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John Ashbery is considered one of the most influential and controversial contemporary American poets. Much of his verse features long, conversational passages in which he experiments with syntactical structure and perspective, producing poems that seem accessible yet resist interpretation. Critic Roberta Berke once commented: ”In Ashbery’s poems there are constant echoes of other secret dimensions, like chambers resounding behind hollow panels of an old mansion rumored to contain secret passages (which our guide emphatically denies exist).” Although some critics fault Ashbery’s works for obscurity and lack of thematic depth, many regard him as an innovator whose works incorporate randomness, invention, and improvisation to explore the complex and elusive relationships between existence, time, and perception.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
New Media for a New Poetry
Poet John Ashbery was born July 28, 1927, in Rochester, New York, the son of a farmer and a high school biology teacher. An avid reader as a child, Ashbery was sent by his parents to Deerfield Academy. Later, as a student at Harvard University. Ashbery became interested in writing, and after receiving his bachelor’s degree moved to New York to work in the publishing industry. There he also became involved with the ”New York School of Poets” who wrote poems influenced by the explosion of media and technology that followed in the wake of World War II. Drawing inspiration from such modes of communication as advertising, modern art, jazz, film, and television, these poets sought to write poetry in a conversational style heavily influenced by visual images. The poems of the New York School are often noted for their surrealism and abstract impressionism. Ashbery himself worked as an advertising copywriter and art critic in New York in the 1950s while pursuing graduate work at Columbia and New York Universities, and many critics have pointed to these experiences, as well as his involvement in the New York School of Poets, as the primary influences on his early works.
France and the Influence of Modern Art
In the mid-1950s, Ashbery won a scholarship to study in France. He lived there for ten years, studying and sup porting himself by working as a poet and translator and by writing art criticism for the Paris edition of The New York Herald Tribune. Painting, which first attracted Ashbery when he was in his teens, has had a lasting influence on his approach to writing poetry. He once stated: ”I attempt to use words abstractly, as an artist uses paint.”
During the period Ashbery lived in Paris, the art world of France was dominated by the abstract expressionist movement, which stressed nonrepresentational methods of picturing reality. Abstract expressionism, which built upon the expressionism of the New York School of Poets, would be an especially important presence in Ashbery’s work.
Ashbery’s experience as an art critic in France and America strengthened his ties to abstract expressionism and instilled in his poetry a sensitivity to the interrelatedness of artistic media. His poetry is open-ended and multiplex because life itself is, he told Bryan Appleyard in the London Times: ”My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness come to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don’t think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation.”
Publication and Praise
Ashbery received immediate critical recognition with the publication of his first volume Some Trees in 1956. Although many critics rejected the experimental nature of Ashbery’s works during the 1960s, his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, published in 1975, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Prize, and is widely regarded as a masterpiece in the realm of contemporary poetry. The volume established Ashbery as a highly original poet whose works subvert traditional concepts of structure, content, and theme. Ashbery’s recent works, including April Galleons and his book-length poem Flow Chart, have continued to demonstrate his sense of humor and his penchant for bizarre juxtapositions of words and phrases and experimentation with poetic form.
Since the publication of Some Trees, Ashbery has been a prolific writer not just of books of poetry but of art criticism as well. He is generally considered one of the most important of contemporary living poets. In addition to his writing, he has taught at Brooklyn College and Harvard University. Currently he is a faculty member at Bard College.
Works in Literary Context
Modern Art and Surrealism
Ashbery is often cited as being influenced by early twentieth-century writers such as T. S. Eliot, whose works relied heavily on symbols (often drawn from popular culture) and emphasized the uncertainty of modern life. Ashbery, the New York School of Poets, and the abstract expressionist painters of the 1950s would extend these ideas of uncertainty into surrealist images and poems.
The New York School’s poetic style is noted for its painterly emphasis on setting, luxurious detailing, and leisurely meditative argument. This group closely identified itself with abstract expressionist painters and with the Museum of Modern Art; some of these poets wrote for the popular journal Art News. Ashbery was directly connected with all three spheres, and from the painters learned a curious collage-like style of poetry made of bits and pieces of lyric phrasing. This mode of speech, lacking transition between leaps of thought and reflection, marked Ashbery’s early writing as difficult, if not impenetrable. Ashbery’s first publication Some Trees is generally regarded as his volume most influenced by the New York School and abstract expressionism.
