Chapter 10: Late Twentieth Century and Postmodernism

    John Ashbery
    1927 -

    © Paul Reuben
    October 21, 2016

Outside Link: | Modern American Poetry: JA |

Page Links: | "Introduction" by Gargi Bhattacharya | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography 1980-Present | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

Site Links: | Chap. 10: Index | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page |

Source: NY State Writers Institute - JA


"Introduction" contributed by Gargi Bhattacharya:

John Ashbery takes the polysemy of meaning in interpreting a work of art and the polyphony of styles in composing as his forte. He questions the various linguistic codes and makes us aware of the artificiality of the language. All political, ethical and aesthetic imperatives are rhetorical constructs. The writer uses language to persuade the reader to accept the formulated truth and he intervenes in the process of perception by his/her politics of representation. Two of his widely discussed poems: Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Flow-Chart won him the Pulitzer Award in 1976, National Book Award, Critic's Circle Award, the Poetry Society of America's Robert Frost Medal. In 1984 he received the Bollingen Prize and MacArthur Prize fellowship in the following year and also two Guggenheim Fellowships subsequently. Most of his early poems are collected in the volume, Selected Poems (1985) and his later poems are collected in the volume entitled, Notes from the Air (2007). This same year Ashbery reached his eightieth birthday and have perpetuated his aptitude of producing new, controversial, stimulating classics with vibrant experimentalism. In 1992 he was honoured with Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and the Antonio Feltrivelli International Prize for Poetry. He is now a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1989-90 he was Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. As a Chancellor he had presided over the Academy of American Poets from 1988 to 1999. He has the perennial desire of,

Trying to avoid Ideas,

as in this poem?

as stated in his poem What is Poetry?1 Poets like John Ashbery, Frank O' Hara have tried to draw a kinship between painting and poetry. While Philip Sidney thought of poetry as a 'speaking picture', Ashbery and O' Hara who were eminent art critics, adopted the technique of Abstract Expressionist artists in poetry. The words and phrase are verbal icons that cast the images that flash in the mind without any attempt to synchronize them. Ashbery's style of composing traces the entire process that goes into the making of a poem. This technique is somewhat akin to that of the Abstract Expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock, popularly known as 'Jack the dripper'. Pollock's drip painting takes the method of creation as the subject of art.

Similarly, Ashbery juxtaposes contexts and images as they enter and leave the mind randomly without any apparent cause-effect relationship. Painting provides a starting point for the poet's own self-portrait - a 'Self' that is omnipresent in Ashbery's work, an accumulation of ongoing and changing experiences. The poet's direct address to the painter in Ashbery's Self- Portrait in a Convex Mirror is a reminder of the two separate worlds that are the mirror images of each other. While Whitman left his Song Of Myself without a final period, Ashbery directs his readers to a mélange of contexts, fragmentary episodes, moments, descriptive scenes and images that defy any definite conclusion.

The biographical information show that Ashbery wanted to be a painter in high school. He was awarded an anthology of 'Twentieth Century Poetry' for winning an essay contest. His desire to be a painter got transformed after reading this work. Then he entered college to concentrate on 'English'. While studying in Harvard University he wrote a thesis on W. H. Auden and scrupulously commented on the works of surrealist painters like Max Ernst and Joan Miro. Like painting, Ashbery's poems are often a distorted and subjective view of reality. His experience as an art critic has instilled him with the sensitivity to the interrelatedness of visual and verbal artistic mediums. Critics find it difficult to locate any key passage or interpretative center/ node around which the heterogeneous elements of the poem are woven. He is grouped with the "New York School of Poets", who extended the frontier of composing after the Pound- Eliot revolution. The other important poets in this group are Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch etc. Their style is passionate, experimental, and innovative. Ashbery finds coherence among dispersed particulars and interpretive codes. He dramatizes shifts of emotional levels, surge of thought, and resonance of feelings. However, unlike most of the "New York School of Poets", he is not solely interested in language games. Instead of referring to abstract ideas, he deals with lived situations and the open- ended verses are more compatible to express the individual mind. His familiar and textureless language reflects the changing moods of the persona. For Ashbery writing is an event, a praxis that aims at dismantling an established ideology, to broaden the horizons of meaning, to return to the world of human beings from the specific domains of the abstract and the conventional. This approach to poetry was emulated by some of the contemporary poets like Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Leslie Scalapino, Ann Lauterbach, James Tate etc. who are popularly known as the "LANGUAGE POETS".

