lunes, 4 de septiembre de 2017

John Ashbery / One of the greatest 20th-century American poets.



John Ashbery
(1927 - 2017)

John Ashbery was recognized as one of the greatest 20th-century American poets. He  won nearly every major American award for poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Griffin International Award, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Ashbery's poetry challenges its readers to discard all presumptions about the aims, themes, and stylistic scaffolding of verse in favor of a literature that reflects upon the limits of language and the volatility of consciousness. In the New Criterion, William Logan noted: "Few poets have so cleverly manipulated, or just plain tortured, our soiled desire for meaning. [Ashbery] reminds us that most poets who give us meaning don't know what they're talking about." The New York Times Book Review essayist Stephen Koch characterized Ashbery's voice as "a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with a weird pulsating rhythm that fluctuates like a wave between peaks of sharp clarity and watery droughts of obscurity and languor." In 2008, critic Langdon Hammer remarked, "No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery."
Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees (1956), won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The competition was judged by W.H. Auden, who famously confessed later that he hadn’t understood a word of the winning manuscript. Ashbery published a spate of successful and influential collections in the 1960s and ‘70s, including The Tennis Court Oath (1962), The Double Dream of Spring (1970), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) and Houseboat Days (1977). Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, considered by many to be Ashbery’s masterpiece, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, an unprecedented triple-crown in the literary world. Essentially a meditation on Francesco Parmigianino’s painting "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," the narrative poem showcases the influence of visual art on Ashbery’s style, as well as introducing one of his major subjects: the nature of the creative act, particularly as it applies to the writing of poetry. This is also, as Peter Stitt noted, a major theme of Houseboat Days, a volume acclaimed by Marjorie Perloff in Washington Post Book World as "the most exciting, most original book of poems to have appeared in the 1970s." Stitt maintained in the Georgia Review that "Ashbery has come to write, in the poet's most implicitly ironic gesture, almost exclusively about his own poems, the ones he is writing as he writes about them." Roger Shattuck made a similar point in the New York Review of Books: "Nearly every poem in Houseboat Days shows that Ashbery's phenomenological eye fixes itself not so much on ordinary living and doing as on the specific act of composing a poem. … Thus every poem becomes an ars poetica of its own condition."
Critics noted how Ashbery's poetry took shape under the influence of abstract expressionism, a movement in modern American painting stressing nonrepresentational methods of picturing reality. "Modern art was the first and most powerful influence on Ashbery," Helen McNeil declared in the Times Literary Supplement. "When he began to write in the 1950s, American poetry was constrained and formal while American abstract-expressionist art was vigorously taking over the heroic responsibilities of the European avant garde." True to this influence, Ashbery's poems, according to Fred Moramarco in the Journal of Modern Literature, are a "verbal canvas" upon which the poet freely applies the techniques of expressionism. Ashbery's experience as an art critic in France during the 1950s and ‘60s, and in New York for magazines like New York and the Partisan Review strengthened his ties to abstract expressionism. But Ashbery's poetry, as critics observed, evolved under a variety of influences besides modern art, becoming in the end the expression of a voice unmistakably his own. Ashbery’s influences include the Romantic tradition in American poetry that progressed from Whitman to Wallace Stevens, the New York School of Poets featuring contemporaries such as Frank O'HaraJames Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch, and the French surrealist writers with whom Ashbery featured in his work as a critic and translator.

Ashbery's style—self-reflexive, multi-phonic, vaguely narrative, full of both pop culture and high allusion—has become "so influential that its imitators are legion," Helen Vendler observed in the New Yorker in 1981. Although even his strongest supporters agreed that his poetry is often difficult to read and willfully difficult to understand, many critics also commented on the manner in which Ashbery's fluid style conveys a major concern in his poetry: the refusal to impose an arbitrary order on a world of flux and chaos. In his verse, Ashbery attempted to mirror the stream of perceptions of which human consciousness is composed. His poetry is open-ended and multi-various because life itself is, he told Bryan Appleyard in the London Times: "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." His poems move, often without continuity, from one image to the next, prompting some critics to praise his expressionist technique and others to become frustrated with his refusal to adhere to traditional approaches to meaning.

