Home / Arts & Life / John Ashbery, Prize-Winning Poet, Is Dead at 90

John Ashbery, Prize-Winning Poet, Is Dead at 90

Mr. Ashbery’s poetry could read like an extended murmur, rich in associations and majestic in emotional resonances though difficult to decipher. After Mr. Ashbery’s first book, “Some Trees” (1956), won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the competition’s judge, W.H. Auden, confessed that he had not understood a word of it.

The poet Stephen Koch described Mr. Ashbery’s poetry 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 troughs of obscurity and languor.”

It is conversational in tone, full of jump cuts and shrugs at literary conventions; modifiers sometimes seem deliberately misplaced. His lines can carry what appear to be random thoughts, or what Wallace Stevens once called “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind.”

If the verse is challenging, that was in part Mr. Ashbery’s aim — to compel readers to rethink their presumptions about poetry, just as the Abstract Expressionists asked viewers to discard their preconceptions about painting.

The poetry could have an equivocal relationship with meaning, cycling through changes in diction, register and tone with bewildering yet expertly managed speed, happily mixing in references to pop culture, as in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.” Mr. Ashbery liked clichés and obscuring antecedents in the service of capturing what he called “the experience of experience.” The effect could be puzzling, entrancing or a combination of the two, as in the beginning of “Flow Chart,” a 1991 book-length poem:

Though the sun’s crisply charred

entrails have slumped behind yonder peak, no one has

stepped forward to claim

the amazing sum promised by the clerk. You know not

one minnesinger has ever

reneged on a pledge.

The same poem contains lines of a brooding melancholy, as when he envisioned a river god rowing on the Hudson River near his apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan:

Sad grows the river god as he oars past us

downstream without our knowing him

Mr. Ashbery was drawn to the difficult areas of human experience, to themes of hesitancy, doubt and uncertainty — qualities Keats considered central to poetry — and he wrote movingly, if obliquely, on the difficulties of self-perception and the burden of aging, as in the final section of his poem “And the Stars Were Shining”:

I let so many people go by me

I sort of long for one of them, any

one, to turn back toward me,

Photo

In 2012, Mr. Ashbery received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.

Credit
Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

forget these tears. As children we played at being grown-ups.

Now there’s trouble brewing on the horizon.

Some critics found Mr. Ashbery’s work willfully inscrutable. In 1970, John W. Hughes of Saturday Review wrote that he played “nasty Symbolist-Imagist tricks on his audience” and that some of his lines “have about as much poetic life as a refrigerated plastic flower.”

James Fenton wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1985 that when he read Mr. Ashbery’s work, there were times “when I actually thought I was going to burst into tears of boredom.” “I don’t believe in this aesthetic,” he added. “I still respect the talent, but not the resort to the sad shadows.”

The mere suggestion that his poetry was difficult was enough to make the normally mild-mannered Mr. Ashbery querulous. “I don’t know that my poetry is difficult,” he said. “It’s not for me! I free-associate and come up with all kinds of extra material that doesn’t belong — but does.”

The best way to read his poetry, Mr. Ashbery suggested, was to think of it as music. “Words in proximity to one another take on another meaning,” he said. “That is, words, like individual notes in music, when put together, form a new meaning, and sometimes an entire symphony.”

There was little in his background that would suggest that Mr. Ashbery would become the leading poet of his generation. John Lawrence Ashbery was born in Rochester on July 28, 1927, the oldest of two sons of Chester Ashbery and the former Helen Lawrence.

His mother was a biology teacher, and he grew up east of Rochester on his father’s fruit farm in Sodus, N.Y. The town is near Lake Ontario, and perhaps as a consequence his poetry was permeated with water images. “The sky is bright and very wide,” he wrote in “The Waves,” “and the waves talk to us / Preparing dreams we’ll have to live with and use.”

As a child he was withdrawn and loved word games and puzzles. One of his most meaningful early relationships was with his maternal grandfather, Henry Lawrence, a well-known physicist and professor at the University of Rochester; it was in his large, dark Victorian house that as a young child he discovered Dickens, Eliot and Thackeray.

He attributed his shyness to his mother. “She was constantly telling me not to put myself forward or draw attention to myself and to try the patience of others. I would be going to visit a friend, and she would say, ‘Don’t wear out your welcome.’ This is something that I’ve constantly thought about, and still when I visit people I try to determine whether I’m in the process of wearing out my welcome.”