Ashbery prefers the aesthetics of indeterminacy. He deconstructs "pure Affirmation", that "doesn't affirm anything" as stated in Self- Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Unlike the realists like Auden who considers that the ulterior purpose of poetry or any work of art is to "disenchant and disintoxicate", Ashbery's work sometimes purposely lack logic. He is one of the last romantics in American poetry, as Yeats or Dylan Thomas was in British poetry. Ashbery is somewhat akin in temperament to the romantics and advocates the Emersonian prophesy of spontaneity and autonomy of imagination and transcendentalism.  Though Ashbery's style is postmodernist and is one of the last "Avant Garde", yet he appropriates the romantic sensibility and the credo of subjectivism. Harold Bloom tries to draw a parallelism between Ashbery and his precursor Wallace Stevens. Ashbery appropriates and replicates the theme of "mythology of self", which was inaugurated by Stevens. The voice of an individual passing through the different phases of life, his dilemma, discontent, resolutions are presented through blurred visions, pieces of conversation, pastiche. In Three Poems, he uses the metaphor of coming to a fork in the road, which rejoins at the end. The admixture of reality and fantasy completes the journey of the mind. The regions through which we pass are constantly modifying us.He highlights the problem of the individuals who are, "forced to fret over insufficient details related to large / Unfinished concepts that can never bring themselves to the point / Of being…" The notion of arriving at some final resting place is a contradiction of fundamental logic of "indeterminate intervals" that forms the locus of this volume of poems. Yet he desires to rejuvenate the world with a recovered sense of feeling. The entire gamut of his work represents a trope of the human world. He places individuals in diverse social situations and engages with the question: "how to live, what to do", in Grand Galop. He deals with the contradictory themes of death and resurrection in A Mask for Janus. In the two later volumes, Shadow Train and A Wave, the dramatic tension between retreating and going on is intensified. His Some Trees (1956) was selected by W. H. Auden for the "Yale Younger Poet Series," and he became a prolific poet with his most recent volume Planisphere (2009). The title of his last volume of poem is from Andrew Marvel's the "Definition of Love" where two perfect lovers are kept apart by goddess Fate since their perfection can challenge her power of vengeance. His art criticisms are collected in Reported Sightings (1989) and he has commented on six poets in his book Other Traditions (2000). He has edited a series entitled The Best American Poetry (1988) and he has also written a novel in collaboration with James Schuyler in 1969, A Nest of Ninnies.


1) 25 May 2009 <http://www.writing.upenn.edu/afilreis/88/what-is-poetry.html>

Bibliographical References:

Altieri, Charles. Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. New York: OUP, 1984. Print.

___. "John Ashbery and the Challenge of Postmodernism in the Visual Arts". Critical Inquiry 14.4 (1988): 803-830.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Contemporary Poets. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Print.

Elliott, Emory, Ed. Columbia Literary History of the United States. NY: Columbia, 1988. Print.

Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry. U.K. (Manchester): Manchester University Press, 2001.

Hoffman, Daniel, ed. Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Print.

Lehman, David, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery. London: Cornell UP, 1980. Print.

Lehman, David, ed. Ecstatic Occcasions Expedient Forms. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Print.

Lehman, David. The Last Avant- Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. New York: Doubleday, 1998. Print.

Shapiro, David. John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Shetley, Vernon. After The Death of Poetry: Poetry and Audience in Contemporary America. London (Durham): Duke University Press, 1993. Print.

