American poet John Ashbery (1927-2017), whose work—since it first began appearing in the early 1950s—has become the subject of hundreds of literary and philosophical studies, has a style so distinct that it sometimes allows us, as critic John Bayley once put it, “to see life for a moment the Ashbery way.” In nearly thirty volumes of poetry, art criticism, French translations and collages, Ashbery’s deep attention to the ways people think about themselves and each other—in both life and in art— forms a compelling subject, even when such moments are mentioned only through fragments of language or speech, or in partial or interrupted memories.
Ashbery’s original way of seeing developed early. Born in Rochester, New York, he grew up on his family’s fruit farm in Sodus, New York. Identified in high school as a “genius,” he was sent to study at Deerfield Academy, then admitted to Harvard University for college. There he met poets Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch and began writing poems that W.H. Auden would choose to publish as Some Trees (1956), the winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize.
Although he worked full-time as an art critic in New York City and Paris for nearly forty years, Ashbery wrote, during those same years, some of the most sublime poems of his career. His “masterpiece,” Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award, honors that led to greater renown and a larger public readership. In the 21st century, Ashbery continued to make language new in volumes like Breezeway (2015), which imagined how our present life—Batman, CBS, the Kardashians, for example—is always at play in our minds, reminding us in surprising ways of eternal questions about who we are and how we think. In October, 2016, he published his final volume of poetry, Commotion of the Birds. On July 28, 2017, the poet turned ninety years old. A little over a month later, on September 3, 2017, he passed away at his Hudson home.