This article was written by David Kermani in March 2001 as introductory material for a general audience, with minor revisions in 2004. Although originally not intended for publication, these essays provide a starting place for exploring the work of late American poet John Ashbery. ©2001, 2004 David Kermani. All rights reserved.
I. John Ashbery: an overview …
John Ashbery has always been a figure out of the recent future, unpredictable and innovative. —J.D. McClatchy in John Ashbery: the Voice of the Poet (Random House Audio Books, 2001)
John Ashbery is one of the leading literary figures of our time. He is best known for his radically original poetry, which is firmly rooted in both classical tradition and American popular culture. He has published over twenty collections of verse, his most famous being Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), the first book to win all three major American prizes: the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.
However, Ashbery is more than a great poet. He is a cultural phenomenon; he is both a chronicler of our time and one of the true visionaries of our era. While his accomplishments in the literary and visual arts during the past half-century are enormous and well-recognized internationally, his real—and increasingly acknowledged—achievement has been to change our basic awareness of the world and the fundamental manner in which we perceive and communicate our experiences.
Through his use of language in new and unexpected ways, John Ashbery has permanently transformed our cultural landscape; for this reason, he is recognized worldwide as one of the seminal figures of the century. New York's Governor George Pataki, in his citation awarding Ashbery the state's Walt Whitman Citation and naming him State Poet in January 2001, noted that "by shattering conventional notions of clarity he creates a sharper reality." Many others have commented over the past few decades on this unique aspect of Ashbery's work and its far-reaching impact on our perceptual sensibilities and our world:
"John Ashbery's dazzling orchestrations of language open up whole areas of consciousness no other American poet has even begun to explore," (The New York Times) and he "throws caution to the winds in pursuit of things unattempted yet in poetry or rhyme. The results are exhilarating." (Newsweek) "This is a world of linguistic brilliance, draining the resources of the English language and widening the boundaries of modern poetry." (Kirkus Reviews) "Ashbery has created a language that restores newness as you read, a language that is always cresting with potential;" (The Nation) "no other poet is as daring … none inhabits such a Versailles of the imagination." (Vanity Fair) "Ashbery's poems do not evade the real; they deny it the power to prevent other realities from being conceived." (Time) "On both sides of the Atlantic a substantial and increasingly coherent body of opinion accepts that he is quite simply the finest poet in English of his generation," (The Times [London]) and that he "is likely to be seen as the defining voice of his nation and time." (Poetry Review [U.K.]) "Mr. Ashbery is the great original of his generation. He belongs to everyone interested in poetry, or modern art, or just the possibility of change." (The New York Times) "When we read him, we know we are in the presence of the sublime." (Civilization) "If ours were a more reverent country, John Ashbery would long ago have been made to endure the title of national treasure." (The New York Times Book Review).
Since the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and its sweep of the prizes, Ashbery's poetry has become an accepted part of mainstream American culture without itself becoming "mainstream." His book of poems, Your Name Here (2000), enjoyed widespread acclaim from sophisticated intellectual publications as well as the likes of the decidedly populist Men's Journal, which reported:
If you have missed the opportunity to allow a substantial region of your brain to become flooded with the words of John Ashbery, the greatest living practitioner of the English language, then let this review be your personal Post-it Note marked URGENT. ... Ashbery's expansively elusive style has made its mark on three generations of writers, painters, composers, and filmmakers. ... [He] remains the most outrageously daring verbal mapmaker of the modern imagination.
For half a century, Ashbery also has had a remarkable career as an editor, critic, translator and teacher. He writes astutely on a wide variety of subjects (music, film, literature, the visual arts, and the cultural world in general), and as an editor has shaped significant publications both in America and Europe. During the decade he spent in Paris (mid-1950s to mid-1960s) he was a crucial bridge between American and European culture and was instrumental in effecting New York's emergence as the cultural capital of the post-World War II world; among other things, he wrote about art for the International Herald Tribune (Paris) and was editor of Art and Literature: an International Review, recognized as "one of the most distinguished quarterlies of the 1960s" (Kraus Reprints). After his return to New York, he served as Executive Editor of Art News, then as art critic for New York Magazine and Newsweek. A selection of his writings on the arts was published as Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987 by Knopf in 1989, with the paperback edition issued by Harvard University Press in 1991. He is one of the foremost authorities on the life and work of French writer Raymond Roussel. His translations of Roussel and others (including Max Jacob, Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud, André Breton, Giorgio de Chirico and Pierre Reverdy) from French are widely published. Ashbery's Selected Prose, writings from 1957-2004, has just appeared from University of Michigan Press.
