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John Ashbery in 2012. Photo by David Shankbone. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

John Ashbery
Born July 28, 1927 (1927-07-28) (age 94)
Rochester, New York, United States
Occupation Poet, Professor
Nationality United States American
Period 1949-
Literary movement Surrealism
Notable work(s) Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
Notable award(s) Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, Guggenheim Fellowship
Partner(s) David Kermani

John Lawrence Ashbery[1] (born July 28, 1927) is an American poet and academic.[2]



Ashbery has published more than 20 volumes of poetry and won nearly every major American award for poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize. But Ashbery's work still proves controversial. In an article on Elizabeth Bishop in his Selected Prose, he characterizes himself as having been described as "a harebrained, homegrown surrealist whose poetry defies even the rules and logic of Surrealism." Although renowned for the postmodern complexity and opacity of his work, Ashbery has stated that he wishes it to be accessible to as many people as possible, not a private dialogue.[2][3]

"No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery," Langdon Hammer, chairman of the English Department at Yale University, wrote in 2008. "[N]o American poet has had a larger, more diverse vocabulary, not Whitman, not Pound."[4] Stephen Burt, a poet and Harvard professor of English, has compared Ashbery to T.S. Eliot, the "last figure whom half the English-language poets alive thought a great model, and the other half thought incomprehensible".[5]


Ashbery was born in Rochester,[6] New York, and raised on a farm near Lake Ontario; his brother died when they were children.[7]


Ashbery was educated at Deerfield Academy. At Deerfield, an all-boys school, he read such poets as W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas, and began writing poetry. One of his poems was published in Poetry magazine, although under the name of a classmate who had submitted it without Ashbery's knowledge or permission. He also published a handful of poems, including a sonnet about his frustrated love for a fellow student, and a piece of short fiction in the school newspaper, the Deerfield Scroll. His first ambition was to be a painter. From the age of 11 until he was 15 Ashbery took weekly classes at the art museum in Rochester.

Ashbery graduated in 1949 with an A.B., cum laude, from Harvard College, where he was a member of the Harvard Advocate, the university's literary magazine, and the Signet Society. He wrote his senior thesis on the poetry of W. H. Auden. At Harvard he befriended fellow writers Kenneth Koch, Barbara Epstein, V. R. Lang, Frank O'Hara and Edward Gorey, and was a classmate of Robert Creeley, Robert Bly and Peter Davison. Ashbery went on to study briefly at New York University, and received an M.A. from Columbia in 1951.


Ashbery in 2007. Photo by David Shankbone. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

After working as a copywriter in New York from 1951 to 1955,[8] from the mid-1950s, when he received a Fulbright Fellowship, through 1965, Ashbery lived in France. He was an editor of the 12 issues of Art and Literature (1964–67) and the New Poetry issue of Harry Mathews's Locus Solus (# 3/4; 1962).

To make ends meet he translated French murder mysteries, served as the art editor for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune and was an art critic for Art International (1960–65) and a Paris correspondent for Art News from 1963 till 1966. During this period he lived with French poet Pierre Martory, whose books Every Question but One (1990), The Landscape Is behind the door (1994) and The Landscapist he has translated (2008), as he has Jean Perrault (Camouflage), Max Jacob (The Dice Cup), Pierre Reverdy and Raymond Roussel.

After returning to the United States, he continued his career as an art critic for New York and Newsweek magazines while also serving on the editorial board of ARTNews until 1972. Several years later, he began a stint as an editor at Partisan Review, serving from 1976 to 1980.

During the fall of 1963, Ashbery became acquainted with Andy Warhol at a scheduled poetry reading at the Literary Theatre in New York. He had previously written favorable reviews of Warhol's art. That same year he reviewed Warhol's Flowers exhibition at Galerie Illeana Sonnabend in Paris, describing Warhol's visit to Paris as "the biggest transatlantic fuss since Oscar Wilde brought culture to Buffalo in the nineties." Ashbery returned to New York near the end of 1965 and was welcomed with a large party at the Factory. He became close friends with poet Gerard Malanga, Warhol's assistant, on whom he had an important influence as a poet.

