Luc Sante

John Ash­bery (1927–2017)

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Luc Sante

John Ash­bery, a long-stand­ing con­trib­u­tor to and friend of The New York Re­view, died on Septem­ber 3, aged ninety, at his house in Hud­son, New York. He was the au­thor of twen­tyeight books of poems (not count­ing Select­eds or Col­lect­eds) as well as one novel, three plays, three vol­umes of es­says and crit­i­cism, and three of trans­la­tions from French. Over the course of his ca­reer he re­ceived just about ev­ery ma­jor prize, in­clud­ing the triple crown: the Pulitzer Prize, the Na­tional Book Award, and the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award for Self-Por­trait in a Con­vex Mir­ror (1975) . At the time of his death he was con­sid­ered, by gen­eral ac­claim, the great­est liv­ing Amer­i­can poet.

He was of­ten re­ferred to as a mem­ber of the New York School of po­ets, a term that he and the other pu­ta­tive mem­bers—prin­ci­pally Frank O’Hara, Ken­neth Koch, and James Schuyler—all re­jected with vary­ing de­grees of ve­he­mence. Ash­bery met Koch and O’Hara at Har­vard, and Schuyler in New York City soon af­ter grad­u­at­ing. The four shared many in­ter­ests and in­cli­na­tions: mod­ern paint­ing, French lit­er­a­ture, the ev­ery­day, hu­mor, and spon­ta­neous com­po­si­tion. In their ur­ban­ity, wit, so­cial ease, and avoid­ance of po­lit­i­cal and spir­i­tual rhetoric they could seem the po­lar op­po­sites of the Beat po­ets with whom they of­ten shared podi­ums and mag­a­zine pages, and they had lit­tle in com­mon with the more es­tab­lished po­ets of their early years. But their four styles were very in­di­vid­ual.

Ash­bery’s was marked above all by a calm, dis­cur­sive voice, go­ing along at a walk­ing pace, of­ten seem­ing to have been caught in mid­stream, maybe half-heard from out­side through the cur­tains. That voice could oc­ca­sion­ally sound ex­plic­itly po­etic or ex­pres­sion­is­ti­cally frac­tured, but more of­ten—and more con­sis­tently as time went by—it sounded con­ver­sa­tional, de­motic, mild, even-toned, deep-dish Amer­i­can. Its ap­par­ent placid­ity al­lowed for all sorts of things to ap­pear bob­bing hap­pily in its cur­rent: re­con­dite al­lu­sions, philo­soph­i­cal asides, for­eign id­ioms, school­yard jokes, for­got­ten cul­tural de­tri­tus of all sorts, even the oc­ca­sional nar­ra­tive or anal­y­sis or ar­gu­ment.

Much of his work gives the im­pres­sion of hav­ing been piped straight to the sur­face from his un­con­scious, al­though it cer­tainly passed through a pow­er­ful po­etic en­gine that de­ter­mined line breaks and mea­sured flow and reg­u­lated mu­sic. His read­ing voice main­tained that im­per­turbable me­an­der­ing pace, never suc­cumb­ing to decla­ma­tion or melo­drama or the preg­nant pauses of need­ier po­ets but is­su­ing a steady stream of words in un­ex­pected pat­terns, so that young po­ets would at­tend his read­ings not just to hear him but to furtively scribble the im­ages and lines his had touched off in their own fugue states.

Ash­bery was born on July 28, 1927, in Rochester, New York, and grew up in the nearby vil­lage of So­dus, where his par­ents, Ch­ester and He­len, ran a fruit farm. He­len’s par­ents, Henry and Ade­laide Lawrence, were nur­tur­ing in­flu­ences, in par­tic­u­lar Henry, a re­tired pro­fes­sor of physics at the Univer­sity of Rochester, who read widely and kept a li­brary stocked with nine­teen­th­cen­tury clas­sics. The young John was a book­worm, a wit, and a ra­dio Quiz Kid—he made it to the fi­nals in Chicago. In 1935, im­me­di­ately af­ter see­ing Max Rein­hardt’s screen adap­ta­tion of Shake­speare’s A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, he wrote his first poem, a play­ful and re­mark­ably ac­com­plished six-stanza ac­count of a bat­tle in the snow be­tween fairies and bushes. De­spite or maybe be­cause of the praise it re­ceived—it made its way through a chain of rel­a­tives to the mys­tery writer Mary Roberts Rine­hart, who read it aloud at a lit­er­ary party—he did not write an­other poem for seven years. When he be­gan again as an ado­les­cent, he had in the mean­time ab­sorbed much, in­clud­ing the con­tents of Louis Un­ter­meyer’s Mod­ern Amer­i­can Poetry, Mod­ern Bri­tish Poetry: A Crit­i­cal An­thol­ogy (1942), which he won in a cur­rent events con­test spon­sored by Time mag­a­zine. His tech­ni­cal fa­cil­i­ties were im­me­di­ately im­pec­ca­ble, his voice self-as­sured and in­dica­tive of where he would later go:

Now, in the windy sun­set-glow The leaf­less maple trees join hands To dance de­mented sara­bands And weave strange pat­terns on the snow.*

He quickly out­grew the lim­ited ru­ral schools in his area (which did man­age to in­struct him in Latin and French) and was af­forded a chance to at­tend the ven­er­a­ble Deer­field Academy in Mas­sachusetts for the last years of his sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion. There, de­spite the pre­vail­ing cul­ture of ath­letic mas­culin­ity, he be­gan writ­ing poetry in earnest, and also found out­lets, how­ever in­ter­mit­tently sat­is­fac­tory, for the ho­mo­sex­ual de­sires he had been ten­ta­tively ex­plor­ing since the on­set of pu­berty. His po­etic ca­reer was nearly de­railed by a fel­low stu­dent who stole two of his poems and pre­sented them as his own, first to an ad­viser and then to Poetry mag­a­zine, which pub­lished them un­der a pseu­do­nym.

