NEWS: Poet John Ashbery Dead at 90

The American poet John Ashbery died today at age 90. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet was born in Rochester, NY and died in Hudson, NY. His works included the award-winning collections Some Trees (1956), Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), A Wave (1984) and Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems (2007).

So I cradle this average violin that knows
Only forgotten showtunes, but argues
The possibility of free declamation anchored
To a dull refrain, the year turning over on itself
In November, with the spaces among the days
More literal, the meat more visible on the bone.

from “Street Musicians” (1977).

A Postmodern voice in American poetry whose work is often associated with Surrealism, Ashbery also worked as a copywriter, art critic and art journalism editor. He studied at Harvard University and received his master’s degree from Columbia University, settling in the greater New York City area for most of his adult life.

Photo by David Shankbone.

Despite the early promise of receiving the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956 for Some Trees, Ashbery’s reputation as a poet was not solidified until the publication of Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror in 1973. The book received all three of the major American poetry awards: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was a friend of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Jane Freilicher, through whose influence his poetry veered into modernism, surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. New York City loomed large in many of his poems.

In the 1970s, Ashbery began teaching at Brooklyn College, followed by a two-decade stint with Bard College and a visiting appointment at Wesleyan University following his retirement from Bard in 2008.

Writing a decade ago, Langdon Hammer praised Ashbery’s prolific writing, saying, “No American poet has had a larger, more diverse vocabulary, not Whitman, not Pound.” Much of the poet’s life was private, even as many of his poems embraced themes of American life.

Ashbery is survived by his husband David Kermani.