This past Thursday, poet Kate Rushin sent an e-mail over the wires about three famous Leo authors born on that day. They were Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899), the Catholic convert, Jesuit and classicist whose strange, highly innovative and expressive poems, published posthumously, elevated him to upper ranks of poets in the British tradition; Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957), the often besotted but talented English author of the masterpiece Under the Volcano and other works; and John Ashbery (1927-).
Ashbery, a native of Rochester, New York, is one of the most belauded, and polarizing, living American poets. He is also perhaps the best known and most famous of the seminal members of what retroactively came to be known as the literary New York School; jelling during Ashbery's, Kenneth Koch's (1925-2002) and Frank O'Hara's (1926-1966) undergraduate years at Harvard in the late 1940s, this tightly knit group of poets would go on, during its heyday in New York City, to constitute one of America's major literary movements, along with the Beat poets and Black Mountain School, in the two decades that followed. The New York School, whose other central figures were James Schuyler and Barbara Guest, as well as a host of affiliated painters and younger poets, continue to spur interest and innovation in successive generations of poets and other artists, in America and across the globe.
Ashbery showed great promise as a poet as early as his prep school days. Two poems he wrote while at the Deerfield School were accepted in 1945 by Poetry magazine, though under the pseudonym of a fellow student who without Ashbery's knowledge had plagiarized them. In college, published his work in and joined the board of the prestigious undergraduate literary magazine, the Harvard Advocate, whose other editors were Koch, Donald Hall, and Robert Bly, and wrote his senior English honors thesis on W. H. Auden. He subsequently attended New York University, where he studied French, and Columbia University, where received a master's degree in literature. His first collection was published in a limited edition, with drawings by Jane Freilicher, in 1953 by the Tibor de Nagy gallery in New York. In 1955, the year Ashbery left New York to study in France on a Fulbright Fellowship, Auden selected his collection Some Trees, which contained a number of poems from his undergraduate years, showing the strong influence of Wallace Stevens, Boris Pasternak, Auden, T. S. Eliot, and the French Surrealists, over a manuscript by O'Hara for the Yale Younger Poet's Prize; instead of his usual enthusiasm, Auden's written introduction to the work was muted. Nevertheless, O'Hara, in his review of the work in Poetry, hyperbolically declared it "the most beautiful first book to appear in America since [Stevens's] Harmonium." In the case of some of the poems ("Some Trees," "The Painter," "Illustration," "Le Livre est sur la Table," etc.), I nearly concur.
Ashbery's second book, The Tennis Court Oath (1962), published by Wesleyan University Press while he was living in France (he did not return to the US until 1965), remains his most formally and thematically revolutionary, in terms of stylistic and linguistic experimentation, and is a direct precursor to what has become known as the Language school of poetry. The worked sparked critical outrage, bafflement or indifference (James Dickey, John Simon, Mona Van Duyn, John Schevill, etc.), and supposedly is Ashbery's least favorite. I adore it; some of the poems achieve a singular beauty and style ("We Dream Only of America," "How Much Longer Shall I Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher," "To Redouté," "Thoughts of a Young Girl," etc.) that Ashbery never again pursued, while others, like the recombinant and impenetrable "Europe," paralleled in formal artworks by figures such as William S. Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, as well as earlier works by artists ranging from Picasso (using the collage method) to Eisenstein (using montage in film) to Tristan Tzara (with his jumpcuts and stark metaphoric transitions). His subsequent three major collections--Rivers and Mountains (1966), which was nominated for a National Book Award and contains several of my favorites of his poems, including "These Lacustrine Cities," "Into the Dusk-Charged Air," "Clepsydra," and "The Skaters"; The Double Dream of Spring (1970), which is an almost perfect volume; and Three Poems (1972), comprising three long, highly philosophical prose pieces in the tradition of both Traherne and popular self-help and astrology books--as well as many of his small-press works, mark the progressive development of his easily recognizable, mature style, which culminated in his most accessible and perfectly realized work, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), which remains the only poetry book to have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award.
