John Ashbery is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and influential poets of the 20th century. His unique means of defying literary norms, exhibited through his poems’ bold structuring and experimental bent, challenge readers to reflect upon the act of writing itself.
Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York on July 28, 1927. According to an article in Slate, Ashbery wrote his first poem at age eight: “The tall haystacks are great sugar mounds / These are the fairies’ camping grounds” – a testament to the standardization he would later eschew. As an adolescent, he aspired to be a painter, taking classes for four years at age eleven (Wikipedia). He attended the all-boys Deerfield Academy and graduated from Harvard University in the class of 1949. His education was continued as he earned his Master of Arts from Columbia in 1951, then moving on to study in France under a Fulbright scholarship (520).
Ashbery’s work draws parallel with his passion for art. Ashbery contributed to numerous art journals throughout his career through coverage of exhibitions and composing pieces of criticism. He worked as the art critic for the New York Herald Tribune’s European Edition and covered shows for Arts International and Art News. By 1965, Ashbery had become the executive editor of Art News, a position he retained until 1972 (520). He has been associated with the “New York school” of poets, a collective of creative writers that included Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch (520). The informal school of the 1950s and 1960s consisted of a grouping of artists in the city practicing composition in different forms, including painting, dancing, and music (Wikipedia). The poets were largely inspired by movements such as Surrealism and certain modern art movements, such as the abstract expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s. They worked to adapt styles of works such as the action paintings of Jackson Pollock to inspire their freeform literary tactics, writing in “an immediate and spontaneous manner” (520, Wikipedia). However, in an interview published in the Winter 1983 issue of The Paris Review, Ashbery distanced himself from the group by stating that “‘This label was foisted upon us by a man named John Bernard Meyers, who ran the Tibor de Nagy Gallery and published some pamphlets of our poems’”; he also points out that he was living in France at the time of the School. He strikes a casual connection amongst the members, stating, “We were a bunch of poets who happened to know each other; we would get together and read our poems to each other and sometimes we would write collaborations”.
Ashbery’s style is controversial yet fresh, but he has had many imitators over the years. His influences include the American Romantic tradition (Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens), the aforementioned New York School, and various French surrealist writers, for whom Ashbery served as “critic and translator” (Poetry Foundation). His first book was Some Trees, published in 1956. It achieved notoriety by the award of the Yale Younger Poets Prize. According to the Poetry Foundation website, W.H. Auden (a poet whom Ashbery greatly lauded and admired) served as judge to the competition; but Auden “famously confessed later that he hadn’t understood a word of the winning manuscript”. His most famous works include the radically experimental The Tennis Court Oath (from the Paris years in 1962), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), “Houseboat Days” (1977), and the book-length Flow Chart (1991) (520). Later works have reflected upon themes of mortality, as demonstrated by collections such as Girls on the Run (1999), Where Shall I Wander? (2005), and A Worldly Country (2007) (Poetry Foundation).
An incredible number of awards have been bestowed upon Ashbery for his pioneering work. He has received multiple particularly prestigious American prizes, including for his poetry collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the namesake poem of which we are examining. The book garnered the celebrated Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award (Poets.org). He has further been acknowledged through the Brusselian Grand Prix de Biennales Internationales de Poésie (for which he was the first English-language poet to win), as well a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant (Poets.org).
Ashbery continually places a bold ultimatum before the reader, challenging them to toss aside previous presumptuous notions of poetry in favor of exploring the spontaneous experience of a work, setting him outside of the typical boundaries of language. He has been quoted as stating that his aim with his work is “‘to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about’” (Poetry Foundation; Slate Magazine). This results in a style described by the Poetry Foundation as “self-reflexive, multi-phonic, vaguely narrative, full of both pop culture and high allusion”; and yet, ultimately, Ashbery states, “My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life.”
I have given some cursory citations to the information for referential purposes. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the following pages:
… I only had a chance to read a section of it, but this is a 1983 interview with Ashbery published in The Paris Review that seems really neat.