Pulitzer-winning poet John Ashbery dies at age 90

John Ashbery died on Sunday (Sept 3) at his home in Hudson, New York.
John Ashbery died on Sunday (Sept 3) at his home in Hudson, New York.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LOS ANGELES (NYTimes) - John Ashbery, one of the most original and enigmatically challenging poets of the late 20th century, died on Sunday at his home in Hudson, New York.

He was 90.

The critic Harold Bloom once said of Ashbery: "No one now writing poems in the English language is likelier than Ashbery to survive the severe judgment of time."

Ashbery was originally associated with the New York school of poetry of the 1950s and 1960s, joining Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, John O'Hara and others as they swam in the currents of modernism, surrealism and abstract expressionism, drawing from and befriending artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Jane Freilicher.

Ashbery was the first to win that triple crown of literary prizes - the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

He achieved that feat in 1976 for Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror, a book-length meditation inspired by a painting of the same title by the late-Renaissance artist Parmigianino.

Ashbery's poetry could read like an extended murmur, rich in associations and majestic in emotional resonances though difficult to decipher.

After his first book, Some Trees (1956), won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the competition's judge, W.H. Auden, confessed that he had not understood a word of it.

In 1970, John W. Hughes of Saturday Review wrote that he played "nasty symbolist-imagist tricks on his audience" and that some of his lines "have about as much poetic life as a refrigerated plastic flower".

James Fenton wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1985 that when he read Ashbery's work, there were times "when I actually thought I was going to burst into tears of boredom".

The mere suggestion that his poetry was difficult was enough to make the normally mild-mannered Ashbery querulous.

"I don't know that my poetry is difficult," he said. "It's not for me.

"I free-associate and come up with all kinds of extra material that doesn't belong - but does."