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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

John Ashbery
(b. 1927)

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.

In 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.

Ashbery 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.

Many 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.

Yet 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.

David Bergman
Towson University

In the Heath Anthology
The Instruction Manual (1956)
Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape (1970)
As You Came from the Holy Land (1975)

Other Works
Some Trees (1956)
The Tennis Court Oath (1962)
Rivers and Mountains (1966)
A Nest of Ninnies (novel with James Schuyler) (1969)
The Double Dream of Spring (1970)
Three Poems (1972)
Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)
The Vermont Notebook (1975)
Houseboat Days (1978)
Three Plays (1978)
As We Know (1979)
Shadow Train (1981)
A Wave (1984)
Selected Poems (1985)
Spring Galleons (1987)
Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-87 (1989)
Flow Chart (1991)
Hotel L'Autreamont (1993)
And the Stars Were Shining (1994)
Can You Hear, Bird (1995)

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Impossible Music
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.

Secondary Sources

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