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John Ashbery (1927-)


Poet and critic, who has deeply influenced American poetry from the 1970s. Ashbery is the best-known writer of the "New York School." The label was coined by John Bernard Mayers in 1961 in an article he wrote for the magazine Nomad. Ashbery's first collection, Turandot and Other Poems, now a bibliographic rarity, appeared in 1953. His work is characterized by originality, impressionistic elegance, and dark themes of death and terror. In 'Self-Portrait' he wrote:

The locking into place is "death itself,"
As Berg said of a phrase in Mahler's Ninth;
Or, to quote Imogen in Cymbaline, "There cannot
Be a pinch in death more sharp than this," for,
Though only exercise or tactic, it carries
The momentum of a conviction that had been building.

John Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, and raised on a farm near Lake Ontaro. His father was farmer and mother a biology teacher. Ashbery's younger brother died at the age of nine. At high school Ashbery read such poets as W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Wallace Stevens. However, his first ambition was to be a painter. From the age of about eleven until fifteen, he took weekly classes at the art museum in Rochester. The first time Ashbery saw his work in print was in Deerfield Academy. The poems appeared in Poetry, the most illustrious magazine at that time. Ashbery studied at Harvard, Columbia, and New York universities. With Frank O'Hara, Edward Gorey, Alison Lurie, Violet Ranney ("Bunny") Lang, and others he founded the Poets' Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

Ashbery graduated in 1949 from Harvard, where he studied partly because the poetry editor at Partisan Review, Delmore Schwartz, taught there. Two years later he received a master's degree from Columbia University. After working in publishing, he moved to France in the mid-1950, just before the publication of his second collection of poems.

In Paris Ashbery spent ten years, nine of which he lived with the French writer Pierre Martory. Ashbery also translated some of his poems into English. He studied on a Fulbright fellowship and was the art editor for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune. Ashbery's second collection of poems, Some Trees (1956) was chosen by the poet W.H. Auden to be included in a Yale University series of modern poets. In 1965 he returned to the US, where he first worked as an art critic for New York and Newsweek magazine. From 1965 to 1972 he served on the editorial board of ARTnews. He taught creative writing in Brooklyn College and worked as the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College. From 1976 to 1980 he was an editor of Partisan Review. In 1989 Ashbery's writings on art were collected in Reported Sightings.

Ashbery has received several literary awards. In 1975 he won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1984 he received the Bollingen Prize and in 1985 a MacArthur Prize fellowship.

In the 1950s Ashbery adopted to his poetry techniques used by such abstract painters as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. In 'The Painter' (1956) he wrote: "Sitting between the sea and the buildings / He enjoyed painting the sea's portrait. / But just as children imagine a prayer / Is merely silence, he expected his subject / To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush, / Plaster its own portrait on the canvas." He was also interested in the music of John Cage and Anton Webern and the writings of the French proto-surrealist Raymond Roussel, whose influence is seen in a number of poems he composed in the mid-1950s, for instance in 'The Instruction Manual' from Some Trees. With his friends Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch, he formed the nucleus of a group of artists known as the "New York school" of poets. It lasted into the early 1970s - however, Ashbery himself has doubted that there ever was a shool. During O'Hara's productive years, Ashbery lived in Paris. In the obituary essay he described O'Hara as being caught between the "opposing power blocks": "too hip for the squares and too square for the hips".

Ashbery's uncompromising avant-gardism was first greeted with puzzlement and labelled as obscure and difficult. He carried on where foundational texts of modernism left off. "What then must the avant-garde artist do to remain avant-garde?" Ashbery has asked. Some critics have said that his poems are like abstract paintings in words. Ashbery himself once said that he aims "to record a kind of generalized transcript of what's really going on in our minds all day long." He also denied that there are allegorical - "In think my poems mean what they say, and whatever might be implicit within a particular passage, but there is no message, nothing I want to tell the world particularly except what I am thinking when I am writing." (from Writers at Work, ed. by Geroge Plimpton, 1986)

From the beginning of his career, Ashbery has tried to find new ways and rules of expressions. His poems are formally innovative. Often Ashbery lets his text flow in paragraph-length-associative structures, which penetrate layer after layer deeper into anxieties, doubts, and false beliefs. "Later one protest: How did we get here / This way, unable to stop communicating? / And is it all right for the children to listen, / For the weeds slanting inward, for the cold mice / Until dawn? Now every yard has its tree, / Every heart its valentine, and only we / Don't know how to occupy the tent of night / So that what must come to pass shall pass." (from 'Brute Image', 1992) In The Tennis Court Oath, first published by Wesleyan in 1962, Ashbery reached the peak of his experimental phase. The work was considered by some critics impenetrable.