His father was a “good person,” he said, but had an unpredictable temper and “would slap us, my brother and me, around.” He and his father grew distant. “When I was about 3 or 4 years old, he said to me one day, ‘Who do you love more, me or your mother?’ and I said, ‘My mother.’”

When he was 12, his younger brother, Richard, whom he thought of as his father’s favorite, died of leukemia.

Shortly afterward, a neighbor came to young John’s rescue, providing the tuition that enabled him to leave Sodus and go to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.

Then, in 1945 he was accepted to Harvard, where his fellow students included Harold Brodkey, Robert Bly, Donald Hall, Frank O’Hara, Robert Creeley, John Hawkes and Adrienne Rich. While an undergraduate Mr. Ashbery wrote one of his best-known poems, “Some Trees,” which begins, “These are amazing: each / Joining a neighbor, as though speech / Were still a performance.”

Photo

Mr. Ashbery in 1976.

Credit
Associated Press

After graduation, he went to New York and got an M.A. in English from Columbia. He worked writing advertising copy for Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill, but he also discovered the music of John Cage, whose atonal compositions with their eccentric rhythms had a lasting influence. In New York, he befriended young painters such as Larry Rivers, Alex Katz, Nell Blaine and Ms. Freilicher.

But his most significant artistic relationships were with other poets, including James Schuyler, who were rebelling against the formalism of Allen Tate and Robert Lowell.

Influenced by the Abstract Expressionist painters and the French Symbolists, they used street diction and cinematic techniques in their work, jump cuts and crosscuts, flashbacks and odd juxtapositions. Along with poets like Ms. Guest and Ron Padgett, they became known as the New York School, a label that Mr. Ashbery disliked because, he said, “it seems to be trying to pin me down to something.”

He went to Paris on a Fulbright scholarship and began writing art criticism and editing small journals. In Paris, he lived with Pierre Martory, whose poems he later translated to critical acclaim.

After roughly a decade in France, Mr. Ashbery returned to New York, where he became executive editor of ARTnews and met Mr. Kermani, then a graduate student in Middle Eastern studies at Columbia, who later became director of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.

In 1972, ARTnews was sold and Mr. Ashbery was fired. Jobless, he began working on perhaps his most famous poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” inspired by the painter Parmigianino’s early-16th-century experiment in fun-house perspective. Though it became the signature piece in the collection that won Mr. Ashbery the Pulitzer and other prizes, Mr. Ashbery had reservations about the poem. ”It’s not one of my favorite poems, despite all the attention,” he said. “I was always very unsure of the quality.”

Still in need of a day job, Mr. Ashbery began teaching at Brooklyn College. He became the art critic for New York magazine, and later moved to Newsweek. The stress of daily journalism, however, exhausted him. He once told a reporter that he nearly had a nervous breakdown at New York magazine, and that, at Newsweek, he was constantly afraid that a famous artist would die, requiring him to go to the magazine’s offices in the middle of the night to write an obituary.

Eventually, in 1985, a MacArthur Foundation grant saved Mr. Ashbery from the need for full-time employment. In 1992 he won another large prize, the Antonio Feltrinelli International Prize for Poetry.

In 1990, Mr. Ashbery began teaching at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., spending much of his time at the house he shared with Mr. Kermani.

Besides his husband, no other immediate family members survive.

In his later years, Mr. Ashbery became a revered figure for many poets. And he was increasingly visible in the broader culture. He was the first poet laureate of MtvU, the subsidiary of MTV broadcast only on college campuses, and his lifelong devotion to and influence on film was celebrated by the Harvard Film Archive.

Skeptical of the standard narratives of American literature, Mr. Ashbery kept to a personal aesthetic that seemed to his admirers, as he once wrote of Frank O’Hara, “entirely natural and available to the multitude of big and little phenomena which combine to make that unknowable substance that is our experience.” As he wrote in “Someone You Have Seen Before”:

So much that happens happens in small ways

That someone was going to get around to tabulate, and then never did,

Yet it all bespeaks freshness, clarity and an even motor drive

To coax us out of sleep and start us wondering what the new round

Of impressions and salutations is going to leave in its wake

This time. And the form, the precepts, are yours to dispose of as you will,

As the ocean makes grasses, and in doing so refurbishes a lighthouse

On a distant hill, or else lets the whole picture slip into foam.

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