He has gone on to publish nearly two dozen booklength volumes, including the exquisite and forbidding Houseboat Days (1977); As We Know (1979), with its superb short poems and interminable, doubled-columned long poem "Litany"; Shadow Train (1981), from which I previously selected one of my favorites of his poems, "My Erotic Double"; A Wave (1984); the notoriously difficult Flow Chart (1991), which includes a double sestina; Hotel Lautréamont (1992); And the Stars Were Shining (1994); Can You Hear, Bird (1995), Wakefulness (1998), Girls on the Run (1999), Your Name Here (2000), As Umbrellas Follow Rain (2001); and Chinese Whispers (2002). His most recent book is Where Shall I Wander (2005), one of his best in a decade. He has also won nearly every major prize given in for achievement in the arts, including Guggenheims, two NEA fellowships, several Poetry magazine prizes, including the Harriet Monroe Poetry Prize and the Ruth Lilly Prize, the Nation's Lenore Marshall Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, the MacArthur "genius" grant, the American Academy of Arts and Letter's Gold Prize, the Robert Frost Prize, and a Légion d'Honneur. He has not won the Nobel Prize, though it's not inconceivable that he might be chosen in the next few years.
Some of the last several books, which have appeared in rapid succession, have verged on the parodic, as Ashbery has tended to publish too much of what writes; yet when he is on, I think he remains one of the most fascinating of contemporary poets, with a discursive style that is incontrovertibly his own, a wry, sometimes slapstick and occasionally campy humor, a plangent wistfulness ("one who came too late"--from "As You Came from the Holy Land," another of my favorites of his poems), a linguistic and referential capaciousness few poets can match, and a rhetorical skill that has become effortless, taking abstractions and precise details, or clauses that are seemingly snaking anywhere or nowhere, and braiding them together to create lyrics that often evanesce in epiphany. The work has shifted from a late modernist to a post-modernist stance, at the level of the lyric itself, and engages in what I would call open-ended language games, in a generally Wittgensteinian sense, that never fully reveal or foreclose complete meaning--or rather, allow complete interpretation, which in any case requires both the performance and experience of the texts. They are the epitome, in one sense, of what Sontag extolled in her famous early essay. Additionally, his poetry has from almost the very beginning been "queer," in the various senses of this word; critic John Shoptaw (one of my former TAs, when I was in college) has traced out the homotexuality (and homosexuality) in the work while pointing to his consistent and continual queering of the lyric--of language and its expression--at multiple levels.
Ashbery also has been an important art critic, translator, playwright, and teacher, and even co-wrote a novel with James Schuyler, the comical and campy A Nest of Ninnies (1969). His deep love of music also is apparent in his work, which at times achieves the condition of music, to use Nietzsche's (or Pater's) phrase; he may be one of the rare poets who cites Rachmaninoff in one poem while setting another to the lyrics of a Peaches and Herb song! It is as a poet, however, from which his influence and acclaim arise, and in the poem I post below, which Kate sent, nearly all his gifts (the linguistic range, the humor, the rhetorical adroitness, especially at the opening and ending, with the haunting echoes that have become his trademark) are in full evidence.
We used to call it the boob tube,
but I guess they don't use tubes anymore.
Whatever, it serves a small purpose after waking
and before falling asleep. Today's news-
but is there such a thing as news,
or even oral history? Yes, when you want to go back
after a while and appraise the accumulation
of leaves, say in a sandbox.
The rest is rented depression,
available only in season
and the season is always next month,
a pure but troubled time.
That's why I don't go out much, though
staying at home never seemed much of an option.
And speaking of nutty concepts, surely "home"
is way up there on the list. I feel more certain about "now"
and "then," because they are close to me,
like lovers, though apparently not in love with me,
as I am with them. I like to call to them,
and sometimes they reply, out of the deep business of some dream.
Copyright © John Ashbery, from Where Shall I Wander (Ecco Press, 2005).