That poetry is by turns playful and elegiac, absurd and exquisite — but more than anything else, it is immediately recognizable. If some poets remind us of the richness of American poetry by blending seamlessly into one of its many traditions, Mr. Ashbery has frequently seemed like a tradition unto himself. It is a cliché to praise a writer by saying no one has ever sounded quite like him, and yet: No one has ever sounded quite like him.
Not that they have not tried. Charles McGrath, the editor of The New York Times Book Review from 1995 to 2004, recalled that a large portion of new poetry titles during his tenure could be (and often were) tossed into a pile labeled “Ashbery impersonations.” And Mr. Ashbery remains far and away the most imitated American poet.
That widespread imitation has served mostly to underscore the distinctive qualities of the original — and those qualities are singular indeed. An Ashbery poem cycles through changes in diction, register and tone with bewildering yet expertly managed speed, happily mixing references and obscuring antecedents in the service of capturing what Mr. Ashbery called “the experience of experience.”
The effect can be puzzling, entrancing or, more frequently, a combination of the two — as if one were simultaneously being addressed by an oracle, a PTA newsletter and a restless sleep talker. The beginning of Mr. Ashbery’s 1974 poem “Grand Galop” is representative of his approach:
All things seem mention of themselves
And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents.
Hugely, spring exists again. The weigela does its dusty thing
In fire-hammered air. And garbage cans are heaved against
The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart.
And today is Monday. Today’s lunch is: Spanish omelet, lettuce and tomato salad,
Jell-O, milk and cookies. Tomorrow’s: sloppy joe on bun,
Scalloped corn, stewed tomatoes, rice pudding and milk.
The names we stole don’t remove us:
We have moved on a little ahead of them
And now it is time to wait again.
Stephen Koch, writing in The New York Times Book Review, described Mr. Ashbery’s work as “a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with a weird pulsating rhythm that fluctuates like a wave between peaks of sharp clarity and watery droughts of obscurity and languor.”
It is often easier to say what an Ashbery poem feels like than what it is about, and Mr. Ashbery relished that uncertainty.
But if his poetry is rarely argumentative or polemical, this does not mean it avoids the more difficult areas of human experience. Mr. Ashbery was attracted to themes of hesitancy, doubt and uncertainty (John Keats was an early and lingering influence), and he wrote movingly if obliquely on the difficulties of self-perception and the burden of aging. The final section of his 1994 collection “And the Stars Were Shining” has these lines:
I’ve told you before how afraid this makes me,
but I think we can handle it together,
and this is as good a place as any
to unseal my last surprise: you, as you go,
diffident, indifferent, but with the sky for an awning
for as many days as it pleases it to cover you.
That’s what I meant by “get a handle,” and as I say it,
both surface and subtext subside quintessentially
and the dead-letter office dissolves in the blue acquiescence of spring.
The inclusion of the cliché “get a handle” is typical of Mr. Ashbery. He enjoyed mixing elements of everyday speech with self-consciously elevated language, allowing the demotic and the literary to build on each other’s unique energies and occasionally deflate them.
One way to read his poetry, Mr. Ashbery suggested in a 1991 interview, was to think of it as music. “Words in proximity to one another take on another meaning,” he said. “What you hear at a given moment is a refraction of what’s gone before or after.”
Some poets resemble oysters, taking years to yield a single pearl, but Mr. Ashbery was a more like a fountain: He produced 28 individual collections of poetry, and his poems ranged from a handful of lines to more than 200 pages.
He was proficient in an abundance of poetic techniques, and often enjoyed highlighting the artificiality of the traditions in which he worked. For example, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” is one of the best-known modern examples of the sestina form, which originated in 12th-century Provence, yet the poem is centered on characters from the Popeye comic strip, like Swee’Pea and the Sea Hag.
He once wrote poems in French and then translated them back into English in order to avoid customary word associations. (The poems are called, of course, “French Poems.”) Every line of his lengthy poem “Into the Dusk-Charged Air” includes the name of a river.
Given the idiosyncratic nature of his talent, it is perhaps unsurprising that Mr. Ashbery had his share of bad reviews from critics who found his work either willfully inscrutable or devoted to aesthetics at the expense of political engagement.
The English poet James Fenton wrote in The Times Book Review that in reading Mr. Ashbery’s work, there were times “when I actually thought I was going to burst into tears of boredom.” Mr. Fenton concluded: “I don’t believe in this esthetic. I still respect the talent, but not the resort to the sad shadows.”
When Mr. Ashbery praised the poems of Mr. O’Hara in 1967 for having “no program,” and in particular for avoiding commentary on the Vietnam War, the poet Louis Simpson angrily responded that it was “not amusing to see a poet sneering at the conscience of others.”
“I was not ‘sneering at the conscience of other poets,’” Mr. Ashbery replied, “but praising Frank O’Hara for giving a unique voice to his own conscience, far more effective than most of the protest ‘poetry’ being written today.” He continued: “Poetry is poetry. Protest is protest.”
John Ashbery was born on July 28, 1927, in Rochester and grew up in Sodus in Wayne County, where his father was a fruit farmer. One of his most meaningful early relationships was with his maternal grandfather, Henry Lawrence, who was a well-known physicist and professor at the University of Rochester. Mr. Ashbery spent long periods of time in his grandfather’s large, dark Victorian house, where he discovered Dickens, Eliot and Thackeray.