Ashbery’s poetry—and its influence on younger poets—remains controversial because of just this split in critical opinion: some critics laud what Paul Auster described in Harper’s as Ashbery’s “ability to undermine our certainties, to articulate so fully the ambiguous zones of our consciousness,” while others deplore his obscurantism and insist that his poems, made up of anything and everything, can mean anything and everything. Reflecting upon the critical response to his poem, "Litany," Ashbery once told Contemporary Authors, "I'm quite puzzled by my work too, along with a lot of other people. I was always intrigued by it, but at the same time a little apprehensive and sort of embarrassed about annoying the same critics who are always annoyed by my work. I'm kind of sorry that I cause so much grief."

W.S. Di Piero described the reaction of critics to Ashbery's style as "amusing. On the one hand are those who berate him for lacking the Audenesque 'censor' (that little editing machine in a poet's head which deletes all superfluous materials) or who accuse him of simply being willfully and unreasonably perverse. On the other hand are those reviewers who, queerly enough, praise the difficulty of Ashbery's verse as if difficulty were a positive literary value in itself, while ignoring what the poet is saying." Helen Vendler offered her summary of the debate in the New Yorker: "It is Ashbery's style that has obsessed reviewers, as they alternately wrestle with its elusive impermeability and praise its power of linguistic synthesis. There have been able descriptions of its fluid syntax, its insinuating momentum, its generality of reference, its incorporation of vocabulary from all the arts and sciences. But it is popularly believed, with some reason, that the style itself is impenetrable. ... An alternative view says that every Ashbery poem is about poetry."
Ever prolific, Ashbery published over 30 books of poetry since 1970. His critically acclaimed collection A Wave (1984) won both the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the Bollingen Prize. The long title poem was regarded as his finest since Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975). Ashbery's second epic poem, Flow Chart, was published in 1991. Lawrence Joseph declared in the Nation that the poem, "more than any of his other books, portrays the essence of Ashbery's process. ... Flow Chart is a catalogue, which Ashbery presents as endlessly expansive and open to interpretation, encompassing within its subject matter—well, as much as the poet may imagine." Ashbery’s next collection, Hotel Lautréamont (1992), was met with mixed critical response. Nicholas Everett noted in the Times Literary Supplement, "Those who expect poetry to evoke a specific experience or event, real or fictional, will always find Ashbery's work frustrating or just dull." He added, "Besides, the essential subjects of Ashbery's poetry—subjectivity and time ... are themselves general and elusive; and though in passing it says a good deal about them, its means are in the end mimetic rather than discursive."
In Ashbery's later works, such as Girls on the Run (1999), Chinese Whispers (2002), Where Shall I Wander? (2005), A Worldly Country (2007), Quick Question (2012), and Breezeway (2015), critics have noted an infusion of elegy as the poet contemplates aging and death. In the Nation, Calvin Bedientstated: "For all his experimentation, Ashbery writes (as the important writers have always done) about happiness and woe. If the woe he knows is treated comically, it's still woe." While praising the poems in Chinese Whispers for their "light touch and consistent pacing," Library Journal reviewer Barbara Hoffert noted that in "these autumnal pieces a sense of calm predominates" as "things repeatedly fall, ebb, dissipate, or descend." In the Times Literary SupplementStephen Burt compared late-Ashbery to Wallace Stevens, another poet of old age: "if [Ashbery’s poems] do not even seek the kinds of formal completion we find in Stevens, they make up for it in their range of tones—befuddled, affectionate, bubbly, chastened, sombre, alarmed, and then befuddled again." But, Burt declares, "Ashbery seems more contemporary, more topical, now than when he started writing, though the culture has changed around him more than he has changed: he has become the poet of our multi-tasking, interruption-filled, and entertainment-seeking days."
Mark Ford, also writing in the Times Literary Supplement, compared Ashbery's poetry to Walt Whitman's. "Like Whitman's, it is essentially a means of involving the reader in the poem on what Whitman calls 'equal terms.' ... Ashbery's evasions might be seen as motivated by a similar desire to achieve a greater—and more democratic—intimacy by short-circuiting conventional modes of address." Nicholas Jenkins concluded in the New York Times Book Review that Ashbery's poetry "appeals not because it offers wisdom in a packaged form, but because the elusiveness and mysterious promise of his lines remind us that we always have a future and a condition of meaningfulness to start out toward." In 2008, the Library of America published John Ashbery: Collected Poems, 1956-1987, the first collection of a living poet ever published by the series. And in 2017, the first volume of Karin Roffman's biography of Ashbery was published, titled
The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life.
Ashbery’s art criticism was collected in Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987 (1989). His series of Norton lectures at Harvard covered six poets who had “probably influenced” his own work, including John Clare, Raymond Roussel and Laura Riding. It was published as Other Traditions: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 2000. His Selected Prose was published in 2005. He has translated numerous French poets, including Pierre Martory’s The Landscapist (2008), and his French translations were assembled in the two-volume collection Collected French Translations: Poetry (2014). In addition to his numerous awards, John Ashbery was the poet laureate of New York State from 2001 to 2003. He also served as chancellor of the Academy of American Poetsand has been the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College. He taught at the university level for many years, including at Brooklyn College, Harvard University, and Bard College.
Considered for many years to be the leading U.S. candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was never awarded the honor. He died at his home in Hudson, New York, in 2017. His husband, David Kermani, said his death was from natural causes.