Toste, Ernesto Suarez. "The tension is in the concept: John Ashbery's Surrealism". 18 January 2009 <http.//www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2342/is_1_38>

| Top |Primary Works

Ashbery, John Lawrence.

___. Some Trees. Connecticut: Yale U P, 1956.

The tennis court oath; a book of poems. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 1962. PS3501 .S475 T4

Rivers and mountains. NY: Ecco P, 1977, 1966. PS3501 S475 R5

Three Madrigals. NY: Poet's Press, 1968.

 Fragment: Poem. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1969.

 A New Spirit. N Y: Adventures in Poetry, 1970.

The double dream of spring. NY: Dutton, 1970. PS3501.S475 D6

Self-portrait in a convex mirror: poems. NY: Viking P, 1975. PS3501 S475 S4

Houseboat days: poems. NY: Viking P, 1977. PS3501 S475 H6

Three poems. NY: Penguin Books, 1978, 1972. PS3501.S475 T5

As we know: poems. NY: Viking P, 1979. PS3501.S475 A9

Shadow train: poems. NY: Viking P, 1981. PS3501.S475 S5

Apparitions. Northridge, California: Lord John Press, 1981.

A wave: poems. NY: Viking P, 1984. PS3501 .S475 W3

April galleons: poems. NY: Viking, 1987. PS3501 .S475 A86

Flow chart. NY: Knopf, 1991. PS3501 .S475 F5

Hotel Lautreamont. NY: Knopf, 1992. PS3501 .S475 H59

And the stars were shining. NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994. PS3501 .S475 A83

Can you hear, bird: poems. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995. PS3501 .S475 C36

The mooring of starting out: the first five books of poetry. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco P, 1997. PS3501 .S475 A6

Wakefulness: poems. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. PS3501 .S475 W26

Girls on the Run. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

Your name here: poems. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000. PS3501 .S475 Y68

 Chinese Whispers. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Where Shall I Wander? NY: Ecco Press, 2005.

A World Country: New Poems. NY: Ecco Press/HarperCollins, 2007.

Notes from the Air. NY: HarperCollins, 2008.

Planisphere: New Poems. New York: Ecco Press/HarperCollin, 2009.

| Top |Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Special Ashbery Issue: CONJUNCTIONS: 49, Fall 2007

Altieri, Charles. Self and sensibility in contemporary American poetry. NY: Cambridge UP, 1984. PS325 .A38

Davies, Catherine A. Whitman's Queer Children: America's Homosexual Epics. NY: Continuum, 2012.

DuBois, Andrew. Ashbery's Forms of Attention. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2006.

Fredman, Stephen. Poet's prose: the crisis in American verse. NY: Cambridge UP, 1983. PS323.5 .F7

Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry. NY: Palgrave, 2000.

Malinowska, Barbara. Dynamics of Being, Space, and Time in the Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz and John Ahsbery. NY: Peter Lang, 2000.

Murphy, Margueritte S. A Tradition of Subversion: The Prose Poem in English from Wilde to Ashbery. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.

Quinney, Laura. The Poetics of Disappointment: Wordsworth to Ashbery. Charlottesville, VA: UP of Virginia, 1999.

Schultz, Susan M. ed. The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1995.

Shoptaw, John. On the outside looking out: John Ashbery's poetry. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994. PS3501 .S475 Z86

Steinman, Lisa M. "'Beauty, Resonance, Integrity': Creative Rereadings of Wordsworth in Twentieth-Century American Poetry." in Davies, Damian Walford and Turley, Richard M. eds. The Monstrous Debt: Modalities of Romantic Influence in Twentieth-Century Literature. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2006.

Vendler, Helen. Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.

Vincent, John E. John Ashbery and You: His Later Books. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2007.

Ward, Geoff. Statutes of liberty: the NY School of Poets. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993. PS255 .N5 W37

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 10: John Ashbery." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: http://www.paulreuben.website/pal/chap10/ashbery.html (provide page date or date of your login). 

| Top |