets. Although he died in 2017, he impacted the literary world indelibly. American poet Susan Howe (1937- Present) stated of Ashbery's death, "John Ashbery was the last great American Modernist poet living ... I feel lost without him." 2

    Themes in John Ashbery's Poetry

    Although many themes are found in the vast collection of John Ashbery's published poems and critical art reviews, he often favored certain topics. Some themes Ashbery explored are death and dichotomies.

    Death

    Death is an important and recurring topic in many of Ashbery's works. Perhaps because it is a natural inclination for humankind to want to understand death, and perhaps because of his past experience in losing his brother this theme is often present. His exploration of the nature of death in his poetry arrives at no concrete conclusion but challenges the reader. "Flowering Death" (1979) exemplifies his innovative style and theme of death.

    A mirage, but permanent. We must first trick the idea

    Into being, then dismantle it,

    Scattering the pieces on the wind,

    So that the old joy, modest as cake, as wine and friendship

    Will stay with us at the last, backed by the night

    Whose ruse gave it our final meaning.

    (lines 14-19)

    Connection and Disconnection

    In one of Ashbery's more famous and earlier poems, "Some Trees" (1956), his exploration of dichotomies is evident, as is his play with pronouns. Although the poem is titled "Some Trees," the actual verse gives little hint that is the topic the speaker addresses. The trees in the poem can be the actual trees the title indicates, representative of people, or even symbolic of life's experiences. Because the language is at once ambiguous and exact, Ashbery leaves the reader perplexed and forced to draw their own meaning from the printed words.

    These are amazing: eachJoining a neighbor, as though speechWere a still performance.Arranging by chance

    To meet as far this morningFrom the world as agreeingWith it, you and IAre suddenly what the trees try

    To tell us we are:That their merely being thereMeans something; that soonWe may touch, love, explain.

    (lines 1-12)

    John Ashbery Poems

    John Ashbery penned more than 20 books of poetry. His first, Some Trees (1956), won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, as judged by W. H. Auden, a poet whose work was influential to Ashbery. Here are some of his other notable works.

    "Wakefulness" (1998)

    The poem begins as a dream ends. It is exploring that brief moment of time when one is still slightly asleep yet awake. Ashbery would often keep pen and paper by his bed to capture the fleeting thoughts that arose during this time. It captures the essence of the sleeping mind, where dreams and reality combine to make one.

    Little by little the idea of the true way returned to me.I was touched by your care,reduced to fawning excuses.Everything was spotless in the little house of our desire,the clock ticked on and on, happy aboutbeing apprenticed to eternity.

    (line 6-11)

    "The New Spirit" (1972)

    In "The New Spirit," the speaker explores past feelings and experiences and feels anticipation for the future. The speaker sees potential in the unknown and a peace in not having the answers.

    Have I awakened? Or is this sleep again? Another form of sleep? There is no profile in the massed days ahead. They are impersonal as mountains whose tops are hidden in cloud. The middle of the journey, before the sands are reversed: a place of ideal quiet.

    You are my calm world. This is my happiness. To stand, to go forward into it. The cost is enormous. Too much for one life.

    (lines 9-13)

    John Ashbery's Awards and Recognitions

    Throughout his writing career, John Ashbery won nearly every writing award available. Notably, in 1976, he won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his poetry collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. John Ashbery was also awarded the following recognitions:

    • the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1984 for A Wave (1984)
    • the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1992
    • the International Griffin Poetry Prize for Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems (2007)
    • The Robert Frost Medal in 1995
    • The Robert Creeley Award in 2008

    John Ashbery is pictured below in 2012, accepting the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. The same year, Ashbery was inducted into the New York Writers' Hall of Fame and earned the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In 2017, the year he died, Ashbery was awarded the Raymond Roussel Society Medal.

    John Ashbery, Ashbery and Obama, StudySmarterFig. 3 - John Ashbery received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2012.

    John Ashbery - Key takeaways

    • John Lawrence Ashbery was an influential poet of the twentieth century.
    • Ashbery's skillful play with words, his creative use of diction with multiple meanings, and the arresting images in his poetry are often met with confusion and admiration.
    • In 1970, when Ashbery was 42, he met his longtime partner and his husband, David Kermani.
    • Ashbery was part of The New York School, a group of artists, painters, and poets who lived and worked in downtown Manhattan.

    References

    1. Fig. 1: John Ashbery podium 2010 NYC Shankbone (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Ashbery_podium_2010_NYC_Shankbone_(4981270213).jpg) photo by David Shankbone (https://www.flickr.com/people/27865228@N06) licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
    2. Ryzik, Melena. "An 80-Year Old Poet for the MTV Generation." The New York Times. 2007.
    3. Boland, Eavan. "John Ashbery (1927-2017)." The Poetry Ireland Review. 2017.
    Frequently Asked Questions about John Ashbery

    What is an analysis of John Ashbery's poetry? 

    An analysis of John Ashbery's poetry will look at his syntax, structure, and use of diction and literary devices. 

    What is the meaning in John Ashbery's poetry? 

    John Ashbery's poetry magnificently mixed the classical and contemporary, tradition and pop culture, and utilized abstractions to give meaning.

    What is written by John Ashbery? 

    John Ashbery wrote American poetry beginning in the twentieth century.

    When did John Ashbery get married? 

    Ashbery met his life partner and husband in 1970. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The phrase "chorus of smiles" in line 17 is an example of 

    In  "Some Trees" line 15 "A silence already filled with noises" is an example of 

    All of these childhood experiences led Ashbery to lose himself in books EXCEPT:

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