Ashbery was lauded for his unorthodox writing style, which included poetry that was multi-phonic, vaguely narrative, and littered with references and allusions to pop culture. He published over twenty volumes during his lifetime, which enabled him to win nearly every major literary award in poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.
Here’s what you need to know about Ashbery, his personal life, and his legendary career:
1. He Graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1949
Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York in 1927, where it is said that he developed a love for writing at an early age. He published a handful of poems in Poetry Magazine and a piece of short fiction in his high school newspaper, the Deerfield Scroll. In an interview with The Paris Review, Ashbery reflected on this formative time in his life:
I don’t think I ever decided on a career as a poet. I began by writing a few little verses, but I never thought any of them would be published or that I would go on to publish books. I was in high school at the time and hadn’t read any modern poetry. Then in a contest I won a prize in which you could choose different books; the only one which seemed appealing was Untermeyer’s anthology, which cost five dollars, a great deal of money. That’s how I began reading modern poetry, which wasn’t taught in the schools then, especially in rural schools like the one I attended.
He would later attend college at Harvard University, where he graduated cum laude in 1949. He wrote his senior thesis on the poetry of W.H. Auden, one of his literary heroes. That same year, he published his first serious piece, a poem titled Furioso.
“That was a major event in my life because, even though it was a relatively small magazine,” he said, “It did take me beyond the confines of the college. But it was hard to follow that up with other publications, and it really wasn’t until my late twenties that I could submit things with some hope of them getting accepted.”
2. He Began His Career as an Editor & Literary Critic
Ashbery spent the first portion of his literary career as an editor and a critic. He was an editor of Art and Literature magazine between 1964–67, as well as the art editor for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune and a critic for Art International from 1960-65. During this time, Ashbery also translated French murder mysteries to max extra cash on the side.
“I was never interested in doing art criticism at all —I’m not sure that I am even now,” he explained in 1983, “Trained art historians would not write reviews for five dollars, which is what they were paying when I began. I needed some bread at the time—this was in 1957 when I was thirty—and my friends who were already writing for ARTnews suggested that I do it too.”
Ashbery added “I didn’t want to do [it] very much, but as so often when you exhibit reluctance to do something, people think you must be very good at it. If I had set out to be an art critic, I might never have succeeded.”
3. His 1976 Poem ‘Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror’ is Considered a Masterpiece of 20th Century Literature
While he received critical recognition for his work in the 1960s, including an Ingram Merrill Foundation Fellowship, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Ashbery’s work began to turn heads in the literary mainstream. His collection of poems, Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, became an instant success in 1976, winning the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
“It was a great surprise,” he told The Guardian in 2006, “Then it became common knowledge, months before the official announcement, that I was going to win the Pulitzer poetry prize as well. I went to the National Book Award presentation ceremony anyway, and when my name was read out [as winner] I was caught in probably the only spontaneous photograph of me that exists. But it obviously made people think I was someone to be reckoned with.”
4. He Taught at Several Colleges in New York, Where He Was poet laureate
In addition to his celebrated literary career, Ashbery also taught courses at various colleges in New York. He began teaching at Brooklyn College in the 1970s, where he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In the following decade, he moved to Bard College, where he served as the Professor of Languages and Literature until his retirement in 2008. In an interview with Daniel Kane, Ashbery reflected on the difference between teaching his students traditional poetry structure and his own, idiosyncratic work.
“There would be no recipe for doing this-just free associating, which is basically what I’m doing when I write. I use the poem as a sort of launching pad for free associations.”He went on to explain the importance of leaving a poem’s importance up to the reader: “It’s okay to interpret poetry in a variety of ways. In fact, that’s the only way poetry is read, I think. We all interpret poetry according to what we’ve experienced. Therefore everybody’s interpretation is going to differ from everybody else’s.”
5. His Husband David Kermani Was Also His Bibliographer
Ashbery met David Kermani in 1970, when he was 42 and Kermani was 23. They stayed together until Ashbery’s death.
In an interview with Brooklyn Rail in 2016, he reflected on their relationship: “It changed my life my making me try to be less distracted and lazy and helping me to do the work that I wanted to do. And also making it easier for me to do it, because he’s handled so many practical aspects of my life. We’re sort of complete opposites, and are attracted by the oppositeness of the other.”
For the past decade, Ashbery and Kermani have lived in Hudson, New York, where the latter continues to work as Ashbery’s bibliographer. In an interview with The Observer in 2013, writer M.H. Miller described Kermani as a “small, spry man in his ’60s.”