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 early Sunday at age 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.
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, W.S. Merwin and Adrienne Rich, Ashbery stood out for his audacity and for his wordplay, for his modernist shifts between high oratory and everyday chatter, for his humor 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. “Ashbery’s phrases always feel newly minted; his poems emphasize verbal surprise and delight, not the ways that linguistic patterns restrict us. ”
But to love Ashbery, it helped to make sense of Ashbery, or least get caught up enough in such refrains as “You are freed/including barrels/heads of the swan/forestry/the night and stars fork” not to worry about their meaning. 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.” Writer Joan Didion once attended an Ashbery reading simply because she wanted to determine what the poet was writing about.
“I don’t find any direct statements in life,” Ashbery once explained to the Times in London. “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 the AP that he rarely revised a poem once he wrote it down. More than 30 Ashbery books were published after the 1950s, including poetry, essays, translations and a novel, “A Nest of Ninnies,” co-written with poet James Schuyler.
His masterpiece was likely the title poem of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” a densely written epic about art, time and consciousness that was inspired by a 16th century Italian painting of the same name. In 400-plus lines, Ashbery shifted from a critique of Parmigianino’s painting to a meditation on the besieged 20th century mind.
I feel the carousel starting slowly
And going faster and faster: desk, papers, books,
Photographs of friends, the window and the trees
Merging in one neutral band that surrounds
Me on all sides, everywhere I look.
And I cannot explain the action of leveling,
Why it should all boil down to one
Uniform substance, a magma of interiors.
Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, in 1927 and remembered himself as a lonely and bookish child, haunted by the early death of his younger brother, Richard, and 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 8 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.
Meanwhile, he took painting lessons and found new meaning in Life, the magazine. An article about a surrealist exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art so impressed him that he kept rereading it for years. At Harvard University, he read W.H. 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 the 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.”
“I actually went through a period after ‘The Tennis Court Oath’ wondering whether I was really going to go on writing poetry, since nobody seemed interested in it,” he said. “And then I must have said to myself, ‘Well, this is what I enjoy. I might as well go on doing it, since I’m not going to get the same pleasure anywhere else.'”
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.”
His style ranged from rhyming couplets to haiku to blank verse, and his interests were as vast as his gifts for expressing them. He wrote of love, music, movies, the seasons, the city and the country, and was surely the greatest poet ever to compose a hymn to President Warren Harding. As he aged, he became ever more sensitive to mortality and reputation. “How to Continue” was an elegy for the sexual revolution among gays in the 1960s and ’70s, a party turned tragic by the deadly arrival of AIDS, “a gale (that) came and said/it is time to take all of you away.”
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.” In the poem “In a Wonderful Place,” published in the 2009 collection “Planisphere,” he offered a brief, bittersweet look back.
I spent years exhausting my good works
on the public, all for seconds
Time to shut down colored alphabets
flutter in the fresh breeze of autumn. It
draws like a rout. Or a treat.