Ashbery is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the City University of New York's Brooklyn College campus, and is currently Charles P. Stevenson, Jr. Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College. He was invited to deliver the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1989-90; these were published in 2000 by Harvard University Press as Other Traditions, "providing a ‘user-friendly' set of illuminating commentaries about the legacy and dignity of writing and the nature of truth and poetry," (Library Journal) and deemed "an impressive performance by a central figure in modern American poetry" (Kirkus Reviews).
In addition, John Ashbery has made his mark as a playwright and novelist. The Heroes was written in 1950 and was staged in New York first by the legendary Living Theatre in 1952, then by the Artists Theatre in 1953, when it was declared "the best new American play of the season" by The Commonweal; it was most recently produced at Yale in 1999. The Compromise was written in 1955 and premiered by the Poets Theatre in Cambridge (MA) in 1956. These two, along with The Philosopher(1959), are published as Three Plays. A Nest of Ninnies, Ashbery's collaborative novel written with James Schuyler, seems to have fulfilled W.H. Auden's prediction that it "is destined to become a minor classic," having been republished twice since its original issue by Dutton in 1969.
The achievement of John Ashbery is unusual in the way it spans various fields of artistic endeavor as well as in the way it resonates throughout all areas of our cultural life. Indeed, there is arguably no one else in the cultural pantheon of the last half-century who has had such a fundamental impact on the way we experience our world. Ashbery has had, and continues to have, a profound effect on several generations of artists, composers, writers, and performers of all kinds. A characteristic event, for example, was the 50th anniversary celebration of WNYC-FM in 1994: a concert at Lincoln Center comprised exclusively of world premiere performances of commissioned works by twelve of America's foremost composers, all based on Ashbery's poem "No Longer Very Clear."
Although his artistic reputation has long been secure in avant garde and intellectual circles, only now, in spite of his legendary "difficulty," is Ashbery's far-ranging impact on our popular culture emerging clearly. His work is cited as inspiration by rock bands (Pavement, see Rolling Stone, November 28. 1996 and New York magazine, March 24, 1997) and TV stars (David Duchovny of The X-Files, see Movieline, May 1997); his name is an answer in crossword puzzles and on the TV game show Jeopardy; he is a pivotal point of reference in a recent Broadway play, Wrong Mountain, by David Hirson. Even talk magazine, speculating about possible Nobel Prize winners (October 2000), suggested that "this could be the year for one of the [Swedish] Academy's favorites, John Ashbery." No longer categorized as simply a poet or critic, his pervasive presence has become a point of reference—a landmark—in our cultural universe.
Ashbery's work (prose as well as poetry) has been translated into more than twenty languages, proving amply that its power and relevance transcend the boundaries of Western taste and attesting to the international significance of his aesthetics and sensibilities. Indeed, the most recent books to be published about him and his work are from France and England (John Ashbery, by Antoine Cazé, Paris, Belin, 2000, as part of the well-respected "Voix Américaines" series, and John Ashbery and American Poetry, by David Herd, Manchester University Press, 2000).
Often called the most widely honored poet of his generation, Ashbery has won dozens of major awards and prizes (Fulbrights, Pulitzers, Guggenheims, Bollingens, etc.). In addition, he has been recognized internationally for his outstanding career achievements: by several universities with honorary degrees, by the MacArthur Foundation with one of its "genius" awards, as well as by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with its Gold Medal for Poetry, the Academia Nazionale dei Lincei (Italy) with its Antonio Feltrinelli International Prize, the Bavarian Academy of Arts (Austria) with its Horst Bienek Prize, the Poetry Society of America with its Robert Frost Medal, the French government with its Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres award, the Modern Language Association and American Council on the Arts with the Ruth Lilly Prize, among others; in 1996 he was the first English-language poet to win the Biennial International Grand Prize for Poetry, awarded by the Maison Internationale de la Poésie in Brussels. He served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1988-1999, and in 2001 he was awarded the Signet Medal for Achievement in the Arts by the Signet Associates of Harvard University.
II. John Ashbery and those who write about him …
To create a work of art that the critic cannot even talk about ought to be the artist's chief concern.—John Ashbery, Art News, May 1972
Scholars and critics have found it difficult to quantify and discuss Ashbery's writing in conventional terms. This situation has led many to approach the work as almost another art form unto itself, viewed in relation to music, philosophy and the visual arts; it has provoked the development of a new type of literary criticism as well.