When Mr. Ashbery was 12, his younger brother died of leukemia. In an interview with The Times in 1999, Mr. Ashbery recalled that he and some childhood playmates “had a mythical kingdom in the woods.”
“Then my younger brother died just around the beginning of World War II,” he added. “The group dispersed for various reasons, and things were never as happy or romantic as they’d been, and my brother was no longer there.” He continued, “I think I’ve always been trying to get back to this mystical kingdom.”
In 1945, he was admitted to Harvard, where his fellow students included a host of future literary eminences, including Harold Brodkey, Robert Bly, Donald Hall, Kenneth Koch, Robert Creeley, John Hawkes, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Zimmerman, and later, Barbara Epstein, the founding co-editor of The New York Review of Books.
Mr. Ashbery received an M.A. from Columbia in English, and then got a job writing advertising copy for Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill. In New York, he discovered the work of John Cage, whose atonal compositions had a lasting influence on him.
Mr. Ashbery also befriended the young painters Larry Rivers, Alex Katz, Nell Blaine, Fairfield Porter and Ms. Freilicher, several of whom created portraits of him. (In Mr. Porter’s painting, the young Mr. Ashbery’s argyle socks — a gift from his mother — are on prominent display.)
But Mr. Ashbery’s most significant artistic relationships were with other poets. Collectively, these writers, along with such poets as Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett, would become known as the New York School, a label that Mr. Ashbery disliked because “it seems to be trying to pin me down to something.”
In general, the group favored indirection, spontaneity and casual wit, and most members were strongly influenced by the visual arts and French Surrealism (as is often the case with poetic circles, however, the connections among members were as much personal as technical).
In 1955, Mr. Ashbery won the Yale Younger Poets prize for his first collection, “Some Trees.” While on a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, he began writing art criticism and editing small journals. In Paris, he also met Pierre Martory, a writer with whom he lived for nine years, and whose poems he would later translate to critical praise.
After roughly a decade in France, Mr. Ashbery returned to New York, where he became executive editor of ARTnews and continued to work as an arts journalist. He met Mr. Kermani, then a graduate student in Middle Eastern studies at Columbia, who would later become director of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Mr. Ashbery dedicated both “Flow Chart” and “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” to Mr. Kermani.
After ARTnews was sold in 1972, Mr. Ashbery supported himself by teaching and writing art criticism, though he found the latter endeavor exhausting. Years later he recalled his tenure as the art critic for Newsweek as an especially anxious period, because he was constantly afraid that a famous artist would die, requiring Mr. Ashbery to go to the magazine’s offices in the middle of the night to write an obituary.
A MacArthur Foundation grant in 1985 ultimately saved him from the need for full time employment. In 1992, he won another large prize, the Antonio Feltrinelli International Prize for Poetry, and in 1993, the French government made him a Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Beginning in 1990, Mr. Ashbery taught at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, spending much of his time at the house he shared with Mr. Kermani. The weathered stone structure overlooked the city courthouse and, he once told The Times, reminded him of his beloved grandfather’s home.
In his later years, Mr. Ashbery was a revered figure for many poets — indeed, his eminence has been one of the few things the often contentious world of American poetry could generally agree upon. And he was increasingly visible in the broader culture.
Mr. Asbery was the first poet laureate of MtvU, the subsidiary of MTV broadcast only on college campuses, and his lifelong devotion to film, and his influence on it, was celebrated by the Harvard Film Archive. Yet despite his literary celebrity, he remained for many readers enigmatic.
It was a situation of which Mr. Ashbery was well aware, and which he generally met with gentle, amused frustration. Asked by an interviewer for NPR in 2005 whether his poems were “accessible,” he responded, “Well, I’m told that they’re not.”
He continued: “What they are is about the privacy of all of us, and the difficulty of our own thinking.” He added, “And in that way, they are, I think, accessible if anyone cares to access them.”
Skeptical of the standard narratives of American literature, Mr. Ashbery kept to a personal aesthetic that seems to his admirers, as he once wrote of Mr. O’Hara, “entirely natural and available to the multitude of big and little phenomena which combine to make that unknowable substance that is our experience.” As he writes in “Someone You Have Seen Before”:
So much that happens happens in small ways
That someone was going to get around to tabulate, and then never did,
Yet it all bespeaks freshness, clarity and an even motor drive
To coax us out of sleep and start us wondering what the new round
Of impressions and salutations is going to leave in its wake
This time. And the form, the precepts, are yours to dispose of as you will,
As the ocean makes grasses, and in doing so refurbishes a lighthouse
On a distant hill, or else lets the whole picture slip into foam.
Asked once about a poet’s proper relationship with his audience, Mr. Ashbery rejected the idea of deliberately “shocking” the reader, a tactic he compared to wearing deliberately outlandish clothing and which he dismissed as “merely aggressive.”
“At the same time,” he said, “I try to dress in a way that is just slightly off, so the spectator, if he notices, will feel slightly bemused but not excluded, remembering his own imperfect mode of dress.”