In the early 1970s, Ashbery began teaching at Brooklyn College, where his students included poet John Yau. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983.[1] In the 1980s, he moved to Bard College, where he was the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Languages and Literature, until 2008, when he retired; since that time, he has continued to win awards, present readings, and work with graduate and undergraduates at many other institutions. He was the poet laureate of New York state from 2001 to 2003, and also served for many years as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He serves on the contributing editorial board of the literary journal Conjunctions. He was a Millet Writing Fellow at Wesleyan University, in 2010, and participated in Wesleyan's Distinguished Writers Series.[9]

Ashbery lives in New York City and Hudson, New York, with his partner, David Kermani.


Ashbery in thought, 2010. Photo by David Shankbone. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Ashbery's early work shows the influence of Auden, Wallace Stevens, Boris Pasternak, and many of the French surrealists (his translations from French literature are numerous). In the late 1950s, the critic John Bernard Myers categorized the common traits of Ashbery's avant-garde poetry, as well as that of Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Kenward Elmslie and others, as constituting a "New York School". Ashbery then wrote two collections while in France, the highly controversial The Tennis Court Oath (1962), and Rivers and Mountains (1966), before returning to New York to write The Double Dream of Spring, which was published in 1970.

Ashbery's works are characterized by a free-flowing, often disjunctive syntax; extensive linguistic play, often infused with considerable humor; and a prosaic, sometimes disarmingly flat or parodic tone. The play of the human mind is the subject of a great many of his poems. Ashbery once said that his goal was "to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about."[10] Formally, the earliest poems show the influence of conventional poetic practice, yet by The Tennis Court Oath a much more revolutionary engagement with form appears. Ashbery returned to something approaching a reconciliation between tradition and innovation with many of the poems in The Double Dream of Spring,[11] though his Three Poems are written in long blocks of prose. Although he has never again approached the radical experimentation of The Tennis Court Oath poems or "The Skaters" and "Into the Dusk-Charged Air" from his collection Rivers and Mountains, syntactic and semantic experimentation, linguistic expressiveness, deft, often abrupt shifts of register, and insistent wit remain consistent elements of his work.

Ashbery's art criticism has been collected in the 1989 volume Reported Sightings, Art Chronicles 1957-1987, edited by poet David Bergman. He has written a novel, A Nest of Ninnies, with fellow poet James Schuyler, and in his 20s and 30s penned several plays, 3 of which have been collected in Three Plays (1978). Ashbery's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University were published as Other Traditions in 2000. A larger collection of his prose writings, Selected Prose, and his poetry volume Where shall I wander? appeared in 2005.[3] In 2008, his Collected Poems, 1956–1987 was published as part of the Library of America series.


In 2009 the Oxonian Review summarized Ashbery's work as follows:

This past October, the Library of America released John Ashbery’s Collected Poems (1956–1987), making him the first living poet to be “canonised” in the series. It is a fitting honour for a man whose decades-long reign as one of the high priests of the contemporary American poetry scene has always been something of a paradox. Having received nearly every major award for achievement in the humanities, he continues to incite considerable debate as to whether his poems “mean” anything at all. To read an Ashbery poem with the intent to explicate in the traditional sense is to make a daring, perhaps foolhardy, leap of semantic faith.[12]



Ashbery's long list of awards began with the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956. The selection, by W.H. Auden, of Ashbery's first collection, Some Trees, later caused some controversy.[13][14][15]

Increasing critical recognition in the 1970s transformed Ashbery from an obscure avant-garde experimentalist into one of America's most important (though still one of its most controversial) poets. After the publication of Three Poems (1973), Ashbery in 1975 won all three major American poetry prizes (the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award) for his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The collection's title poem is considered to be one of the masterpieces of late-20th-century American poetic literature.

His subsequent collection, the more difficult Houseboat Days (1977), reinforced Ashbery's reputation, as did 1979's As We Know, which contains the long, double-columned poem "Litany." By the 1980s and 1990s, Ashbery had become a central figure in American and more broadly English-language poetry, as his number of imitators evidenced. His own poetry was accused of a staleness in this period, but books like A Wave (1985) and the later And the Stars Were Shining (1994), particularly in their long poems, show the unmistakable originality of a great poet in practice.



