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ASHBERY, JOHN (1927- ) John Ashbery is among the most influential poets of late 20th-century America. Associated with the new york school, which includes Frank o'hara, Kenneth koch, and James schuyler, Ashbery's poetry derives from disparate sources, including W H. auden, Wallace stevens, Elizabeth bishop, French surrealism, and American abstract expressionism. Ashbery's work has influenced a similarly wide-ranging generation of poets, from those in new formalism to members of the language school, as his poetry encompasses experimental and investigative poetry, as well as formal and, at times, nostalgic concerns.
Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York. He graduated from Deerfield Academy in 1945; he went on to receive a B.A. from Harvard in 1949 and an M.A from Columbia in 1951. In 1955 he went to Paris on a Ful-bright Fellowship and remained in France for 10 years, working variously as the art editor of the European edition of the New York Herald-Tribune, the Paris correspondent for Art News, and the editor of the Paris-based Art and Literature. From 1960 to 1962 Ashbery edited and published the journal Locus Solus. He has won most major poetry and literary awards, including the Yale Series of Younger Poets (for Some Trees in 1956), Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award (for self-portrait in a convex mirror in 1976), Bollingen Prize (which he shared with Fred Chappell in 1985), and Robert frost medal from the Poetry Society of America in 1995.
Ashbery's poetry has been placed within the romantic tradition by critics, such as Harold Bloom, who understand Ashbery's poetry as following and expanding on the poetic traditions of Auden and Stevens. Others, however, place Ashbery within a more exploratory tradition of writers, such as Gertrude stein and Laura riding, and surrealist writers, such as Raymond Roussel. Ashbery seems to place himself among these other traditions, but his self-assessments (in interviews, for example) often seem merely temporary opinions. Such contingency is appropriate given the nature of Ashbery's poetry.
In 1989-90, Ashbery was named the Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard University. The recipient of this esteemed annual position (past recipients include T. S. eliot, Robert Frost, and John cage) is required to present a series of public lectures. Ash-bery's Charles Eliot Norton lectures were published in 2000 as Other Traditions, Ashbery's first book-length commentary on poetry (his art criticism has been collected in Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987). Ashbery takes up poets whose work, although not well known, has influenced his own. Of the six, three are American poets (John Wheelwright, Riding, and David Schubert), two British (John Clare and Thomas Lovell Beddoes), and one French (Roussel).
From these curious forebearers (as well as from other more conventional poets, such as Stevens and Bishop), Ashbery has developed a poetic that is challenging and disarming, formal and casual, meaningful and accidental; in his lecture on Riding, Ashbery reveals something of how we might read (and misread) his own poems: "What then are we to do with a body of poetry whose author warns us that we have very little chance of understanding it, and who believes that poetry itself is a lie? Why, misread it of course. . . . All poetry is written with this understanding on the part of the poet and reader; if it can't stand the test of what Harold Bloom names 'misprision,' then we leave it to pass on to something else" (101-102). Ashbery's poetry not only withstands such misprision (Bloom's term for a kind of creative misreading), it also invites such active and participatory readings and misreadings.
In the poem "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," we find that the artist is not really in control of the art anyway, so the reader is invited to create her or his own sense of meaning, an activity not unlike the poet's own. Ashbery compares the relationship between the artist's intention and the reader's interpretation to the party game in which "A whispered phrase passed around the room / Ends up as something completely different." Thus the difficulty faced by the reader of an Ashbery poem is deciding which details—which words—are important. It is possible, however, to enjoy Ashbery's poetry even if one is not sure what is going on. As Ash-bery says after interpreting a poem by Riding: "At least, that may be her meaning; to me, it doesn't matter because the overwhelmingly spare and beautiful language has already satisfied me" (Other Traditions 113).
The formal concerns and digressions of Ashbery's first major publication Some Trees (which Auden chose for the influential Yale Younger Poets series [see poetry prizes]) garnered few reviews, although, in retrospect, the poems introduce themes and techniques Ashbery developed in the later poetry: digressions and attentions ("The Instruction Manual"); playful yet serious references to the self or to the poem ("The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers"); disjunction ("Grand Abacus"); and formal variety ("Pantoum," "Sonnet," "A Pastoral"). Ashbery was already living in France when the book was published and had begun work on what is still considered his most controversial and problematic book, The Tennis Court Oath. Ashbery has noted that the difficult and challenging fragments of The Tennis Court Oath were partly a response to his living in France away from other English speakers and partly a result of the lackluster critical response to his first book. On the assumption that he would not get a chance to publish another book, he had been experimenting with language fragments, collage, and narrative disruptions, all of which are present in The Tennis Court Oath, since the publication of Some Trees.
The few critics, such as Bloom, who admired Ash-bery's first book were almost uniformly put off by the apparent nonsense of the second. Yet other, more experimental poets have cited The Tennis Court Oath as Ashbery's most interesting and valuable book. The place of The Tennis Court Oath within Ashbery's oeuvre is still debated: Critics who place Ashbery in the Auden/Stevens high modernist camp view the book as an aberration (see modernism), while those who see Ashbery as a formal innovator call it his breakthrough book (albeit a breakthrough from which Ashbery himself has retreated in his later works).
With Ashbery's next several books, he developed a continuing readership: Rivers and Mountains (1966), The Double Dream of Spring (1970), Three Poems (which consists of three lengthy prose poems ), and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror are among his most enduring works. Self-Portrait, Ashbery's critical and popular 1975 milestone, established Ashbery's reputation as a major American poet. Following his critical success, Ashbery continued to explore aspects of form and disjunction in books that include a bemused, sometimes nostalgic tone, strange yet simple syntax, odd and surrealist similes, experiments with formal innovation, and playfulness (as in, for example, one of his most commonly anthologized poems, "Paradoxes and Oxymorons," from Shadow Train ).
April Galleons (1987) contains no single long poem, unlike many of Ashberys collections, such as flow chart (1991). A single long poem, Flow Chart includes, for example, a double sestina within its expansive formal explorations. The sestina itself is a lengthy (13 stanza) meditation on death, but it begins with a concern for language: "We are interested in the language, that you call breath / if breath is what we are to become."
Ashbery's poetry has a reputation for difficulty and obtuseness, but much of the apparent difficulty diminishes if the reader accepts the transitory visions and changing mental landscapes of the poems. His tone often shifts radically within individual poems, from the conversational to the mythic, from self-effacing to grand statements. The poems seem to have no still point, no stable ground from which the speaker speaks; this lack of stability is often itself the theme of the poem. Ashbery's widely anthologized "The Instruction Manual," from Some Trees, for example, clearly reveals itself as the mental wanderings of a bored author of an instruction manual. The visions of Guadalajara that the poem presents are mental constructions. Unlike in most of Ashbery's poems, however, the narrative's frame (the author looking out his window dreaming of Guadalajara) is visible at the beginning and end; in much of Ashbery's work, the drifting of the mind is not presented within such a stable frame.
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