John Ashbery in Acapulco in 1955, his ‘annus mirabilis’.

The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life by Karin Roffman – review

A brilliantly researched study explores the poet’s difficult relationship with his farmer father and his guilt-ridden need to conceal his sexuality

he American poet John Ashbery, who turns 90 this month, is often figured as the epitome of cosmopolitan sophistication – as a refined but radical innovator whose open-ended lyrics and narrative-free long poems refract and dramatise the anxieties of postmodernity. Doyen of the avant garde Ashbery may have become, and yet, as Karin Roffman demonstrates in this illuminating account of his early life, the originality of his poetic idiom owes as much to his provincial rural upbringing, and to the compound of guilt and nostalgia that was its legacy, as it does to his embrace of the experimental in New York and Paris.

Ashbery’s parents, Chester and Helen, ran a fruit farm about a mile south of Lake Ontario, where winters are long and snowy. Chet, as his father was known, could be ill tempered. “He used to wallop me a great deal,” Ashbery recalled in an interview, “so I felt always as though I were living on the edge of a live volcano.” I’ve often wondered if the evasiveness of Ashbery’s poetry, its habit of tiptoeing or sliding around a crisis in states ranging from mild apprehension to ominous foreboding, reflects the simmering domestic tensions of these early years.

Young Ashbery escaped whenever he could to the reassuring home of his maternal grandparents, Henry and Addie Lawrence, who were more interested in artistic and intellectual matters. Indeed, since there was no kindergarten in Sodus, the small town nearest to the Ashbery homestead, he spent much of the first seven years of his life living in Rochester with Addie and Henry, who was a professor of physics at the university. It was there he developed a taste for reading, poring over The Child’s Book of Poetry in his grandparents’ well-stocked library, as well as Things to Make and Things to Do, a volume affectionately parodied in his first great long poem, “The Skaters”.

Alas, on his grandfather’s retirement in 1934, the Lawrences moved permanently to their lakeside cottage in Pultneyville, and Ashbery was returned to his father’s uncertain temper, which had been put under further strain by the onset of the Great Depression. Roffman eloquently sketches his isolated, restless days on the farm, his dislike of the chores that devolved to a farmer’s son (no budding Robert Frost he), and his sense of failing to measure up to his parents’ expectations. His younger brother Richard, born in 1931, fitted in better with what Chet and Helen had hoped for from a male offspring: “He was interested in sports and life on the farm,” Ashbery later commented of his younger sibling, who died aged 10 of leukaemia, “and would probably have been straight and married and had children, and not been the disappointment that I undoubtedly was to my parents”.
The wonderful late poem, “The History of My Life”, directly addresses his response to this loss: “Once upon a time there were two brothers. / Then there was only one: myself. / I grew up fast, before learning to drive, / even. There was I: a stinking adult.” It is perversely appropriate that he uses that favourite adjective of children, “stinking”, to describe the unacceptable aspects of his adulthood. Chet tellingly had framed and prominently displayed a picture of Richard in the act of throwing a football as a treasured image of his ideal son.
Although Ashbery is the least confessional of poets, the upstate New York landscapes and lake vistas of his early years are often filtered into his poems in obliquely revealing ways. His longest poem, Flow Chart (1991), was begun in the wake of his mother’s death, and features numerous passages that evoke his life on the farm, or at his grandparents’ houses in Rochester and then Pultneyville (where Ashbery spent a series of idyllic summers), as well as elliptical characterisations of the tedium and excitements of childhood and adolescence. As Roffman demonstrates in close readings of poems such as the very early “Lost Cove”, Ashbery’s need to make his works present generic or “one-size-fits-all” transcriptions of experience, applicable to anyone, never wholly obscures their origins in the personal.

