John Ashbery dies peacefully at the age of 90 – Poetry News September 5th

Today’s poetry round-up brings the sad news of the death of one of the biggest influences in American literary circles of recent times. We have just learned that poet John Ashbery has passed away.  Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his poetry collection, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, Ashbery died early on Sunday 3rd August at his home in Hudson, New York from natural causes.

Born John Lawrence Ashbery on 28th July 1927 in Rochester, New York, he was raised on farm located near Lake Ontario. His only brother passed away when they were children. He attended an all-boys school, Deerfield Academy, where he was introduced to the works of poets such as W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas, this led to an interest in poetry and a number of his poems were published in a poetry magazine. His first love was however art; he wanted to be a painter and from the ages of 11 to 15 he took weekly art lessons at the museum in Rochester. He continued his studies at Harvard University where he graduated in 1949 with an A.B. cum laude. Whilst he was at Harvard he made the acquaintance of many other writers, including Kenneth Koch, Barbara Epstein and Frank O’Hara. He also had a brief stint at the New York University, before continuing with his studies at Columbia University where he received an M.A in 1951.

It could be argued that John Ashbery was one of the most influential poetry figures of the latter twentieth and early twenty first  centuries in term of American literature. He published more than 20 volumes of poetry and won almost every major American poetry award going, his name had often been mentioned as a potential Nobel prize candidate.

It wasn’t, however, until 1976 that Ashbery was recognised as a leading figure in the poetry world when he became the only writer to have ever been awarded the

Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award

all of which were awarded to him in the same year. These awards were given for his poetry collection

“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”,

the title poem of which is a 15-page meditation on a painting of the same name.

Originally associated with the New York school of poetry that was around in the 1950’s and 1960’s Ashbery moved away from writing poetry that had undertones of modernism, surrealism and abstract expressionism, ideas favoured by many of his fellow poets at the time. And whilst other poets at the time were also writing about social activism, such as Adrienne Rich, as well as offering up details of their own difficult lives such as Sylvia Plath, he simply wrote poetry.  His poetry was playful, it was absurd, but above all it was instantly recognisable; his poetry sounded like him.

Ashbery was also a critic and a highly regarded translator, translating the works of Arthur Rimbaud, Raymond Roussel and several other French writers during his career. He was also a teacher for many years and spent time at Brooklyn College, Harvard University and Bard College.

An enigmatic master in the world of modern poetry, his daring and endless command of the English language helped raise the sphere of American verse to new heights; his death comes as sad news to the literary world.

Ashbery is survived by his partner, David Kermani.

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