John Ashbery, an enigmatic giant of modern poetry whose energy, daring and boundless command of language raised American verse to brilliant and baffling heights, died early Sunday at age 90.
Ashbery, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and often mentioned as a Nobel candidate, died at his home in upstate Hudson. His husband, David Kermani, said his death was from natural causes.
Few poets were so exalted in their lifetimes. Ashbery was the first living poet to have a volume published by the Library of America dedicated exclusively to his work. His 1975 collection, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” was the rare winner of the book world’s unofficial triple crown: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize. In 2011, he was given a National Humanities Medal and credited with changing “how we read poetry.”
Among a generation of poets that included Richard Wilbur, W.S. Merwin and Adrienne Rich, Ashbery stood out for his audacity and for his wordplay, for his modernist shifts between high oratory and everyday chatter, for his humor and wisdom and dazzling runs of allusions and sense impressions.
“No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery,” Langdon Hammer wrote in The New York Times in 2008. “Ashbery’s phrases always feel newly minted; his poems emphasize verbal surprise and delight, not the ways that linguistic patterns restrict us. “
But to love Ashbery it helped to make sense of Ashbery, or least get caught up enough in such refrains as “You are freed/including barrels/heads of the swan/forestry/the night and stars fork” and not to worry about their meaning. Writing for Slate, the critic and poet Meghan O’Rourke advised readers “not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music.” Joan Didion once attended an Ashbery reading simply because she wanted to determine what the poet was writing about.
“I don’t find any direct statements in life,” Ashbery once explained to the Times in London. “My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness comes to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don’t think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation.”
Interviewed by The Associated Press in 2008, Ashbery joked that if he could turn his name into a verb, “to Ashbery,” it would mean “to confuse the hell out of people.”
Ashbery also was a well-regarded translator and critic. At various times, he was the art critic for The New York Herald-Tribune in Europe, New York magazine and Newsweek and the poetry critic for Partisan Review. He translated works by Arthur Rimbaud, Raymond Roussel and numerous other French writers. He was a teacher for many years, including at Brooklyn College, Harvard University and Bard College.
Ashbery was born in Rochester in 1927 and remembered himself as a lonely child and bookish child, haunted by the early death of his younger brother and by his attraction to other boys. Ashbery grew up on an apple farm in the nearby village of Sodus, where it snowed often enough to inspire his first poem, “The Battle,” written at age 8 and a fantasy about a fight between bunnies and snowflakes. He was so satisfied with the poem that he didn’t write another until boarding school, the Deerfield Academy, when his work was published in the school paper.
Meanwhile, he took painting lessons and found new meaning in life, or Life. An article in Life magazine about a surrealist exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art so impressed him that he kept rereading it for years. His mind broadened further at Harvard University, reading W.H. Auden and meeting fellow poet and longtime comrade Kenneth Koch along with Wilbur, Donald Hall, Robert Bly, Frank O’Hara and Robert Creeley. He would be grouped with O’Hara and Koch as part of the avant-garde “New York Poets” movement, although Ashbery believed what they really had in common was living in New York.
His style ranged from rhyming couplets to haiku to blank verse, and his interests were as vast as his gifts for expressing them. He wrote of love, music, movies, the seasons, the city and the country, and was surely the greatest poet ever to compose a hymn to President Warren Harding. As he aged, he became ever more sensitive to mortality and reputation. “How to Continue” was an elegy for the sexual revolution among gays in the 1960s and ’70s, a party turned tragic by the deadly arrival of AIDS, “a gale (that) came and said/it is time to take all of you away.”