But the thief faded into the wood­work as Ash­bery went on to Har­vard, where his fel­low stu­dents in­cluded Robert Cree­ley, Robert Bly, Don­ald Hall, and John Hawkes, and more sig­nif­i­cantly Ken­neth Koch, who be­came a close friend right away, as did Rad­cliffe stu­dent Bar­bara Zim­mer­man, *From his di­ary, May 10, 1943; quoted in Karin Roff­man’s The Songs We Know Best: John Ash­bery’s Early Life (Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), p. 96. who un­der her mar­ried name of Ep­stein was a founder and, un­til her death in 2006, an ed­i­tor of this mag­a­zine. Ash­bery and Koch joined the ed­i­to­rial board of the Ad­vo­cate, and in his junior year Ash­bery pub­lished “Some Trees,” which eight years later would be­come the ti­tle poem of his first real col­lec­tion. He stud­ied Wal­lace Stevens with F.O. Matthiessen and Proust with Harry Levin, be­gan mak­ing col­lages, and, six weeks be­fore grad­u­at­ing, met Frank O’Hara. Each felt to the other like a long-lost twin.

In

1949, Ash­bery moved to New York City, where he was quickly caught up in a so­cial and artis­tic scene, meet­ing the artists Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, and Nell Blaine; act­ing in a movie by Rudy Burkhardt; and writ­ing plays, in ad­di­tion to a num­ber of im­por­tant poems. Most no­table of the poems was “The Pic­ture of Lit­tle J. A. in a Prospect of Flow­ers,” which nom­i­nally takes off on a sim­i­larly ti­tled poem by An­drew Marvell but achieves some­thing very new: col­laged and mem­oiris­tic, high-dic­tio­ned and slangy, mod­ern-ur­ban-dis­junc­tive and ar­ca­dian: “In a far re­cess of sum­mer/Monks are play­ing soc­cer.” But then, the fol­low­ing year, he slid into a pe­riod of writer’s block that lasted some nine­teen months, a drought ended by a John Cage con­cert on New Year’s Day, 1952, which struck him, road-to-Da­m­as­cus-style, with the power of chance.

His first stand-alone pub­li­ca­tion, Tu­ran­dot and Other Poems, with draw­ings by Freilicher, was pub­lished in 1953 by the Ti­bor de Nagy Gallery; it in­au­gu­rated a decades-long se­ries of col­lab­o­ra­tions with artists. He wrote more plays, be­gan to trans­late French poems, fi­nally ap­peared in Poetry un­der his own name (ten years af­ter the pur­loined pub­li­ca­tion). He nev­er­the­less felt him­self drift­ing, un­cer­tain of his fu­ture—un­til he re­turned from a Mex­i­can va­ca­tion to dis­cover si­mul­ta­ne­ously that he had been awarded a Ful­bright to France and had won the Yale Younger Po­ets prize, judged that year by W.H. Au­den (who seems to have given him the award more or less ran­domly and wrote for Some Trees an in­tro­duc­tion Ash­bery de­scribed as “eva­sive,” but maybe this fur­ther ce­mented his be­lief in chance).

He spent much of the fol­low­ing decade in France, lived with the poet Pierre Mar­tory, be­came fas­ci­nated with the work of the rogue ec­cen­tric pro­to­sur­re­al­ist vi­sion­ary Ray­mond Rous­sel, be­gan writ­ing re­views for ArtNews, pub­lished the wildly ex­per­i­men­tal and rather ill-re­ceived The Ten­nis-Court Oath (1962), coedited the im­por­tant jour­nals Lo­cus So­lus and Art and Lit­er­a­ture. With his mother ail­ing, he moved back to the United States in 1965, in time for O’Hara’s tragic early death the fol­low­ing sum­mer. He pub­lished Rivers and Moun­tains (1966), with its cru­cial long poem “The Skaters,” and then The Dou­ble Dream of Spring (1970), with some of his first head­long dives into Amer­i­cana. He met his fu­ture hus­band, David Ker­mani, now his sole sur­vivor. He wrote the aus­tere-seem­ing Three Poems (1972)—three big blocks of prose, or “three rec­tan­gu­lar boxes,” as he put it.

In the mid-1970s Ash­bery be­gan teach­ing at Brook­lyn Col­lege, where he would re­main un­til mov­ing to Bard

Col­lege in 1990. In 1975 came the an­nus mirabilis of Self-Por­trait in a Con­vex Mir­ror, which fi­nally broke the gen­er­al­ized re­sis­tance to the al­leged ob­scu­rity of his work. Be­cause po­ets don’t make any money, he con­tin­ued to write art crit­i­cism in ad­di­tion to teach­ing, to make ends meet—a prob­lem al­le­vi­ated only by a five-year MacArthur Fel­low­ship in 1985. His pro­duc­tiv­ity in­creased with age: he pub­lished a new book al­most ev­ery cou­ple of years for his last three decades. He was li­on­ized, im­i­tated, stud­ied, an­a­lyzed, en­shrined, revered. He out­lived nearly all his con­tem­po­raries, set­tling gen­tly into em­i­nence in his Vic­to­rian manse (bought cheaply and re­stored slowly) in Hud­son. Now he joins the mar­ble busts of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture.

John Ash­bery, New York City, March 1995; pho­to­graph by Jill Kre­mentz

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