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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

15. Poetry of Liberation

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- John Ashbery
- Amiri Baraka
- Lorna Dee Cervantes
- Allen Ginsberg
- Joy Harjo
- Audre Lorde
- Sylvia Plath
- Adrienne Rich
- Gary Snyder
- James Wright
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: John Ashbery (b. 1927)

The Farm
[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 Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

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