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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Poetry of Liberation John Ashbery (b. 1927)

[4526] Joan Miro, The Farm (1921-22), courtesy of the National Gallery of Art and Artist Rights Society: 1987.18.1./PA: Miro, Joan, The Farm, Gift of Mary Hemingway, Photograph © 2002 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington; © 2002 Successio Miro/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

John Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, and he earned his B.A. from Harvard University. He also received an M.A. from Columbia, where he wrote his thesis on English novelist Henry Green, who is known for his detached and witty style. Ashbery studied as a Fulbright scholar in France from 1955 to 1957 and returned there in 1958. He earned a living by writing art criticism for Art News and the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune. Upon returning to America in 1965, Ashbery continued to work as editor of Art News for the next seven years. Since 1972, he has continued his work as art critic while also teaching at Brooklyn College.

Associated with the New York school of poetry, Ashbery is known as an experimental poet, whose impersonal, clever style is often difficult and opaque. The New York School was a group of poets including Frank O’Hara, Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and Ted Berrigan, among others, who knew each other well, made references to each other in their work, and were deeply influenced by avant-garde artists such as Jackson Pollock. Under the influence of abstract art, these writers became interested in the creative process itself. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they did not write about the social and political issues of their time. Ashbery’s interest in visual art, particularly the New York school of abstract painters prolific in the 1940s and 1950s, influences his verse. Like many of these painters, Ashbery explores the relationship between nature and life, but rather than using nature as a blueprint for life, Ashbery chooses not to emphasize realism. Instead, his poems examine the creative process itself, as a poem like “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name” illustrates. Like the high modernists, Ashbery uses juxtaposition, verbal playfulness, and wit, and he rarely offers the reader commentary or analysis in his poems, instead leaving the meaning open to interpretation.

Like many other American poets, Ashbery composes his work in a conversational style reminiscent of dialogue, though the diction is rarely colloquial. His work is characterized by sudden changes in register and tone, and he often blurs the boundaries between prose and poetry. The mixture of erudite language with the discourse of popular culture also shows the influence of mass culture in modern life. Interested in different voices, he often imitates or incorporates fragments from newspapers, advertisements, business memos, scientific articles, and textbooks. In addition, Ashbery uses clichés frequently to show our inability to escape the hackneyed confines of language itself. While many poets, particularly the modernists, rely on fragmentation in their poetry, Ashbery differs because he leads the reader to expect sequence and continuity. For example, he frustrates our grammatical expectations by beginning a line with standard grammar only to use the inappropriate verb tense or referent later on. He also confuses syntax by omitting punctuation and piling up relative clauses and parentheses. Influenced by W. H. Auden, Laura Riding, and Wallace Stevens, Ashbery writes decisive, yet lyrical verse, and he considers the musicality of his verse most important. Regarded as one of the most important modern poets, Ashbery has had a profound influence on a younger generation of authors known as the language poets.

