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John Ashbery

Visiting Poet

John Ashberry

John Ashbery has received nearly every major writing award the literary world has to offer, and his work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages. Author of twenty poetry collections, as well as plays, fiction, translations, and art criticism, he has long defied any singular artistic identity, “juggling the infinite possibilities of genre,” as critic Helen Vendler put it.

Ashbery first met critical acclaim with his 1956 collection Some Trees, which was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Series. Perhaps his most famous work is 1975’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which the New York Times noted for its “breathtaking freshness and adventure in which dazzling orchestrations of language open up whole areas of consciousness no other American poet has even begun to explore.” The book received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. His most recent volume, Planisphere, was praised by Boston Phoenix as “repetitive…in the way that a beach is repetitive with sand, or the night sky is repetitive with stars.”

Ashbery describes himself as “a harebrained, homegrown surrealist whose poetry defies even the rules and logic of Surrealism.” With Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, among others, Ashbery was part of the New York School of poets, an informal group active in the 1950s and 60s, whose work is heavily influenced by surrealism, modernism, and abstract expressionism. Rather than writing poems representative of experiences, the group aimed to write poems that are experiences in and of themselves.

A native of Rochester, New York, Ashbery spent his high school years at Deerfield Academy, later attending Harvard, where he befriended Koch and O’Hara, and went on to earn a Masters degree in French Literature from Columbia University. A two-time Fulbright scholar, he lived in Paris for a decade, where he wrote art criticism, returning to New York and continuing to work for ArtNews, where he served as executive editor until the magazine was sold in 1972. His teaching began with a long stint as Co-Director of the MFA program in creative writing at Brooklyn College and includes a year at Harvard as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry and nearly two decades as the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr. Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College.

Ashbery has served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poetsand Poet Laureate of New York. Among his innumerable awards and honors are a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, two Ingram Merrill Foundation grants, two Guggenheim fellowships, the Bollingen Prize, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, The Nation magazine’s Lenore Marshall Award, the Academy of American Poets’ Wallace Stevens Award. 

Select Poems

of western New York state

were the graves all right in their bushings

was there a note of panic in the late August air

because the old man had peed in his pants again

was there turning away from the late afternoon glare

as though it too could be wished away

was any of this present

and how could this be

the magic solution to what you are in now

whatever has held you motionless

like this so long through the dark season

until now the women come out in navy blue

and the worms come out of the compost to die

it is the end of any season

you reading there so accurately

sitting not wanting to be disturbed

as you came from that holy land

what other signs at the crossroads

what lethargy in the avenues

where all is said in a whisper

what tone of voice among the hedges

what tone under the apple trees

the numbered land stretches away

and your house is built in tomorrow

but surely not before the examination

of what is right and will befall

not before the census

and the writing down of names

remember you are free to wander away

as from other times other scenes that were taking place

the history of someone who came too late

the time is ripe now and the adage

is hatching as the seasons change and tremble

it is finally as though that thing of monstrous interest

were happening in the sky

but the sun is setting and prevents you from seeing it

out of night the token emerges

its leaves like birds alighting all at once under a tree

taken up and shaken again

put down in weak rage

knowing as the brain does it can never come about

not here not yesterday in the past

only in the gap of today filling itself

as emptiness is distributed

in the idea of what time it is

when that time is already past


You can’t say it that way any more.

Bothered about beauty you have to

Come out into the open, into a clearing.

And rest. Certainly whatever funny happens to you

Is OK. To demand more than this would be strange

Of you, you who have so many lovers,

People who look up to you and are willing

To do things for you, but you think

It’s not right, that if they really knew you . . .

So much for self-analysis. Now,

About what to put in your poem-painting:

Flowers are always nice, particularly delphinium.

Names of boys you once knew and their sleds,

Skyrockets are good—do they still exist?

There are a lot of other things of the same quality

As those I’ve mentioned. Now one must

Find a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed,

Dull-sounding ones. She approached me

About buying her desk. Suddenly the street was

Bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments.

Humdrum testaments were scattered around. His head

Locked into mine. We were a seesaw. Something

Ought to be written about how this affects

You when you write poetry:

The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind

Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate

Something between breaths, if only for the sake

Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you

For other centers of communication, so that understanding

May begin, and in doing so be undone.

From HOUSEBOAT DAYS (Viking Press, 1977)

It’s this crazy weather we’ve been having:

Falling forward one minute, lying down the next

Among the loose grasses and soft, white, nameless flowers.

People have been making a garment out of it,

Stitching the white of lilacs together with lightning

At some anonymous crossroads. the sky calls

To the deaf earth. The proverbial disarray

Of morning corrects itself as you stand up.

You are wearing a text. The lines

Droop to your shoelaces and I shall never want or need

Any other literature than this poetry of mud

And ambitious reminiscences of times when it came easily

Through the then woods and ploughed fields and had

A simple unconscious dignity we can never hope to

Approximate now except in narrow ravines nobody

Will inspect where some late sample of the rare,

Uninteresting specimen might still be putting out shoots, for all we know.

From HOUSEBOAT DAYS (Penguin Books, 1977)

Available as a Broadside.

About John

Poetry Center Reading Dates: October 2010