Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Today is the birthday of poet John Ashbery, born in Rochester New York on July 28, 1927, and raised on a farm near Lake Ontario. Ashbery first published poems as a student at Deerfield Academy, including an early poem that was published in Poetry magazine under the name of a classmate who had submitted it without Ashbery's knowledge or permission.

Ashbery attended Harvard University, where he was a classmate of Robert Creeley, Robert Bly and Peter Davison. He was awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956, selected by W. H. Auden, for his first collection Some Trees. In the late 1950s Ashbery's avant-garde work was associated with that of Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler and others as part of the "New York School," a loosely affiliated group of poets whose work was direct, immediate and spontaneous, drawing inspiration from the avant-garde art movements then blossoming in New York City. From the mid-1950s, when he received a Fulbright Fellowship, through 1965, Ashbery lived in France.

During the fall of 1963, Ashbery became acquainted with Andy Warhol during a poetry reading tour that took him to New York. When he returned to live in New York in 1965 he was welcomed with a large party at the Factory. He became close friends with poet Gerard Malanga, Warhol's assistant.

Increasing critical recognition in the 1970s transformed Ashbery from an obscure avant-garde experimentalist into one of America's most influential poets. His 1975 book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won all three major American literary awards - the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In the early 1970s he began teaching at Brooklyn College, then moved to Bard College, where he was a Professor of Languages and Literature until 2008 when he retired. He was the Poet Laureate of New York state from 2001 to 2003, and also served for many years as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Ashbery's poems vary from self-consciously difficult to eloquently prosaic. He often employs a gentle and familiar tone, though one can find voices in his work from news reporting, advertising, bureaucracy, business memos, scientific reports, newspapers, psychology textbooks, and more. He plays often with juxtapositions of colloquial language and soaring grace, sometimes shifting quickly from one mode to the other. Ashbery once said that his goal was "to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about."

Mottled Tuesday

Something was about to go laughably wrong,
whether directly at home or here,
on this random shoal pleading with its eyes
till it too breaks loose, caught in a hail of references.
I’ll add one more scoop
to the pile of retail.

Hey, you’re doing it, like I didn’t tell you
to, my sinking laundry boat, point of departure,
my white pomegranate, my swizzle stick.
We’re leaving again of our own volition
for bogus patterned plains streaked by canals,
maybe. Amorous ghosts will pursue us
for a time, but sometimes they get, you know, confused and
forget to stop when we do, as they continue to populate this
fertile land with their own bizarre self-imaginings.
Here’s hoping the referral goes tidily, O brother.
Chime authoritatively with the pop-ups and extras.
Keep your units pliable and folded,
the recourse a mere specter, like you have it coming to you,
awash with the new day and its abominable antithesis,
OK? Don’t be able to make that distinction.

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