  • Turandot, and other poems (chapbook). Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1953
  • Some Trees (foreword by W.H. Auden. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1956; Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1978.
  • The Poems. New York: Tiber Press, 1960.
  • The Tennis Court Oath. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1962.
  • Rivers and Mountains. New York: Holt, 1966.
  • Selected Poems. London: Jonathan Cape, 1967.
  • Sunrise in Suburbia. New York: Phoenix Bookshop, 1968.
  • Three Madrigals. Poet’s Press, 1969.
  • Fragment (poem; also see below). Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1969.
  • Evening in the Country. Spanish Main Press, 1970.
  • The Double Dream of Spring (includes “Fragment,” originally published in book form), New York: E.P. Dutton, , 1970.
  • The New Spirit: Adventures in Poetry, 1970 (with Lee Harwood & Tom Raworth). New York: Penguin (Penguin Modern Poets 19), 1971.
  • Three Poems. New York: Viking, 1972.
  • The Serious Doll. privately printed, 1975.
  • The Vermont Notebook (with Joe Brainard). Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1975; Calais, VT: Granary Books, 2001.
  • Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. New York: Viking, 1975.
  • Houseboat Days. New York: Viking, 1977; New York: Farrar, Straus, 1999.
  • As We Know. New York: Viking, 1979.
  • Shadow Train: Fifty lyrics. New York: Viking, 1981.
  • R.B. Kitaj: Paintings, drawings, pastels (with others). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1981.
  • Apparitions (with others), Northridge, CA: Lord John Press, 1981.
  • A Wave. New York: Viking, 1984.
  • Selected Poems. New York: Viking, 1985.
  • April Galleons. New York: Penguin, 1987.
  • The Ice Storm. Hanuman Books, 1987.
  • Three Poems (different from 1972 volume with same title). New York: Ecco Press, 1989.
  • Haibun (illustrated by Judith Shea), Colombes, France: Collectif Génération, 1990.
  • Flow Chart. New York: Knopf, 1991.
  • Hotel Lautreamont. New York: Knopf, 1992.
  • Three Books. New York: Penguin, 1993.
  • And the Stars Were Shining. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1994.
  • Can You Hear, Bird?. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1995.
  • Wakefulness. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1998.
  • The Mooring of Starting Out: The first five books of poetry. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1998.
  • Girls on the Run. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1999.
  • Your Name Here: Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus,, 2000.
  • As Umbrellas Follow Rain. Lennox, MA: Qua Books, 2001.
  • Chinese Whispers: Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, 2002.

Where Shall I Wander?, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.

  • A Worldly Country. New York: Ecco Press, 2007.
  • Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems. New York: Ecco Press, 2007.
  • John Ashbery: Collected poems, 1956-1987. Library of America, No. 187 (New York, NY), 2008


  • Three Plays (contains The Heroes, The Compromise, & The Philosopher). Calais, VT: Z Press, 1978.


  • A Nest of Ninnies (With James Schuyler). New York: E.P. Dutton, 1969.


  • Fairfield Porter: Realist painter in an age of abstraction. New York: New York Graphic Society, 1983.
  • Reported Sightings: Art chronicles, 1957-1987 (edited by David Bergman). Knopf, 1989.
  • Pistils (essays; photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe). New York: Random House, 1996.
  • Other Traditions: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Selected Prose (edited by Eugene Richie). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005.


  • Jean-Jacques Mayoux, Melville. New York: Grove, 1960.
  • Murder in Montmartre (translated, as "Jonas Berry", with Lawrence G. Blochman). New York: Dell, 1960.
  • Genevieve Manceron, The Deadlier Sex (translated as "Jonas Berry", with Lawrence G. Blochman). New York: Dell (New York, NY), 1961.
  • Max Jacob, The Dice Cup: Selected prose poems (translated & edited). New York: SUN, 1979.
  • Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantomas. New York: Morrow, 1986.
  • Pierre Martory, Every Question but One. Groundwater Press/ InterFlo Editions, 1990.
  • Pierre Reverdy, Selected Poems (translated with others). Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest University Press, 1991.
  • Pierre Martory, The Landscape Is behind the Door. Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 1994.
  • Pierre Martory, The Landscapist. Manchester, UK: Carcanet Press, 2008.


