John Lawrence Ashbery has been called one of the most significant American postwar poets. His breakthrough syntax and artistic vision make his poetry exceptional among that produced in the twentieth century. He has received some of the most prestigious national and international honors, including the Robert Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America; the Feltrinelli Prize from Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei; fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ingram Merrill, Fulbright, and MacArthur Foundations; the Bollingen Prize; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize; the Grand Prix de Biennales Internationales de Poesie from Brussels; and the Frank O’Hara Prize. He served as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and was named New York State Poet in 2001.
Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, and raised on his father’s fruit farm in Sodus (upstate New York), near Lake Ontario. His only brother died as a child, and Ashbery led a solitary life as a youth, attending Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, hours from his home. Abstract impressionist painting as an adolescent hobby proved useful years later, furnishing techniques for forming poetry.
He earned his bachelor of arts in English at Harvard University, where he served on the editorial board of The Harvard Advocate. Ashbery moved to Columbia University to complete a master of arts in English literature in 1951. He copyedited for Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill before receiving a Fulbright scholarship in 1955, when he moved to Paris to study French literature.
His first widely read book, Some Trees, captured an extended daydream Ashbery had of evading his dull office life. The collection attracted national attention for its multidirectional language and use of form to create meaning and also in part to the pathos created through an attempt to propel desire into a workaday life. The title poem, “Some Trees,” and sestina “The Painter” are each extensively anthologized.
In 1957 Ashbery left France, enrolling at New York University, but after ten months he returned to France, where he stayed seven years. In 1962 the controversial Tennis Court Oath was published, a complex set of poems juxtaposing lonely images with a resistance to the politics of mass 1960’s culture. Critics like Harold Bloom disparaged it for “swerving too far” from the structured echoes of “Stevens and Whitman,” and being too far askew from traditional speech.
Ashbery began translating French poetry and essays from writers Noel Vixen, Jean-Jacques Mayoux, Genevieve Manceron, Jacques Dupin, and later Pierre Martory. While in Paris, Ashbery worked as art critic for Art International and the New York Herald Tribune’s Paris edition and editor for Art and Literature. He returned to New York in 1965 as executive director for Art News and published his linguistically innovative, introspective Rivers and Mountains, different from his previous two in its meditative aim. One of Ashbery’s few fiction pieces, A Nest of Ninnies, was also written at this time, collaboratively with fellow New York school poet James Schuyler.
Ashbery began teaching in 1974 at Brooklyn College, becoming a distinguished professor of poetry. The work for which he is best known, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, marked one of his most celebrated achievements, taking three prestigious literary awards: a National Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Pulitzer Prize. The new, “readable” title poem, said critic John Tranter, caused resistant readers of “the Establishment to come around.”
In 1976 Ashbery became poetry editor for Partisan Review, publishing Houseboat Days and later Shadow Train, which was a series of fifty sixteen-line meditations in quatrains. Both books shifted syntactically from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, drawing on succinct phrases to energize “little” poems. As We Know was another departure in form for Ashbery. The poem “Litany” was presented as an independent, side-by-side monologue for the first half of the book, anchored with more coherent content.
Ashbery eventually returned to art criticism, editing for Newsweek (1980), and teaching English at Harvard and then Bard College. He also edited Best American Poetry, 1988 and published April Galleons, Flow Chart, Hotel Lautrémont, A Wave, and Can You Hear, Bird, each varying in method.
In his poetry, Ashbery continued the difficult project of painting “external phenomena” behind how events transpire, a fascination positioned in Some Trees and continually experimented with through his vision of art, music, and imagination as truth shapers within the uncertainty of human perception. Ashbery’s quality, vigorous verse continually attracts critical recognition, and alongside contemporaries W. S. Merwin, Frank O’Hara, and James Merrill, he is anthologized among the most influential of contemporary American poets.