By R.S. Stewart
John Ashbery, who died on September 3rd at the age of 90, was the most highly praised English-language poet of the second half of the 20th century. He was also prolific and controversial. He came to modest fame in 1956 when W. H. Auden awarded him the prestigious Yale Prize for Younger Poets for his volume Some Trees, and came to a more encompassing fame in 1976 by winning the “triple crown” of poetry: the Pultizer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Critics Circle Award for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the only book of poems ever so honored.
Why does Ashbery overshadow so many outstanding poets of his generation: Adrienne Rich, A. R. Ammons, Mark Strand, Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, and many others? One reason could be his penchant for the long poem, abandoned since Wallace Stevens. Four of his volumes contain only one long poem in each; and other volumes contain a final closing long poem. He might be called the William Wordsworth of our era, since, like that Romantic poet’s The Prelude (sub-titled “The Growth of a Poet’s Mind”) Ashbery could distinguish himself as a searcher after life’s experiences as the only truth. Yet, even in his long poems, Ashbery himself is hard to find. He grew up on a fruit farm in Sodus, New York, near Rochester, and many images of ice-skating, cherry picking, and farm life are sprinkled throughout his poems.
Ashbery’s main concern, though, is art and how art, primarily painting, affects our vision of life, whether it reflects it or branches off it into a newness of its own. After graduating from Harvard in 1949, he moved to New York City and became a friend and confident of the artists there working as Abstract Impressionists, as well as befriending poets Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and Barbara Guest, the five of them known as The New York School of Poets, not a literary movement of any kind, just friends who gathered for readings and drinking at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village.
Incongruity is the mark of an Ashbery poem, starting with the title, which often leads the reader astray, thinking that “A French Stamp” will be about a French stamp and that “A Small Table in the Street” will indeed be about a table left out in the street. Ashbery has little patience with standard perception. He encourages the reader’s imagination to work in conjunction with his by bringing together images, emotions, and feelings, often layered in humor and trivia colliding with allusions from movies, popular songs, overheard cliché conversation, and cartoons–all done in a talky but lavish style that seems a whispered confidence.
Among his voluminous body of work, exemplary touchtone poems are “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” “Houseboat Days,” “Street Musicians,” “City Afternoon,” “Just Walking Around,” “Mixed Feelings,” “Winter Daydreams,” “So long, Santa,” and “Myrtle.”
In this age of instant information and gratification, Ashbery’s poems are a sublime caution for contemplative time to consider life and the joyous experience of living as something other than what it seems.
R. S. Stewart’s poems have been published in many journals, most recently in Ink Sweat & Tears, Brittle Star, and BLAZE Vox.