Obituary: John Ashbery, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, translator, teacher, and art critic

John Lawrence Ashbery, poet. Born: 28 July 1927 in Rochester, New York. Died: 3 September 2017 in Hudson, New York
John Ashbery at his home in New York in 2008.  (Picture: Michale Nagle/The New York Times)John Ashbery at his home in New York in 2008.  (Picture: Michale Nagle/The New York Times)
John Ashbery at his home in New York in 2008. (Picture: Michale Nagle/The New York Times)

John Ashbery, an enigmatic genius of modern poetry whose energy, daring and boundless command of language raised American verse to brilliant and baffling heights, died on Sunday, aged 90.

Ashbery, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and often mentioned as a Nobel candidate, died at his home in Hudson, New York. His husband, David Kermani, said his death was from natural causes.

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Few poets were so exalted in their lifetimes. Ashbery was the first living poet to have a volume published by the Library of America dedicated exclusively to his work. His 1975 collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, was the rare winner of the book world’s unofficial triple crown: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize. In 2011, he was given a National Humanities Medal and credited with changing “how we read poetry”.

Among a generation that included Richard Wilbur, WS Merwin and Adrienne Rich, Ashbery stood out for his audacity and wordplay, for his modernist shifts between high oratory and everyday chatter, for his humour and wisdom and dazzling runs of allusions and sense impressions.

“No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery,” Langdon Hammer wrote in The New York Times in 2008. Writing for Slate, the critic and poet Meghan O’Rourke advised readers “not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music.”

“I don’t find any direct statements in life,” Ashbery once explained to the Times. “My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness comes to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don’t think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation.”

Interviewed by the Associated Press in 2008, Ashbery joked that if he could turn his name into a verb, “to Ashbery” it would mean “to confuse the hell out of people”.

Ashbery also was a highly regarded translator and critic. At various times, he was the art critic for The New York Herald-Tribune in Europe, New York magazine and Newsweek and the poetry critic for Partisan Review. He translated works by Arthur Rimbaud, Raymond Roussel and numerous other French writers. He was a teacher for many years, including at Brooklyn College, Harvard University and Bard College.

Starting at boarding school, when a classmate submitted his work (without his knowledge) to Poetry magazine, Ashbery enjoyed a long and productive career, so fully accumulating words in his mind that he once told AP that he rarely revised a poem once he wrote it down.

Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, in 1927 and remembered himself as a lonely and bookish child, conflicted by his attraction to other boys. Ashbery grew up on an apple farm in the nearby village of Sodus, where it snowed often enough to help inspire his first poem, The Battle, written at age eight and a fantasy about a fight between bunnies and snowflakes. He would claim to be so satisfied with the poem and so intimidated by the praise of loved ones that he didn’t write another until boarding school, the Deerfield Academy, when his work was published in the school paper.

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At Harvard University, he read WH Auden and Marianne Moore and met fellow poet and longtime comrade, Kenneth Koch, along with Wilbur, Donald Hall, Robert Bly, Frank O’Hara and Robert Creeley. He would be grouped with O’Hara and Koch as part of the avant-garde New York Poets movement, although Ashbery believed what they really had in common was living in New York.

His first book, Some Trees, was a relatively conventional collection that came out in 1956, with a preface from Auden and the praise of O’Hara, who likened Ashbery to Wallace Stevens. But in 1962, he unleashed The Tennis Court Oath, poems so abstract that critic John Simon accused him of crafting verse without “sensibility, sensuality or sentences.” Ashbery later told AP that parts of the book “were written in a period of almost desperation” and because he was living in France at the time, he had fallen “out of touch with American speech, which is really the kind of fountainhead of my poetry”.

His 1966 collection, Rivers and Mountains, was a National Book Award finalist that helped restore his standing and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror raised him to the pantheon. In 2011, he was given an honorary National Book Award for lifetime achievement and declared he was “quite pleased” with his “status in the world of writers”.

Reflecting on his work, Ashbery boasted about “strutted opinion doomed to wilt in oblivion,” but acknowledged that “I grew/To feel I was beyond criticism, until I flew/Those few paces from the best.”


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