John Ashbery, 1927-2017

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

Award winning poet John Ashbery, author of such collections as Some Trees and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, has died.

Unlike poets who come to their craft in a roundabout fashion, it was clear from a young age that Ashbery had the makings of a writer.  His first poems were published when he was still in grade school, and by the time he graduated from Harvard, where he studied literature, his trajectory seemed to be set.  A Fullbright Scholarship allowed him to move to France, where he worked as an editor of literary magazines and a translator.

In addition to literature, Ashbery had an abiding love of art.  He was an art critic for New York and Newsweek magazines, and had briefly held aspirations of becoming an artist himself.  The shift in American painting toward abstract expressionism--portraying reality using non-literal representations--can clearly be seen in Ashbery's poetry.  Critic Fred Moramarco even referred to Ashbery's work as "a verbal canvas," on which he drew from a variety of influences to create a style all his own.

In total, Ashbery published more than 30 books of poetry.  His first, Some Trees, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and he followed it with several more books that garnerned both popular and critical acclaim, including Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which is often considered Ashbery’s masterpiece.  This collection won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1975.

Not every critic was a fan of Ashbery's work, however.  His obscure and surrealist style, though lauded by some as a deft exploration of the uncertainty of reality, was considered vague and meaningless by others.  Ashbery himself recognized the dichotomy in reactions to his work.  In an interview with Contemporary Authors, he noted "I'm quite puzzled by my work too, along with a lot of other people. I was always intrigued by it, but at the same time a little apprehensive and sort of embarrassed about annoying the same critics who are always annoyed by my work. I'm kind of sorry that I cause so much grief."

But whether critics loved his work or hated it, there was no denying the influence of both the poet and his poetry.  He won nearly every major literary award with the exception of the Nobel Prize for Literature, though he was often considered a leading contender.  He was a professor at a number of colleges and universities and served as both the chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and the Poet Laureate of New York from 2001-2003.

John Ashbery died at his home on September 3rd, 2017.  He was 90 years old.

 

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780140586688
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