|John Ashbery receiving the National Medal for|
the Arts from President Barack Obama, in 2012
One might also surmise that from the vantage point of the late 1950s and early 1960s when he began publishing his collection, Ashbery would not have seemed like the most likely candidate for major status. Among his near-exact contemporaries (including several who were former classmates at Harvard) were a number white, mostly straight male poets who won major awards and began publishing at the same time as him, and in some cases more swiftly achieved critical attention and acclaim. In addition, two poets and close friends who were part of Ashbery's New York School poetic coterie were also poised to become significant figures in the American poetic firmament. (And I have not even mentioned the many white women poets, like Maxine Kumin, Ann Sexton, Mona Van Duyn, and Sylvia Plath, as well as poets of color, like African American poets Bob Kaufman, Ted Joans, Etheridge Knight and James Emanuel, of roughly the same generation, who also made their mark.)
Yet Ashbery's persistence and distinctive aesthetics have paid off. The Tennis Court Oath, which provoked bafflement at its appearance, is from today's perspective is a visionary text that foresaw the emergence of Language poetry and other contemporary trends. Ashbery's prose poetic foray, Three Poems, while not the first text of its kind, also represented a pointer for texts that followed it. Moreover, as Susan M. Schultz's edited collection The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry noted, one can find his influence across a wide array of English-language poets and poetics, ranging from John Yau, who was his student, to Jorie Graham, to countless contemporary younger poets. The influence also extends beyond the US: as someone quipped to me years ago, how unfortunate to be the English poet John Ash, whose poetry not only shows Ashbery's strong imprint but also whose name itself sounds like a truncated derivation. Contemporary French poetry, as well as Hispanophone poetry, among others, also have taken lessons from Ashbery's approaches to lyric poetry, even as he has kept moving, shifting, and inventing.
To add a personal note, I first heard of John Ashbery when I was in college. In fact, I kept hearing his name--he was winning acclaim for A Wave (1984) by then, and had been on the Harvard Advocate, as I was--but for whatever reason, I did not read any of his poems. Perhaps the hype turned me off. Nor did I take a single class where we read his poetry. Allen Ginsberg's, yes. James Merrill's, yes. (I read these poets, and others like Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Justice, in high school, and had read still others, like Robert Frost, Amiri Baraka, and Ishmael Reed, in childhood or on my own.) When I think of the various journals and magazines I was reading, I still happened to miss Ashbery's poetry. A few years later, however, I was working at MIT as an office drone, and regularly visited their humanities library, where every book seemed to stay on the shelves. It was then that I checked out Some Trees (1956), The Double Dream of Spring (1970), and my initial favorite, Rivers and Mountains (1966). It was like little bombs went off in my head; this was a poet I had been waiting to read all my life. As many who know me will attest, I have been a fan of Ashbery's ever since.
Ashbery has now lived long enough to sound utterly contemporary and a few years ago was even named the Poet Laureate of MTV (a fact I once heard another senior poet dismiss by suggesting that Ashbery was already part of the "establishment," and yet I thought as he said that I could count more than a few poets I knew who thought Ashbery was unintelligible, a sham, and really not worthy of all the acclaim or, to their mind, interest by younger poets). He also is recognized as a significant gay poet, and studies like my former undergraduate TA John Shoptaw's On the Outside Looking Out: On John Ashbery's Poetry (1995) have opened up readers' understanding of Ashbery's work, particularly how sexuality marks its poetics, in relation to the larger socioeconomic and political contexts in which Ashbery wrote it. At 90 he continues to write and publish, with his most recent book and to draw new generations of readers.
Earlier this summer, I finished Karin Roffman's rewarding new biography of Ashbery's early life and budding career, The Songs We Know Best (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2017). Roffman's account opens with the story of Ashbery's parents, Chester and Helen Lawrence Ashbery, who lived on a farm in Sodus, in western New York State, and his grandparents, Addie and Henry Lawrence, a physics professor at the University of Rochester, who profoundly encouraged him in his literary pursuits, and moves adroitly through his childhood, when he lost his younger brother, Richard, and later appeared on the national TV show Quiz Kids, showing that he was famous long before truly achieved lasting fame. From childhood on, Ashbery's intellect, his interest in literature, music and visual art, and his queerness, marked him out as different and proved an ongoing source of tension with his father, who favored the more outgoing, athletic Richard. Again and again, we see the portrait of the artist as a young child, his gifts and vision shaped by circumstances and the contexts in which he grew up, and how he adopted strategies of self-concealment that would later develop into what we think of as his adult style. One of Roffman's revelations, based on copious childhood diaries Ashbery kept and later shared with her, was his pre-adolescent fragmentation and abstraction of his queer desire, into poetic entries that read like later Ashbery, to prevent his mother from figuring out what he was describing.
Pursuing this thread, Roffman delves into Ashbery's difficult experiences at the elite, then all-boy's Deerfield School, where a wealthy, troubled classmate who was somewhat obsessed with him stole his poems and sent them to Poetry, where they were published under the classmate's name. When Ashbery later sent the same poems into Poetry, the editors mistook him as the plagiarist. At Deerfield, his distinctive poetic gifts began to flower, but it was at Harvard College, where he fell in with an artistic milieu and began several gay relationships, that he wrote a number of the poems that would fill his first collection, the Yale Younger Poets Series Prize-winning Some Trees (1956), which was selected, with some disaffection and after a convoluted process, by W. H. Auden. Roffman traces out Ashbery's literary influences and the various personal and immediate and broader cultural strands that led to these distinctive, still provocative poems, while also giving an account of how Ashbery negotiated being gay at a time when it was not just still extremely fraught but illegal. Through the Harvard Advocate--which Roffman reveals had a kibosh on gay, Black and Jewish students--he met Kenneth Koch, who remained a friend till the end of Koch's life and, at the very end of Ashbery's senior year, Frank O'Hara, who became his fast, and best friend until O'Hara's early death in 1966. Koch, Ashbery and O'Hara all nurtured each other's avant-garde interests, and O'Hara in particular offered another model for out queerness during the Cold War and the McCarthy era. Roffman ends her account with Ashbery's immersion in New York City's mid-century art world, which he navigated as a young writer bouncing from job to job and then as a graduate student at NYU and Columbia, before his departure for France on a Fulbright.
If I have any quarrels with Roffman's book it would lie in what I felt were his misreadings of the poems, hewing closely to his biography while overlooking what the words themselves say, though this is common in many a literary biography. Roffman's sense of pacing, her skill and judiciousness in weaving facts together, and her eye for telling details make this a valuable text for glimpsing a white, cis-queer, middle-class, male writer's formation in the pre-Stonewall Era. What also comes into focus is the politics of Ashbery's style; the New York School poets were criticized, in part because of flippant comments by O'Hara during the Vietnam War, for their lack of overt politics, but what this book suggests, alongside ones like Shoptaw's Ashbery study On the Outside Looking Out, was that Ashbery's and James Schuyler's--and more overtly, Frank O'Hara's poetry, could be viewed through other lenses as insistently political, especially in how it subverted the conventions of then contemporary American lyric poetry and in its recurrent pursuit of queer--in broad terms--themes and subject matter, as well as its incorporation of wit, camp, and irony. A poem like "The Instruction Manual," Roffman and Shoptaw lead us to see, is not just about reverie, fantasy, and the drudgery of office labor, but also a critique of idealized heteronormativity and an expression, in negative, of what could not be expressed so openly at that moment, same-sexual desire, love, and coupling. If you are a fan of the New York School poets or Ashbery, I recommend Roffman's biography.