| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
John Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, and
attended Harvard University, where he met the poets Frank O’Hara and Kenneth
Koch. Later, these college friends moved to New York City, where they formed
the core of the so-called New York School, noted for its use of popular
imagery, surrealistic turns of thought, and high-spirited humor. After college
Ashbery worked for Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill. “The Instruction
Manual” dates from those days.
1956, awarded a Fulbright fellowship, Ashbery moved to France and worked as an
art journalist, a profession he followed for the next thirty years, writing for
such magazines as Art International, New York, and Newsweek. In 1965, he returned
to New York to become executive editor of Art News. In 1974, he joined the
faculty of Brooklyn College, where he served as Distinguished Professor. He now
teaches at Bard College, where he is the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of
Languages and Literature.
is one of the few poets who has been able to gain the admiration of both
experimental artists and conservative academicians, winning virtually all the
major literary prizes this country has to offer. In “Farm Implements and
Rutabagas in a Landscape,” for example, he sets his outrageous installment of
Popeye in the form of a sestina, one of the most difficult poetic forms. Thus
the poem combines untraditional subject matter with highly traditional form.
of Ashbery’s chief preoccupations are also traditional ones, which he treats in
an unusually charged and avant-garde manner. One important theme running
through virtually all of his work is “mutability,” a central theme of the
English Renaissance and American Transcendentalists. For older writers and
thinkers, the mutable or changeable world of human and natural affairs is
contrasted to the eternal, fixed world of the spirit and ideas. Some poets,
including Wallace Stevens—one of the strongest influences on Ashbery—prefer the
mutable to the eternal.
another topic informed by the theme of mutability is the self: is our
consciousness fixed and unitary or fluid and multiple? Many poems try to catch
the mind even as it changes shape, for what is empathy but the power to take on
another person’s consciousness, or the imagination but the ability to transform
the experiences around us into something very different? Reality for Ashbery is
not a hard, fixed, or certain entity but an awareness brimming with
impressions, memories, and desires which are constantly transformed, repeated,
blurred, and blotted out.
In the Heath Anthology
The Instruction Manual
Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape
As You Came from the Holy Land
The Tennis Court Oath
Rivers and Mountains
A Nest of Ninnies (novel with James Schuyler)
The Double Dream of Spring
Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror
The Vermont Notebook
As We Know
Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-87
And the Stars Were Shining
Can You Hear, Bird
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Reviews and compares Ashbery's Flow Chart and William Bronk's Living Instead.
Modern American Poetry
Criticism on several of Ashberry's poems.
Readings in Contemporary Poetry
Three poems availabe in both text and audio format.
The Academy of American Poets
Provides a biography, selected poems, list of works, and links.
Mutlu Konuk Blasing, Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry: O'Hara, Bishop, Ashbery, and Merrill, 1995
Harold Bloom, ed., John Ashbery, 1985
David Kermani, John Ashbery: A Comprehensive Bibliography, 1976
David Lehman, ed., Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery, 1980
David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde, 1998
Andrew Ross, The Failure of Modernism: Symptoms of American Poetry, 1986
Susan M. Schultz, ed., The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry, 1995
David Shapiro, John Ashbery: An Introduction to His Poetry, 1979
John Shoptaw, On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry, 1994
Peter Stitt, Uncertainty and Plenitude, 1997
Geoff Ward, Statues of Liberty: The New York School of Poetry, 1993