She also suggests that the cryptic aspects of his work can be related back to his dawning awareness of his homosexuality. From 1941 to 1945 he kept a series of diaries, which he strongly suspected were periodically read by his mother. Shortly before his 14th birthday, he and a male friend of the same age hugged and kissed and fondled each other, and he ejaculated for the first time. This event was commemorated in his journal with a fractured sequence of words that would not look out of place in his most disjunctive volume of poems, The Tennis Court Oathof 1962: “tulip garden / old dutch / home all our own until / recall once more / fashion in shows / dog cast in / days before …” This reads like an embryo version of a poem such as “Leaving the Atocha Station”, which, with its reference to “mouthing the root”, is in fact rather more explicit.

There was little chance of his mother decoding such a seemingly random set of phrases, although she may have wondered what her son was hiding. But when, in 1945, he inadvertently left an unsealed letter describing in bawdy detail his attraction to a classmate, one Phil Van Dusen, on his bedside table, whatever suspicions she had were confirmed. A hysterical outburst followed. Helen promised not to tell his father, but Roffman discovered in the course of her researches that she did so. Deeply dismayed, Chet sought counsel from a family friend, but never raised the subject with his aberrant but evidently gifted son – Ashbery was at Harvard by this stage.

The strange mixture of telling and not telling, of open secrets never explicitly mentioned, that is fundamental to the hypnotic, riddling appeal of Ashbery’s poetry, surely evolved out of his fraught and guilt-ridden need to conceal his sexuality from his parents, a need complicated by a counter-longing to disclose all.
At Harvard he met the poets Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, and was elected to the board of the Harvard Advocate, the art and literary magazine. He also composed some extraordinarily good poems, including “The Painter” and “Some Trees”, which – on the insistence of WH Auden, who kickstarted Ashbery’s publishing career by choosing him for the Yale Younger Poets award of 1956 – would become the title poem of his first volume. Both in Harvard and then in New York, where he lived from 1949 to 1955, Ashbery found himself in circles of brilliant, artistically inclined and often gay men and women, but seems never to have felt as exuberantly at home in these shifting coteries as the effervescent O’Hara. A portrait by Fairfield Porter of 1952 – one of the many superb illustrations included in this book – presents a slumped and melancholy figure. He fell in love often and deeply, but Roffman records more disappointments and frustrations than triumphs. Until, that is, the annus mirabilis of 1955.
That year he applied for a Fulbright scholarship to go to France, only to be rejected; and submitted his manuscript to Yale, whose first readers deemed it unworthy of Auden’s consideration. In early summer Ashbery departed on holiday to Mexico in low spirits, but on his return found a Fulbright scholar had withdrawn, making a place available for him; and that, through the good offices of poet Chester Kallman, Auden had not only read but chosen his manuscript (at that point simply called Poems) for the Yale Younger Poets prize. The last photo in this entertaining and brilliantly researched book shows a dapper young Ashbery in a smart overcoat on the streets of Montpellier. I think he is almost smiling.

The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc

Selected Bibliography

Breezeway (Ecco, 2015)
Quick Question (Ecco, 2012)
Planisphere (HarperCollins, 2009)
A Worldly Country (Ecco, 2007)
Where Shall I Wander (HarperCollins, 2005)
Chinese Whispers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002)
Your Name Here (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000)
Girls on the Run: A Poem (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999)
Wakefulness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)
Can You Hear, Bird (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995)
And the Stars Were Shining (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994)
Hotel Lautrémont (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)
Flow Chart (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)
April Galleons (Penguin, 1987)
Wave (Viking, 1984)
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Viking, 1975)
Some Trees (Yale University Press, 1956) 
A Nest of Ninnies (Dutton, 1969)
Other Traditions: the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (Harvard University Press, 2000)
Reported Sightings (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989)
Collected French Translations: Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
Collected French Translations: Prose (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

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