Ashbery does not hide his vast and deeply cultured learning - the title of the book referred to the sketch by the French artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), which portrays a key moment before the French revolution. David planned to paint a mammoth canvas based on The Oath, but he never completed the work. This must have attracted Ashebery, who seems to rely more on first impressions and freshness of perception than academic perfection. In Rivers and Mountains (1966) Ashebery abandoned his fragmented expression and turned to his reader with the pleading words: "And I sing amid despair and isolation / Of the chance to know you, to sing of me / Which are you." Chinese Whispers: Poems (2002) dealt with the theme of interpretation and misunderstanding, trials and errors of a writer. The title of the book refers to a children's game, in which a message is whispered from ear to ear around a circle of people, inevitably changing along the way. Although Ashbery does not colour his poems with autobiographical details, in the elegy 'How to Continue' (Notes From the Air, 2008) he shared with the reader his feelings about tragic toll of the AIDS epidemic and the end of a culture, where "it was always a party there / always different but very nice".

The success of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) made Ashbery one of America's foremost poets. It won The National Book Critics Circle Prize, the National Book Award for Poetry, and the Pulitzer Prize. The critic John Russel has called its title poem "one of the finest long poems of our period." Ashbery's only novel, A Nest of Ninnies (1969), written in collaboration with James Schuyler, was a satire on literary life. The author has also written plays and Girls on the Run (1999), a surrealistic poem based on the illustrations of Henry Darger. "His poetry appeals not because it offers wisdom in a packaged form, but because the elusiveness and mysterious promise of his lines remind us that we always have a future and a condition of meaningfulness to start out toward." (Nicholas Jenkins in The New York Times, January 4, 1998)

For further reading: John Ashbery by D. Shapiro (1979); Beyond Amazement, ed. by D. Lehman (1980); Writers at Work, ed. by Geroge Plimpton (1986); On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry by John Shoptaw (1994); The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Susan M. Schultz (1997); Dynamics of Being, Space, and Time in the Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz and John Ashbery by Barbara Malinowska (2000); John Ashbery in Conversation With Mark Ford by Mark Ford, John Ashbery (2003) - Suomeksi on julkaistu myös Aki Salmelan kääntämänä ja WSOY:n kustantamana valikoima Valveillaoloa (2004)

Selected works:

  • Turandot and Other Poems, 1953
  • Some Trees, 1956
  • Three Poems, 1957
  • The Poems, 1960
  • The Tennis Court Oath, 1962
  • Rivers and Mountains, 1966
  • Sunrise in Suburbia, 1968
  • The American Literary Anthology, 1968 (ed.)
  • Three Madrigals, 1968
  • Fragment, 1969
  • A Nest of Ninnies, 1969 (with Schuyler James)
  • The Double Dream of Spring, 1970
  • The New Spirit, 1970
  • Penguin Modern Poets 24, 1974 (ed.)
  • The Vermont Notebook, 1975 (with Joe Brainard)
  • Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirrir, 1975
  • Houseboat Days, 1977
  • Three Plays, 1978
  • As We Know, 1979
  • Kitaj, 1981 (with R.B. Kitaj)
  • Shadow Train, 1981
  • Fairfield Porter, 1982 (with others)
  • A Wave, 1985
  • Selected Poems, 1985
  • April Galleons, 1987
  • The Ice Storm, 1987
  • Selected Poems, 1987
  • Reported Sightings, Art Chronicles 1957-1987, 1989 (ed. by D. Bergman)
  • Every Question but One / Pierre Martory, 1990 (translated by John Ashbery)
  • Flow Chart, 1991
    - Vuokaavio (suom. Leevi Lehto, 1994)
  • Selected Poems: Pierre Reverdy, 1991 (with M.A. Caws, P. Terry)
  • Hotel Lautréamont, 1992
  • Three Books: Poems, 1993
  • The Landscape is Behind the Door / Pierre Martory, 1994 (translated by John Ashbery)
  • And The Stars Were Shining, 1994
  • Can You Hear, Bird: Poems, 1995
  • The Mooring of Starting Out, 1997
  • Description of a Masque, 1998 (with watercolor woodblock prints by Jane Freilicher)
  • Wakefulness: Poems, 1998
  • Houseboat Days: Poems, 1999
  • Girls on the Run: A Poem, 1999  
  • Other Traditions, 2000
  • Your Name Here: Poems, 2000  
  • As Umbrellas Follow Rain, 2001
  • Chinese Whispers: Poems, 2002
  • If I Don’t Hear from You Again, 2002
  • Selected Prose, 2004 (edited by Eugene Richie)
  • Where Shall I Wander: New Poems, 2005
  • Giorgio Cavallon, 1904-1989: Paintings, 2005 (text by John Ashbery)
  • A Worldly Country: New Poems, 2007
  • Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, 2007
  • The Landscapist: Selected Poems / Pierre Martory, 2008 (translations and introduction by John Ashbery; edited by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie)
  • Notes From the Air: Selected Later Poems, 2008
  • Collected Poems, 1956-1987, 2008 (edited by Mark Ford, rev. ed., 2010)
  • Faster Than Birds Can Fly, 2009 (with Trevor Winkfield)
  • Planisphere: New Poems, 2009
  • Illuminations / Rimbaud, 2011 (translated with a preface by John Ashbery)

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