John Ashbery (1927 -)

Life and Works

John Ashbery born in Rochester, New York, in 1927, John Ashbery, the best-known poet of the New York School, graduated from Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and then went to Harvard, where he studied English. A precocious poet, by then he already had two of his poems published in Poetry magazine. He had to abandon an artistic vocation for lack of room. At Harvard he joined Robert Bly, Donald Hall and Kenneth Koch at the editorial team behind the Harvard Advocate.

After Harvard and Columbia he found work as a copywriter with McGraw Hill, not the most exciting job in the world, to be sure, but his involvement in New York's artistic avant-garde was intense.

His first volume of poetry, Turandot and Other Poems, was published in 1953 by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, illustrated by Jane Freilicher.

He spent the following decade in Paris, where he worked as art editor for the International Herald Tribune. In 1956 W.H. Auden singled out Some Trees to be published in the Yale Younger Poets Series. That put Ashbery on the map for the general public. In Paris he pursued his interest in the work of the French surrealist Raymond Roussel, and participated actively in several magazines, especially Locus Solus (with Kenneth Koch, Harry Mathews, and James Schuyler), and Art and Literature.

Since his return to the U.S. he has worked as art critic (Newsweek), editor (Partisan Review, Art News), and lecturer in literature (Bard College). He has achieved an incredible number of poetry prizes and awards, most remarkably the 1975 trio for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award). His grants and fellowships are simply too many to mention; suffice to say that they have enabled him to produce a new book of poems every other year since the mid-seventies.

"Abstract," "painterly," "elusive," "vague," "nonsensical," the list of adjectives applied to his work ranges from recognition of his genius (and difficulty) to derision and mockery. His work can be decidedly cryptic at times, but even in the most obscure cases it breathes with undeniable--if not necessarily easy--sense of humor. Reading through Flow Chart and, especially, Three Poems, one experiences an uncertain feeling of exhilaration that is found nowhere else in print. The naturalness of the idiom, the free-flowing discourse where everything is ordinary and yet impossible to paraphrase, give these works a very special status within contemporary poetry.

From the initial deconstructive-reconstructive efforts of his "leaving it all out" phase (The Tennis Court Oath) to the verbose "putting it all in" Three Poems, Ashbery has experimented with almost every possible strategy. Most likely what will be remembered as masterpieces are not so much these extremes but the sheer beauty of The Double Dream of Spring,


Houseboat Days, and the title poem of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. In any case his poetic production already ranks high among 20th century American literature, and affords favourite poems for every taste.

His influential art criticism appeared collected under the title Reported Sightings.


Autor: Ernesto Suárez Toste (Universidad de Castilla la Mancha)

Copyright © Ernesto Suárez Toste