“A kind of buzz given off” – a tribute to John Ashbery

John Ashbery in 2004. Photo: Dimitry Kuzmin.
John Ashbery in 2004. Photo: Dimitry Kuzmin.

John Ashbery, one of the most celebrated of all American contemporary poets, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, died aged 90 on 3 September 2017.

Michael Schmidt of Carcanet, his UK publisher, said: “When John Ashbery came aboard Carcanet in 1976, I did not anticipate the impact he would have on me as an editor, or the generosity he would bestow on two, now three generations of British poets who learned about tone and alternative forms from him, and harkened to his finger-posts – Riding, Stein, Reverdy and many others. There are the writers one is made of and the writers that then unmake one and free one up. Because he never established rules, or followed them very far, he was the best kind of friend, always entertaining possibilities, always giving thought, energy and affection. To misquote from the last poem he contributed to PN Review, last year, he drew ‘his pipsqueak editor out / into the brilliant day, of casings, undeliverable, unprogrammed / appliance scepters, more.’ “

Ashbery’s poems appeared many times in The Poetry Review and he was the subject of several full-length articles, including Jeremy Reed’s in the Spring 1991 issue, and interviews – by John Murphy in the Summer 1985 issue, and by Ben Hickman in Winter 2008. He told Hickman: “One of the things I’d liked about modern poetry when I first began to read it was that it was hard to understand, so I thought, ‘Well, I’m just writing in the modern tradition’.” On what some regarded as his troubling variousness, he added: “maybe there is something universal about me […] Maybe there are so many different readings because there are different kinds of me for people to choose from.” Typically, he posed his own question: “Will something resonate for the ideal reader whoever he or she is? It’s a very vexed question of course, and one can only deal with each individual case. […] I stupidly hope there’ll be a kind of buzz given off by these references that readers will enjoy even though they won’t be getting it.”

Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, on 28 July 1927. He earned degrees from Harvard and Columbia, and went to France as a Fulbright Scholar in 1955, living there for much of the next decade. His most recent book of poetry was Commotion of the Birds (2016); previous collections include Breezeway (2015), Quick Question (2012), Planisphere (2009) and Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems (2007), which was awarded the 2008 International Griffin Poetry Prize. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) won the three major American prizes – the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award – and an early book, Some Trees (1956), was selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Series. The Library of America published the first volume of his collected poems in 2008. A two-volume set of his collected translations from the French (poetry and prose) was published in 2014. He taught for many years at Brooklyn College (CUNY) and Bard College, and in 1989-90 delivered the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (receiving its Gold Medal for Poetry in 1997) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1988 to 1999. The winner of many prizes and awards, both nationally and internationally, he has received two Guggenheim Fellowships and was a MacArthur Fellow from 1985 to 1990; he received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation (2011) and a National Humanities Medal, presented by President Obama at the White House (2012). His work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages.

In ‘Heavy Home’, his poem published in The Poetry Review, Spring 1995, he wrote: “One thing follows another awning in the event horizon. One life in the / going changes the subject. Some things made sense, others didn’t. I didn’t / expect to die so soon.Well, I guess I’ll have to have tabulated myself in / some way […].”

4 September 2017