When Ashbery's mature work emerged in the early 1970s (particularly Three Poems in 1972 and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror in 1975), heavy-hitters in the critical and academic establishment began their attempts to cope with it by placing it in a larger context, while at the same time admitting that the work made its own demands, resisting categorization and easy explication. Major essays by Harold Bloom, Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, David Kalstone, Laurence Lieberman, Fred Moramarco, and Marjorie Perloff, among others, opened the doors to the field of "Ashbery Studies" and legitimized scholarly efforts in this area.
David Shapiro's ground-breaking study John Ashbery, an Introduction to the Poetry (Columbia University Press, 1979) was the first book-length effort to tackle the issues head-on, acknowledging the "breakdown of conventional notions of causality" in Ashbery's work and presenting "both a reader's guide and a philosophical examination" of the work and its context. As John Unterecker notes in his foreword to this volume, Shapiro
helps us explore not the "meaning" of Ashbery's poetry but the sensibility that gives rise to it and the cultural context of which it is a most vital part … [giving] us a sense not just of the techniques used by John Ashbery but of a structural aesthetic drawn on by a whole generation of poets, painters, musicians, and sculptors.
During this same period, poet, scholar and cultural historian David Lehman was equally concerned that "the innovative elements of Ashbery's poetry tend to make conventional forms of critical response appear obsolete," and called for a new "level of critical discourse as advanced in its way as the poetry." (emphasis added) He commissioned a series of essays designed to remedy this situation, published as Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery by Cornell University Press in 1980. As Lehman notes in his introduction, Ashbery's work
deprives the critic of his conventional tools and resources ... yet [his] poetry is far from inaccessible; on the contrary, it could be said to open up a path of entry to whole areas of consciousness and feeling that could otherwise not be reached. In writing about Ashbery, then, we had to address ourselves not only to the poems but to a new and distinctive mode of utterance, one that challenges us to revise our assumptions about how poems come to be written, how they work, and what they wish to say or do. It was incumbent upon us to explain, without explaining away, this enigmatic figure whose power to astonish is legendary.
By the early 1980s, the apparatus of critical discourse had evolved sufficiently for Ashbery's work to be presented in a way that led to more mainstream acceptance. A seminal essay by noted Harvard scholar and critic Helen Vendler, "Understanding Ashbery," was published in The New Yorker in 1981; it dismantled the aura of intimidation that had seemed to surround the work for many readers, without actually demystifying it. Yale University's Harold Bloom, widely acknowledged as America's preeminent literary critic and one of Ashbery's earliest champions, edited a volume on Ashbery for the distinguished series "Modern Critical Views," which offers "thought-provoking contemporary criticism on those poets, novelists and playwrights of the English language who are most widely appreciated and studied by readers everywhere. … those men and women who, from medieval times to the present, have shaped the Western tradition." (Chelsea House, 1985) This collection of twelve essays by prominent scholars and critics, including Vendler's and two reprinted from Lehman's earlier volume, demonstrated that the field of "Ashbery Studies" had come of age.
It is a tribute to the resounding power and integrity of Ashbery's work that no convenient niche has yet been found in which to lock it safely away, and that the controversy continues. So, a decade later, in yet another attempt to reorient the critical discussion and as a direct reaction against Harold Bloom and the reigning literary establishment's point of view, there appeared a collection of new essays about Ashbery, The Tribe of John; Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Susan Schultz (University of Alabama Press, 1995). Schultz believes that greater attention must be paid to the relationship between Ashbery's work and its context. As she notes in her introduction,
the focus of these essays, however, is on Ashbery's work as context more than on his work as text. Not only does this collection open up the field of "Ashbery criticism" ... but it also aims to break the safe of methods that have been employed in that criticism. ... [T]he contributors also, at times quite contentiously, take on the goals and methods of the nascent Ashbery industry. ... [T]hey refuse to accept the models (especially the Bloomian one) by which we usually measure it.
The latest addition to this array of critical studies attempting to push the public dialogue about Ashbery and his work to new frontiers is David Herd's new volume John Ashbery and American Poetry (Manchester [UK] University Press, 2000). Herd shares Schultz's view of the importance of context in the understanding of Ashbery. He sets out to reconcile the paradox that "John Ashbery is America's greatest living poet. He is also greatly misunderstood," by attempting to "provide readers with a new critical language through which they can appreciate the beauty and complexity of Ashbery's writing." (emphasis added) The book is being praised for doing precisely this; Robert Potts in the Guardian (UK) commends Herd for offering
a critical language more appropriate to Ashbery's peculiarities than pre-packaged approaches which merely make Ashbery reflect their own concerns. This is one of the most entertaining, lucid, witty, generous and hospitable works of criticism I have had the pleasure of reading.
