John Ashbery, Celebrated And Experimental Poet Of The 20th Century, Dies At 90

Sep 3, 2017
Originally published on September 7, 2017 7:59 am

Updated at 8:20 p.m. ET

John Ashbery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet known for his surrealist, confounding works, has died at age 90.

The poet died of natural causes in his Hudson, N.Y., home early Sunday, confirms Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the publicist for a new Ashbery biography.

His 1975 collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, what many consider his masterpiece, won a rare trifecta of the literary world: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize. The title poem was a meditation on Parmigianino's 16th century Italian painting of the same name. In 2012, Former President Barack Obama recognized Ashbery with the National Humanities Medal.

From an early age, his tendency to reject poetic conventions evolved under the influences of music, like John Cage, and visual art, particularly that of abstract expressionist painters.

As The New York Times identified the relationship, "If the verse is challenging, that was in part Mr. Ashbery's aim — to compel readers to rethink their presumptions about poetry, just as the Abstract Expressionists asked viewers to discard their preconceptions about painting."

"My ambition was to be a painter," Ashbery told Peter Stitt of the Paris Review. He took painting classes in his preteen years, but "found that poetry was easier than painting." Meanwhile, he began consuming modern poetry.

He cut his teeth on a Louis Untermeyer anthology, he tells Stitt. In the way many critics found Ashbery's poetry indecipherable, "I didn't understand much of it at first ... I guess it was just a desire to emulate that started me writing poetry."

While his enigmatic poems confounded literary critics and peers, his experimental style reinvented literature for a generation of writers.

Ashbery's first book puzzled admired poet W.H. Auden. (Ashbery considered Auden "one of the writers who most formed my language as a poet.") As the Times notes, when Auden selected Ashbery as the Yale Younger Poets Prize winner for Some Trees (1956), he later "confessed that he had not understood a word of it."

In fact, Ashbery joked to The Associated Press in 2008 that, were he to verbify his last name, it would mean "to confuse the hell out of people."

His unorthodox work, Ashbery once told the London Times, is fluctuant because life itself is: "I don't find any direct statements in life. My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness come to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don't think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation. My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life."

He described poetry as a "marginal occupation" within society, in a 2005 interview with Weekend Edition host Scott Simon. Critics have told him they've found his work inaccessible to a mainstream audience, he said, but his themes regarding the human experience, such as doubt and uncertainty, address many.

"I wish that they were as accessible to as many people as possible," he told Simon. "They are not, I wouldn't say, private. What they are is about the privacy of all of us and the difficulty of our own thinking and coming to conclusions. And in that way they are, I think, accessible if anybody cares to access them."

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