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How Should We Grieve John Ashbery?

The poet died this week at 90.

Giovanni Giovannetti / Courtesy Effigie

John Ashbery died on Sunday at the age of 90. While his death of a nonagenarian can hardly be described as a shock, there is still something unsettling, for his admirers, about losing someone who has been such a part of one’s intellectual life for so long, and who has seemed so reliably present. I expected him to live to 100, at least. 

Ashbery was born in 1927 in Rochester, New York, “the holy land / Of western New York state,” as he called it, with apologies to Sir Walter Raleigh, in one of his poems. He was a precocious child—in 1941 he appeared on the Quiz Kids radio program, and won—but a solitary and introverted one. From 1945 to 1949 he attended Harvard, where he met the poets Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch; these three, along with James Schuyler, formed the nucleus of what is often known as the “New York School of Poets.” Ashbery was never very fond of the group label, though he was fond of the group.

The influence of French poetry, and particularly of Surrealism, on Ashbery’s work was enormous, and from 1955 to 1965 he lived in Paris, researching a never-completed study of the oddball French novelist Raymond Roussel and helping to edit two important magazines: Art and Literature and Locus Solus. In this period, too, he began translating French poetry, including the work of his then-partner Pierre Martory. 

It was after he returned to New York in 1965, however, that Ashbery’s star really began to rise. Rivers and Mountains (1966) was nominated for a National Book Award, and The Double Dream of Spring (1970) was praised extravagantly by, among others, Harold Bloom, who wrote that “the chances are very good that John Ashbery will come to dominate the last third of the century as Yeats dominated the first.” In 1975, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle prize: the so-called “triple crown.” From this point onward, Ashbery became a staple on the literary awards circuit (the scholar James English estimates that Ashbery had won more awards than any other American poet) as well as a household name in MFA programs across the country and a key influence for younger generations of writers. In 2008, he became the first living poet to have his work collected by the Library of America; in 2011, he received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama. 

As much as anyone could, Ashbery straddled divides within American poetry culture. He was a card-carrying, fully paid up member of the avant-garde, and an immense influence on the Language poets, latter-day members of the New York School, and other experimental writers. But his work’s elegance, polish, and surface beauty have appealed to formalists as well, and critics like Bloom and Helen Vendler have done much to situate Ashbery within the Romantic tradition of Whitman, Keats, and Stevens. Once controversial, his work eventually became consensus: it sometimes seemed as if he were the only poet everyone could agree on. The fact that he was such a good citizen of the Republic of Letters, supportive of younger writers, and indifferent to scene politics, helped endear him even to those who may have found his work baffling. 

Ashbery’s career has been notable for both its length and its productivity. After a relatively slow start, he settled into a consistent pattern of publishing a new volume of poems every other year or so. There is now such a huge quantity of Ashbery books—28, by my count—that his once-manageable oeuvre has started to feel as disorienting and capacious as the individual poems that make it up. Two greatest-hits volumes compiled by Ashbery himself—Selected Poems (1985) and Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems (2007)—are good places to start getting one’s bearings, though the latter is now ten years and five books out of date.

Around the turn of the twenty-first century it became a commonplace for reviewers to observe that Ashbery, in this or that late-period book, was “contemplating his own mortality,” or words to that effect. But the truth is an awareness of death was present in much of Ashbery’s work from quite early on. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror contains a poem entitled “Fear of Death”; the opening lines of his next book, Houseboat Days, are “One died, and the soul was wrenched out / Of the other in life.” Several of the poems in his 1984 collection A Wave were inspired by the experience of a near-fatal spinal disorder. That book’s opening poem, “At North Farm,” takes its name from a location near the entrance of the underworld in the Finnish folk-epic the Kalevala; Vendler speculated that it described the Angel of Death. The title poem in the book begins with three lines that seem to describe a vision of death and afterlife: “To pass through pain and not know it, / A car door slamming in the night. / To emerge on an invisible terrain.”

Even Ashbery’s early poems are constantly reckoning with death, often from several perspectives at once. “The Ecclesiast,” for instance, from Rivers and Mountains, contains this characteristic passage:

             Then everything, in her belief, was to be submerged

And soon. There was no life you could live out to its end

            And no attitude which, in the end, would save you.

            The monkish and the frivolous alike were to be trapped in

death’s capacious claw

            But listen while I tell you about the wallpaper—

These lines are typical of how Ashbery’s narrators contemplate the end: a sober fatalism (“everything … was to be submerged”) gives way to comic hyperbole (“death’s capacious claw”) before getting distracted by décor.

Of course, no one Ashbery poem is about death, or any other one thing. “Poetry does not have subject matter, because it is the subject,” he once said. But those of us who have loved his work will find, returning to it, plenty of resources to help us process his loss. In his great elegy “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” W.H. Auden famously wrote: “The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.” It’s a beautiful way to describe the death of a beloved writer, and it feels especially appropriate for Ashbery, who often described a similar process of introjection—the way one human being becomes part of the mind of another—not as a feature of mourning but as part of the experience of daily life. “I have / Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live / Which is like thinking in another language,” he writes in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.” “Everything / Depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.” May John Ashbery live his intermittent life in the thoughts of his admirers for years to come.