It has taken nearly fifty years for the world's sensibilities to catch up with John Ashbery and be able to begin to "understand" what he "means." Most commentators initially could not find conventional "meaning" in Ashbery's work, so they dismissed it outright as drivel; these skeptics were replaced by others who pointed out that that was indeed the whole point, offering provocative articles with titles like "The Meaning of Meaninglessness," etc. Critics then discussed the abstract qualities of language systems and the nature of the creative process itself, pointing out that Ashbery's "subject" was the "process." Now, with the emergence of a new generation of scholars and critics, there is a strong consensus that indeed a deep vein of "meaning," in a more traditional sense, is embedded in Ashbery's work, and that the work is after all of great relevance to us and the times in which we live:
No detail is too grand or lowly, no style of speech too lofty or base, to be included. Everything is poeticised: the shared details of our social, economic and cultural lives freely mix, and through the poems we are persuaded to view them with fresh eyes. In this way, Ashbery's attention to every detail of existence is both generous and humble. It is political in the widest sense of the word - democratic, ... empowering ... It is a poetry of such radical scepticism that ... [it] gives readers room to think and feel for themselves. (Potts, Guardian, 3/10/01)
Thus, one result of this dramatic shift of critical focus has been a growing awareness that Ashbery is indeed very much a participant in our world, and that his writing is firmly rooted in his experience of that world.
It is worth noting here that all these greatly divergent critical approaches to Ashbery's work are valid and illuminating. In fact, the acceptance of one or two "theories" to the exclusion of others would be far too limiting, ultimately preventing us from experiencing the multi-faceted dimensions of Ashbery's world, the simultaneous realities that continually reveal themselves.
III. John Ashbery: contexts, interrelationships and meanings …
... It's open: the bridge, that way.—John Ashbery, final line from "Flow Chart"
The renewed search for "meaning" in Ashbery's work takes many forms, but in recent years often veers toward an examination of his own physical environment for clues. Thus, increasing attention is now paid to where he lives, the objects with which he surrounds himself, and the interrelationships among the various art objects with which he lives and about which he has written. David Shapiro was one of the first to observe the connections that could be drawn between Ashbery's physical and poetic environments.
During the past decade or so, scholars and critics have been trying to engage Ashbery directly in discussion of these issues. David Herd, in a 1994 interview (published in Peter Baker's Onward: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, N.Y., Peter Lang, 1996), provoked Ashbery into uncharacteristically revealing disclosures: "I always felt a great nostalgia for living in the city, and for that house in particular [i.e. his grandfather's, in Rochester, NY, the ambiance of which he has admittedly sought to recreate in his own late 19th century house in Hudson, NY]. ... I've always been fascinated by the idea of houses ... especially houses in America in older parts of cities. They seem to have a commanding presence somehow. They're telling you something." Herd probed further, seeking a possible link between Ashbery's intriguing collections of art and decorative objects and his work: "Do you think there is any sense in which your poetry is engaged in the act of collecting?" to which the response was "Yes, I think it is a kind of cabinet of curios." Ashbery then went on to discuss the impulse to collect, and its extension, the impulse to make lists, in terms of his literary forebears (Whitman, Roussel) and his own work ("The Skaters," "Daffy Duck in Hollywood").
Statements such as these would seem to lend credibility to Bonnie Costello's assertion that "Ashbery is not a poet of the void" (in her essay "John Ashbery's Landscapes," in Schultz's The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry). In Herd's new book about Ashbery, as stated earlier, concern for the context of the work is paramount. He quotes Ashbery describing the way he writes to an earlier interviewer (Sue Gangel, in the early 1980s):
The room, wherever I happen to be when I am writing, is, of course, very important to me. They are frames for the poet, which lead him into a kind of reflection. ... Somehow I make connections and want to find out why I'm doing that, at this particular time.
Herd extrapolates on this concept as it relates to Ashbery's increasing fame and visibility:
For Ashbery, it follows from this that anything that passes through the room in which he writes can have an impact on the poetry—a telephone call, as he puts it, can divert the progress of a poem. How much more affecting is it going to be, then, when the reader (in the guise of interviewer), who only a decade or so before had seemed to turn his back on Ashbery, starts passing through his sitting room?
As more material related to Ashbery's life and work becomes available for study, awareness of the validity and usefulness of a contextual approach to the study of that material will spread. This new methodology is likely to be explored and applied in interesting and perhaps unconventional ways. Such research certainly will not supplant other forms of critical analysis of Ashbery's work, but it holds great potential to supplement and enhance the insights they offer with new dimension and heightened resonance.