Contemporary American poetry is a big house. Formalists, composers of free verse, language poets, and combinations of the three, as well as latter-day confessional poets and descendants of movements such as the Black Mountain School and spoken word vie for the attention of audiences that some say is declining and becoming increasingly specialized. John Ashbery, over a writing career that spans nearly six decades, has been associated with the New York School, seen as a dean of language poets, and identified as a surrealist and as a poet influenced by music and painting. However he has been categorized by critics, he maintains an enthusiastic general audience that has not waned since W. H. Auden selected Some Trees for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956.
Ashbery is the only living poet to have ever been included in the Library of America series, and his 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror received the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
His writing career also encompasses art criticism, which has appeared in Newsweek and New York magazine, and he has translated nineteenth-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. He was lured to France in 1955 with a Fulbright fellowship and remained there for ten years, translating and writing. Asked whether the French reading public is more receptive to poetry than American readers, he countered that he finds the reverse to be true and is heartened by the wide audiences his work continues to reach.
An Ashbery poem can be one great romp through time and space, starting nowhere in particular and leaving the reader with, as in “Down by the Station, Early in the Morning,” nothing more certain than “the light / From the lighthouse that protects as it pushes us away.” In a published conversation with poet Kenneth Koch, Ashbery said, “I would not put a statement in a poem. I feel that poetry must reflect on already existing statements.” A good place to start for those getting acquainted with Ashbery is “Grand Galop”: “All things seem mention of themselves / And the names that stem from them branch out to other referents.” Another way to gain entry is through “Some Trees”: “These are amazing: each / Joining a neighbor, as though speech / Were a still performance.” All things connect, including the second word of the title and the first word of that poem, which rhyme, a device Ashbery rarely employs conventionally.
His “Two Scenes” warps the mind a little with its surrealist leanings: “The train comes bearing joy; / The sparks it strikes illuminate the table.” With Ashbery as cicerone of the zones of consciousness, readers travel to exotic realms embedded in the everyday, where poems can evolve into a symphony of sorts, with movements adding up to compositions that become comprehensible only as a whole.
Anyone who finds Ashbery’s work obscure can be consoled that he occasionally uses traditional metrical forms, penning phantoms, sestinas, and sonnets, and authors a number of relatively straightforward poems. One concern in Ashbery’s work is what to include and what to omit, as is stated in “The New Spirit”: “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.”
Born in 1927 in Rochester, New York, Ashbery is said to have rejected rhyme at the ripe age of eight. As a student he was much interested in painting but at eighteen decided on poetry. Referring to a remark by William Carlos Williams, who had also been a young painter, Ashbery said that he decided it would be easier to carry pens and tablets with him than to haul around easels, canvases, paints, and brushes. He studied at Harvard, where he crossed paths with Frank O’Hara, who, with Kenneth Koch, also at Harvard at the time, would found the New York School, an influential circle of poets working at the same time in Manhattan. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1949, Ashbery went on to earn a master’s from Columbia in 1951.
The many awards and medals he has received approaches in number the dozens of works he has published. A mere smattering of his accolades points to his towering accomplishments: Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1980 and 1983, respectively, he also served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1988 to 1999. He was awarded the Robert Frost Medal by the Poetry Society of America in 1995 and the Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1997. In 2002, he was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur of the Republic of France by presidential decree, the highest honor the country bestows on non citizens.
Ashbery’s work from the past ten years or so can be as enigmatic as most of his earlier poems. It’s tempting, though, to let the last words of “Wastrel” stand in for Ashbery himself and where he is now, artistically: “It is never too late for stealth, / mourning itself, or the other irregular phantoms.” With Ashbery wielding pen and tablet, something extraordinary is happening all the time.
By Steve Moyer
Steve Moyer is the Associate Editor of HUMANITIES Magazine