Portrait in a Crimson Mirror: JOHN ASHBERY ’49

Reading a poem by John Ashbery ’49 for the first time feels like walking into the room of a stranger. The space is mysterious; the language, unfamiliar. There is some sort of order, but it is known only to the owner. Slowly, though, orienting details emerge. Ashbery’s words take on a reassuring rhythm, thrumming steadily, visually, against the walls of the mind. Gradually one gets one’s bearings, locating oneself within the discursive beauty. “How does it feel to be outside and inside at the same time, / The delicious feeling of the air contradicting and secretly abetting / The interior warmth?” asks Ashbery in “The Bungalows,” lines that could apply to his work itself.

Ashbery’s experimental tendencies once marked him as a figure of the avant-garde, but his enigmatic, intensely introspective brand of poetry has been receiving much popular acclaim of late. A bound Library of America edition anthologized his collected works in 2008, an honor accorded to the likes of Emerson and Whitman, and a course setting his work alongside Philip Larkin’s was offered at Harvard this spring. To top it off, yesterday President Faust presented Ashbery, now 81 years old, with the 2009 Harvard Arts Medal for “excellence in the arts and contributions to education and the public good through arts.”

The tributes to his work as a cohesive whole are deserved. Despite divergences in thematic and stylistic approach over the decades, there is a kind of unity to his lifetime oeuvre. Ashbery feels that it has evolved to become “more and more like itself.”

“I look at old poems of mine and they seem very much like the recent ones, except the recent ones have a resonance that comes from having lived so many years,” he says. “But there is a family resemblance among them.”

It wasn’t always so clear that a career in writing was Ashbery’s calling. In high school, he wanted to be a painter, until he was awarded an anthology of twentieth-century poetry for winning an essay contest. Reading the work was a transformative experience, and he entered college determined to concentrate in English.

Ashbery recalls his years at Harvard fondly as a “particularly happy period” in his life, where for the first time he met others as interested in the arts as he was. Once on campus, he gravitated to various literary extracurriculars, including the Harvard Advocate, for which he edited the poetry section, and the Signet Society, which he remembers as a “nice, genteel place to drop in for lunch.”

Academically, he received a broad education, participating in one of Harvard’s first poetry workshops and immersing himself in the work of Surrealist painters Max Ernst and Joan Miró in a class on 20th century art. Ashbery did write a thesis, on W.H. Auden, though he has always considered himself more of a poet than a critic. “I think of the two as opposites,” he says. “Writing poetry is striking out and finding something you don’t know yet, whereas criticism is dealing with something you do know about or are about to know about.”

A few of Ashbery’s poems were published in the Advocate during his time at Harvard, but his real breakthrough came post-graduation. His poetic debut, “Some Trees,” was selected by Auden to be published as part of the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1956, kick-starting a prolific career distinguished by the release of another critically acclaimed work every few years. It was in 1975 that major recognition arrived, however, when he bagged all three of the nation’s major poetry prizes—the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award—for his collection “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Since then, he has continued to innovate, experimenting with double columns, shorter forms, and artistic perspectives.

In the title poem of “Self-Portrait,” Ashbery addresses 16th century painter Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola: “Whose curved hand controls, / Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts / That peel off and fly away at breathless speeds / Like the last stubborn leaves ripped / From wet branches?” The lines are typical Ashbery—both contemplative and frenzied, an ecstasy of stillness.

This very focus on consciousness and the process of thinking, however, has won him a reputation as a “difficult” poet. Helen Vendler once likened the experience of reading Ashbery to “playing hide-and-seek in a sprawling mansion designed by M. C. Escher.” One of his early collections in particular, 1962’s “The Tennis Court Oath,” has garnered criticism for its fragmentation, lack of punctuation, and seeming disregard for narrative.

Ashbery brushes aside these critiques as overly analytical. “I don’t think it’s difficult if one lets it approach one the way one hears music, just letting it wash over you,” he says. “My poetry is like music in a way—it comes and happens over a period of time and leads you into it. You kind of live it for a while, as opposed to, say, a picture, which you look at for a few minutes and walk away from.”

He believes that concerns over difficulty also lead people to overlook the lighthearted element in his work, which frequently incorporates parody, quotes, and pop culture for a collage-like effect. “I think I’m a rather funny person,” he says. “I like my poems to include as many things in them as possible. Humor, tragedy, love, time, all the things that are traditional in poetry—I like having them happening all at once.”

Now that he’s retired from teaching at the various university writing programs where he taught in the ’70s and ’80s, Ashbery’s daily schedule is relatively relaxed. He spends much of his day at home in Hudson or New York City reading books of poetry sent to him by publishers, keeping up with current events, and listening to music, mostly twentieth century classical pieces by composers like John Cage and Elliott Carter. “I’m very disorganized,” he laughs. “I sort of imagine I’m going to write and put it off to the last possible moment, maybe late afternoon. Then I mostly don’t get around to doing it.” Some days, he doesn’t write a single word.

But clearly, he remains productive. A collection of his most recent poems, entitled “Planisphere,” will be published this December. A planisphere is a two-dimensional projection of a sphere onto a plane, such as a world map or an astronomical chart. Ashbery is reluctant to provide a direct explanation for this title in terms of his poems, preferring instead to let the work speak for itself. Still, he does say that “in a way, every piece of writing is a two-dimensional rendering of life, which is three-dimensional.”

Ashbery’s own life has indeed been one of many dimensions. Though he chuckles when asked why he thinks he’s receiving the award (“Somebody at Harvard must think I do something for the ‘public good.’”), he notes the poetic justice of capping his career with a medal from the institution where he got his start. “It’s very nice to get something from Harvard, where I set out from long ago,” he says. “There is a certain symmetry to it.”

—Staff writer Jessica A. Sequeira can be reached at jsequeir@fas.harvard.edu.