Obituary

Pulitzer winner crafted original and challenging poetry

In 1976, John Ashbery (seen here in a 2008 photo) became the first to win the triple crown of literary prizes - the Pulitzer, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award - for Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror.
In 1976, John Ashbery (seen here in a 2008 photo) became the first to win the triple crown of literary prizes - the Pulitzer, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award - for Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • His poetry won a Pulitzer Prize, yet he was uncertain of its quality.

Still, John Ashbery was considered by many as one of the most original and enigmatically challenging poets of the late 20th century.

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

On Sunday, Ashbery, 90, died at his home in Hudson, New York.

He 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.

They drew from and befriended artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Jane Freilicher.

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

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

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

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

In 1970, John W. Hughes of Saturday Review wrote that Ashbery 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."

There was little in his background to suggest that he would become the leading poet of his generation.

He was born in Rochester, New York, on July 28, 1927. As a child, he was withdrawn and loved word games and puzzles. In 1945, he was accepted to Harvard.

While an undergraduate, he wrote one of his best-known poems, Some Trees, which begins: "These are amazing: each/Joining a neighbour, as though speech/Were still a performance."

He got a Master of Arts in English from Columbia University and later wrote advertising copy for Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill and discovered the music of John Cage, whose atonal compositions with eccentric rhythms had a lasting influence.

But his most significant artistic relationships were with other poets, including James Schuyler, who were rebelling against the formalism of Allen Tate and Robert Lowell.

Influenced by abstract expressionist painters and French symbolists, they used street diction and cinematic techniques in their work.

They became known as the New York School, a label Ashbery disliked because "it seems to be trying to pin me down to something".

He went to Paris on a Fulbright scholarship and began writing art criticism and editing small journals.

After about a decade in France, he returned to New York, where he became executive editor of ARTnews.

In 1972, it was sold and he was fired. Jobless, he began working on perhaps his most famous poem, Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror.

Though it became the signature piece in the prize-winning collection, he had reservations. "It's not one of my favourite poems, despite all the attention," he said. "I was always very unsure of the quality."

In 1990, he began teaching at Bard College in New York. In his later years, he became a revered figure for many poets and was increasingly visible in the broader culture.

He was the first poet laureate of MTVU, the subsidiary of MTV broadcast only on college campuses, and his lifelong devotion to and influence on film was celebrated by the Harvard Film Archive.

Was his poetry really hard to digest? His last word on this matter was to think of it as music.

"Words in proximity to one another take on another meaning. That is, words, like individual notes in music, when put together, form a new meaning, and sometimes an entire symphony."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2017, with the headline 'Pulitzer winner crafted original and challenging poetry'. Print Edition | Subscribe