BY SAM KILKENNY
John Ashbery (1927 – 2017)
John Ashbery has won “nearly every major American award for poetry” including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. He is one of the most decorated poets in American history. He has been compared to Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot and labeled one of the most influential American Poets of his time.
If you are unfamiliar with his work you may have unknowingly felt his influence on contemporary poets. In 2008, critic Langdon Hammer remarked, “No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery.”
Over the course of his career, he published nearly 30 books of poetry. If you don’t know where to start with John Ashbery, below is a list of Ashbery’s famous poems and best books.
John Ashbery’s Best Books
Some Trees (1956)
In 1956, Ashbery’s first collection of poems, Some Trees, was published after winning the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The award was given by W.H. Auden, who later confessed that he hadn’t understood a word of the winning manuscript. Most of the early reviews of the book were negative, but it stands as a definitive collection in understanding what was to come for Ashbery.
Tennis Court Oath (1962)
In 1962, Ashbery followed up Some Trees with Tennis Court Oath. The collection was published while Ashbery was living in France working as an art critic and shows the influence of many of the French surrealists. The work was not well received by critics but is remembered as one of Ashbery’s classic works.
Three Poems (1972)
In 1972, John Ashbery published a collection of three long prose poems aptly titled three poems.
“The effect of these prose poems is at once deeply familiar and startlingly new, something like encountering a collage made of lines clipped from every page of a beloved book—or, as Ashbery has also said of this work, like flipping through television channels and hearing an unwritten, unscriptable story told through unexpected combinations of voices, settings, and scenes.”
– book description
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)
In 1975, Ashbery made a major breakthrough with his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
The book received critical acclaim winning the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is the only book to have received all three awards. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is considered to be Ashbery’s masterpiece.
The title of the book comes from the last poem in the collection, an epically long meditation on Francesco Parmigianino’s painting “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”.
Houseboat Days (1977)
The 70s were good to Ashbery. After “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, Ashbery followed it up with Houseboat Days.
Critics had this to say of the work:
“the most exciting, most original book of poems to have appeared in the 1970s.”
Marjorie Perloff in Washington Post Book World
“Ashbery has come to write, in the poet’s most implicitly ironic gesture, almost exclusively about his own poems, the ones he is writing as he writes about them.”
The Georgia Review
“Nearly every poem in Houseboat Days shows that Ashbery’s phenomenological eye fixes itself not so much on ordinary living and doing as on the specific act of composing a poem… Thus every poem becomes an ars poetica of its own condition.”
Roger Shattuck New York Review of Books
A Wave (1984)
A Wave (1984) won both the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the Bollingen Prize.
The title poem, another long epic that runs for over 700 lines, was regarded as his finest since Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The collection is considered one of Ashbery’s best.
Flow Chart (1991)
Flow chart is another epic from Ashbery. The book-length poem from Ashbery runs for over 5,000 lines.
“more than any of his other books, portrays the essence of Ashbery’s process… Flow Chart is a catalogue, which Ashbery presents as endlessly expansive and open to interpretation, encompassing within its subject matter—well, as much as the poet may imagine.”
Lawrence Joseph in The Nation.
John Ashbery Famous Poems
To get an idea of Ashbery’s style here are some excerpts from Ashbery’s most famous poems:
Ashbery’s work has a way of splitting his critics into two camps: lovers and haters. Those who support him praise his expressionist techniques and his refusal to impose order on a chaotic world, but even they recognize that his work can be difficult to read and understand. This is the problem that haters have. They claim that “his poems, made up of anything and everything, can mean anything and everything.” His obscurantism, they say, does not reveal a talent, but a lack of talent. Some even go as far as to call him a literary hoaxter.
Helen Vendler offered her summary of the debate in the New Yorker: “It is Ashbery’s style that has obsessed reviewers, as they alternately wrestle with its elusive impermeability and praise its power of linguistic synthesis. There have been able descriptions of its fluid syntax, its insinuating momentum, its generality of reference, its incorporation of vocabulary from all the arts and sciences. But it is popularly believed, with some reason, that the style itself is impenetrable… An alternative view says that every Ashbery poem is about poetry.”
Ashbery For The Modern Reader
For the modern reader, Ashbery’s long epics prove difficult to get through. Many complain that his abstract style can be difficult to follow, as it gives the reader no narrative to hold on to and one never knows quite what the poems are about.
Others enjoy the challenge of sorting through the vague and ambitious poems. Some find his work to be “challenging in a strangely inviting way.”
he told Bryan Appleyard in the London Times: “I don’t find any direct statements in life. My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness come to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don’t think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation. My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life.”
Is Ashbery Pretentious?
Despite how he may come off at times in his work or what the average reader might think about a 5000-line poem, Ashbery in his interviews comes across as quite down-to-earth and likable.
He once said of his critics:
“I’m quite puzzled by my work too, along with a lot of other people. I was always intrigued by it, but at the same time a little apprehensive and sort of embarrassed about annoying the same critics who are always annoyed by my work. I’m kind of sorry that I cause so much grief.”
In 2005 interview with NPR, the most decorated poet in American History comes off as refreshingly humble and humorous about the whole thing. He admits that he would even be embarrassed to call himself a poet.