John Ashbery, esteemed and inventive poet, dies at 90

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John Ashbery Portrait Session

American writer John Ashbery poses during a portrait session held on Feb. 20, 1996, in Paris, France. Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

John Ashbery, a master of poetic verse whose enigmatic, dexterous work challenged the world of American poetry, died Sunday at 90, his husband confirmed to the Associated Press.

Revered worldwide, Ashbery published dozens of volumes of poetry and won a host of the world’s most prestigious awards, including the MacArthur “genius” award and the Pulitzer Prize, establishing a place among the world’s most well-regarded poets.

Ashbery was born in 1927 in Rochester, New York, and grew up in upstate New York between his father’s farm in Sodus and his grandparents’ home in Pultneyville. Ashbery has said that his father would “wallop” him, and “I felt always as though I were living on the edge of a live volcano,” according to the Guardian.

He has described an isolated childhood with few friends and a brother who died at the age of 9 from leukemia when Ashbery was 13. “I was rather an outsider as a child — I didn’t have many friends,” he told Peter A. Stitt of the Paris Review in 1983.

He wrote his first poem at age 8 and took painting classes as a young adult. In 1945, he arrived at Harvard, where he studied poets W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens as well as novelist Marcel Proust, and established some of his most important relationships with his artistic peers. He met Bubsy Zimmerman, who would go on to co-found the New York Review of Books, along with poets Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara.

Along with Koch and O’Hara, Ashbery has been associated with the New York School of poetry — a movement in the 1950s and 1960s that was influenced by visual art, modernist poetry and surrealism, punctuated by dry, witty commentary on modern city life. Their peers in the world of visual art included Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Ashbery’s work pushed the limits of verse forms many of his peers had mostly eschewed. His poems were also packed with obscure historical and literary references, making his poems a treasure trove for scholars but drawing accusations that they were incomprehensible.

He published his first collection, “Some Trees,” in 1956, and followed it with “The Tennis Court Oath” in 1962, an abstract verbal collage. Critic John Simon at the time said in the The Hudson Review that the verse lacked “sensibility, sensuality or sentences,” in a period where Ashbery doubted that his work could interest others, according to the New York Times.

But he would go on to publish more than 30 other collections, bringing a number of accolades. He received the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts in 1967 and his “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” published in 1975, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize.

Ashbery was named a MacArthur “genius” in 1985 and received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1992, along with the Wallace Stevens Award in 2001.

Ashbery was notably reserved, and critics often pointed to an inscrutable quality, or a sense of withholding, in his work. “In a crucial sense John Ashbery does not exist in his poems,” wrote David Lehman in “The Last Avant-Garde” (1999). “A singular quality of his poetry is what I would call its egolessness: the absence of the self as the self is traditionally conceived.”

In “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Ashbery addresses this disappearance of the self:

“How many people came and stayed a certain time,
Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you
Like light behind windblown fog and sand
Filtered and influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you.”

He was also self-effacing in interviews, telling NPR’s Scott Simon in 2005 that it would be “embarrassing” to list his occupation as a poet.

“I always think of a scene in Jean Cocteau’s movie ‘Orphée’ where Orpheus is being cross-examined by three judges and one of them asks him what he does and he says he’s a poet. And the judge says, ‘What does that mean?’ And Orpheus says, ‘It means to write and not be a writer,'” he said.

In 1984, he told Carcanet Press that poetry is a “hopelessly minor art.”

“I’m really glad it is,” he added. “It’s not for everybody and there’s no reason why it should be. Not everybody reads poetry and certainly there are many more interesting things to do.”

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