Unlike many of his contemporaries in the New York School of Poetry, Ashbery favors lengthy, seemingly narrative poems over shorter verses. Beginning with Rivers and Mountains (1966), Ashbery introduced his specialty, the long discursive meditation running to many pages in which the effort is made to piece together the fragments of experience into a sensible whole; a single poem, ”The Skaters,” makes up half of the book. The meditative style is pursued most fully in Three Poems (1972), prose poems that are linked and in which the speaker loses himself in the metaphysical and spiritual ambiguities of his existence. Much of the poetry of these books is suffused with a restrained melancholy.
Discarding the Desire for Meaning
Many critics have commented on the manner in which Ashbery’s fluid style has helped to convey a major concern in his poetry: the refusal to impose an arbitrary order on a world of flux and chaos. In his verse, Ashbery attempts to mirror the stream of perceptions of which human consciousness is composed. His poems move, often without continuity, from one image to the next, prompting some critics to praise his expressionist technique and others to accuse him of producing art that is unintelligible, or even meaningless.
Ashbery’s poetry challenges its readers to discard all presumptions about traditional themes and styles of verse in favor of a literature that reflects upon the limits of language and the randomness of thought. In the New Criterion, critic William Logan noted: ”Few poets have so cleverly manipulated, or just plain tortured, our soiled desire for meaning.” Raymond Carney likewise con tended that Ashbery’s work ”is a continuous criticism of all the ways in which literature would tidy up experience and make the world safe for poetry.”
Works in Critical Context
Ashbery’s poetic style, once considered avant-garde, has since become ”so influential that its imitators are legion,” Helen Vendler observed in the New Yorker. Although even his strongest supporters admit that his poetry is often difficult to read and difficult to understand, Ashbery has become, as James Atlas noted in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, ”the most widely honored poet of his generation.”
The Tennis Court Oath
Beginning with the publication of The Tennis Court Oath Ashbery’s verbal expressionism has attracted mixed critical response. James Schevill, in a Saturday Review article on The Tennis Court Oath, wrote: ”The trouble with Ashbery’s work is that he is influenced by modern painting to the point where he tries to apply words to the page as if they were abstract…. Consequently, his work loses coherence.” In the New York Times Book Review, X. J. Kennedy praised the same title: ”If the reader can shut off that portion of the brain which insists words be related logically, he may dive with pleasure into Ashbery’s stream of consciousness.” Critic Bryan Appleyard argued for the invigorating effect of the volume, asserting that ”however initially baffling his poetry may seem, it is impossible to deny the extraordinary beauty of its surface, its calm and haunting evocation of a world of fragmentary knowledge.”
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
Ashbery’s position in American letters is confirmed by his unprecedented sweep of the literary ”triple crown” in 1976, when Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Prize. In a review of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror for Harper’s, writer Paul Auster contended that
few poets today have such an uncanny ability to undermine our certainties, to articulate so fully the ambiguous zones of our consciousness. We are constantly thrown off guard as we read his poems. The ordinary becomes strange, and things that a moment ago seemed clear are cast into doubt. In their reviews of the poem, critics often emphasize Ashbery’s continuing interest in the complex relationships between perception, reality, and the process of creating art.
Since the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Ashbery has been considered one of the most influential figures in the mainstream of American poetry and is among the most highly honored poets of his generation. Although his poetry is occasion ally faulted for obscurity, many critics argue that traditional critical approaches often lead to misinterpretations of Ashbery’s works, which are concerned with the process of creating art rather than the final product. He continues to publish poems that emphasize the uncertainty of modern life and the flux of the artistic process. His 1991 work Flow Chart, for example, is a book-length poem that encompasses an expansive range of subject matter in a ruminating, trance-like style. Many reviewers have asserted that Flow Chart addresses the complexity of human experience and reveals Ashbery’s concern with contemporary moral consciousness despite its characteristically farcical tone. Writing in Poetry, Alfred Corn suggested that though the book is Ashbery’s most dense work, ”the reach of Flow Chart suggests that it is Ashbery’s most important book, and certainly his most human.”
- Bloom, Harold. John Ashbery. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.
- Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry: Fit to Cope with Our Occasions. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.
- Lehman, David, ed. John Ashbery. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979.
- Atlas, James. Review of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The New York Times Sunday Magazine (May 23, 1976).
- Auster, Paul. Review of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Harper’s (November 1975), p. 106.
- Corn, Alfred. Review of Flow Chart. Poetry (December 1991), p. 169.
- Kennedy, X. J. Review of The Tennis Court Oath. The New York Times Book Review (July 15, 1962).
- Logan, William. ”Soiled Desires.” New Criterion (June 1998), p. 61.
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