Teaching Tips

  • Because Ashbery’s poetry is difficult, David Perkins offers two helpful approaches to reading his work. Ashbery’s early work, through the 1950s, can be read in the context of modernism because it relies on the same collage technique typical of Eliot, Pound, and Williams. Also influenced by surrealism in the 1950s, Ashbery writes poems that depend upon juxtaposition, fragmentation, swift changes in register, and syntactical disruption. His later poetry seems to share more with Stevens and Auden because it is characterized by a meditative sensibility. Interested in the movement of the mind and the impossibility of representing reality, Ashbery’s poems develop new techniques to broach similar problems of the nature of reality.
  • Ashbery’s use of the collage technique links him to earlier modernists. Have your students construct their own poems using magazine fragments.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Ashbery’s poem “Illustration” could be read as a character sketch of the figure of the “novice.” What happens to the “novice . . . sitting on a cornice”? Who is she? What does she symbolize? How does the title help us better understand the poem?
  2. Comprehension: How does Ashbery’s interest in abstract painting influence his poetry?
  3. Comprehension: Like many of Ashbery’s poems, “Soonest Mended” is inspired by a painting. What is the tone of “Soonest Mended”? Line 14 seems to mark a shift in the poem. What changes here? What is the speaker’s “ambition”? What does he mean by this?
  4. Context: Ashbery is known for writing collage-like poems, a technique also practiced by many of the high modernists, including T. S. Eliot. Like Eliot, Ashbery writes in a range of registers, experimenting with what he calls “prose voices.” Compare The Waste Land to “Soonest Mended,” looking particularly at how these poets make transitions, link material, and jump between images and registers. What technical similarities and differences do you notice?
  5. Context: Ashbery peppers his poetry with scores of erudite allusions. In “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” for example, each page contains several footnotes explaining these references to readers. Why do you think he includes so many allusions? To whom or what does he allude? Can you make generalizations about these references? What does this tell us about his intended audience?
  6. Exploration: In Laocoön; an Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, Gotthold Lessing argues that the sister arts of poetry and painting achieve their effects through the nature of the medium (words, paint), and to succeed, each must exploit the potential of that medium while keeping in mind its limitations. Poetry, for example, works best when representing human action, but it lacks visual vividness. In contrast, painting best adapts to the representation of idealized human beauty in repose. Owing to the nontemporal character of words and paint, neither painting nor poetry easily represents the body in action. Only by selecting the “critical” or “fruitful” moment, which simultaneously preserves physical beauty and concentrates within itself the suggestion of past and future action, can the painter or poet even indirectly represent a sequence of events in action. How does Ashbery’s poetry reflect this struggle and the desire to blend media? You might consider “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” in particular.
  7. Exploration: Ashbery’s poetry has been described as meditative because he rarely describes events or people; instead he is interested in representing the inner workings of the mind, especially as involved in the creative process. Like his modernist predecessors, Auden and particularly Stevens, Ashbery struggles with the problem of representing a reality that can never be truly grasped. As critic David Perkins notes, Ashbery, like Stevens, writes about the “mind forming hypotheses about reality in general, about the ultimate truth of nature of things.” While Stevens tried to represent the “supreme fiction,” however, Ashbery finds it futile to seek order or structure in reality. Despite this seemingly cynical and hopeless outlook, however, Ashbery’s poetry is usually positive and curious, upbeat and hopeful. Look at the surrealist paintings in the Web archive. How do these paintings compare to Ashbery’s poetry? How do these visual images influence the way you read his work?

Selected Archive Items

[4022] Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912), 
courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, and Artist Rights Society; © Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/Estate of Marcel Duchamp. 
American audiences criticized and ridiculed this abstract painting when it was exhibited at the Armory Show in New York in 1913. It is a clear example of cubism, fragmentation, and the use of geometrical shapes, all of which are hallmarks of modernist painting.

[4525] Joan Miro, Shooting Star (1938), 
courtesy of the National Gallery of Art and Artist Rights Society: 1970.36.1.(2546)/PA: Miro, Joan, Shooting Star, Gift of Joseph H. Hazen, Photograph © 2002 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington; © 2002 Successio Miro/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. 
Surreal painting illustrating the emphasis on geometric shapes and human forms in abstract art. Modern art initially centered in Europe and met with hostility from American audiences.

[4526] Joan Miro, The Farm (1921-22), 
courtesy of the National Gallery of Art and Artist Rights Society: 1987.18.1./PA: Miro, Joan, The Farm, Gift of Mary Hemingway, Photograph © 2002 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington; © 2002 Successio Miro/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. 
Spanish artist Miro moved to Paris to be at the center of modern art. This painting is of his family’s farm in Catalonia and represents a merging of realism and cubism.

[4528] René Magritte, La Condition Humaine (1933), 
courtesy of the National Gallery of Art and Artist Rights Society: 1987.55.1./PA: Magritte, René, La condition humaine, Gift of the Collectors Committee, Photograph © 2002 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington; © 2002 C. Herscovici, Brussels/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. 
Painting of window and easel showing landscape. This work explores the divisions between realism and representationalism.

[5303] Arthur Bowen Davies, Dancers (1914), 
courtesy of The Detroit Institute of Arts: Dancers, 1914/1915. 
Arthur Bowen Davies. Gift of Ralph Harman Booth. Photograph © 1985 The Detroit Institute of Arts. An example of cubism. This painting uses geometric forms to represent human bodies. A major exhibition of modern art was held at the Armory in New York City in 1913.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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