  • The American Literary Anthology (edited with others). New York: Farrar, Straus, 1968.
  • Light (with Thomas B. Hess). New York: Macmillan, 1969.
  • Painters Painting (with Thomas B. Hess). New York: Newsweek, 1971.
  • Art of the Grand Eccentrics. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
  • Avant-Garde Art. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
  • Penguin Modern Poets 24: Ken Ward Elmslie, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler. New York: Penguin , 1974.
  • Richard F. Sknow, The Funny Place. Chicago: O’Hara, 1975.
  • Bruce Marcus, Muck Arbour. Chicago: O’Hara, 1975.
  • The Best American Poetry 1988 (with David Lehman). New York: Scribner, 1989.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[16]

Plays performed[]

  • The Heroes (one-act; also see below; produced Off-Broadway, 1952; produced in London, England, 1982), in Artists’ Theater, edited by Herbert Machiz, Grove (New York, NY), 1969.
  • The Compromise (three-act; also see below; produced in Cambridge, MA, at the Poet’s Theater, 1956), in The Hasty Papers, Alfred Leslie, 1960.
  • The Philosopher (one-act; also see below), in Art and Literature, number 2, 1964.

Except where noted, information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[16]

Audio / video[]


John Ashbery reads "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (full poem)

  • The Poetry of John Ashbery. New York: Jeffrey Norton, 1967.
  • What Is Poetry? (cassette). New York] : Encyclopedia Americana / CBS News Audio Resource Library, 1978.
  • John Ashbery Reads 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror' (LP). San Francisco: Arion Press, 1984.
  • The Songs We Know Best. Washington, DC: Watershed Foundation, 1989.
  • John Ashbery (CD). Santa Ana, CA : Books on Tape, 2005.

Except where noted, discographical information courtesy WorldCat.[17]

See also[]

Preceded by
Sharon Olds
New York State Poet
Succeeded by
Billy Collins


"Still Life" by John Ashbery


Poet John Ashbery reads from Notes from the Air


  • Stephen Shore, Lynne Tillman, The Velvet Years: Warhol's Factory 1965-1967
  • David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry, Volume II, Modernism and After, Harvard University Press, 1987
  • Harold Bloom, Figures of Capable Imagination
  • Laura Quinney, The Poetics of Disappointment: Wordsworth to Ashbery
  • John Shoptaw, On the Outside Looking Out, Harvard University Press, 1995
  • Helen Vendler, Soul Says, Harvard University Press, 1996
  • Andrew Epstein, Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • John Emil Vincent, John Ashbery and You: His Later Books


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter A". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 25 April 2011. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ryzik, Melena (August 27, 2007). "80-Year-Old Poet for the MTV Generation". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "It is John Ashbery, the prolific 80-year-old poet and frequent award winner known for his dense, postmodern style and playful language. One of the most celebrated living poets, Mr. Ashbery has won MacArthur Foundation and Guggenheim fellowships and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his collection "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror."" 
  3. 3.0 3.1 NPR interview with Ashbery about his collection Where Shall I Wander - including poem audio. March 19, 2005
  4. Hammer, Langdon, "‘But I Digress’", review of Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, by John Ashbery, New York Times Book Review, April 20, 2008, accessed same day.
  5. Burt, Stephen (2008-03-26). "John Ashbery a poet for our times". The Times (London). Retrieved 2010-05-06. 
  6. Biog
  7. Biog
  8. Britannica
  9. Ashbery Biog
  10. How to read John Ashbery
  11. James Longenbach, Ashbery and the Individual Talent
  12. Stephen Ross (9 February 2009). "A review of John Ashbery's Collected Poems (1956–1987)". The Oxonian Review. 
  13. New York Times – Paper Cuts
  14. Times Literary Supplement – Auden and prizes – Kessler
  15. Times Literary Supplement – Auden and prizes – Ashbery
  16. 16.0 16.1 Bibliography, John Ashbery b. 1927, Poetry Foundation. Web, Dec. 21, 2013.
  17. Search results = au:John Ashbery + audiobook, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Sep. 20, 2015.

External links[]

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