Harvard Buys Ashbery Papers

Library Pays Unprecedented $140K for the Collection

John L. Ashbery '49, one of America's leading living poets, has agreed to transfer the bulk of his manuscripts and correspondences--worth at least $140,000--to the Houghton Library sometime next week, Curator of Manuscripts Rodney G. Dennis said yesterday.

Dennis said Houghton, which already houses the majority of e.e. cummings's '15 and Robert Lowell's '39 manuscripts, will pay more for the Ashbery papers than it has for any previous manuscript collection it has acquired.

The recipient of two Guggenheim, two Fulbright, a MacArthur, a Pulitzer, and a National Book Award prizes, Ashbery reached an agreement last December with the Houghton Library to deposit his papers there for an unannounced sum of money.

The Houghton purchase will be funded through the Amy Lowell endowment, which provides for more than half of Houghton's acquisitions. "It's a sacrifice for us for the next two or three years. We won't be able to purchase much as we wait for the coffers to fill up again," Dennis said.

The collection includes childhood memorabilia, lifelong correspondences, and early versions of all Ashbery's poems up to and including his book "The Wave," published seven years ago, Dennis said. Ashbery has since published two other books.


Dennis said the Ashbery papers amount to a "cellar-full" of material that would occupy about 250 12"x18"x6" boxes.

Critics consider Ashbery, who has authored 11 major volumes of poetry and three plays, to be "one of the foremost living poets," said Marquand Professor of English David D. Perkins.

Kenan Professor of English Helen Vendler said of Ashbery, "It would be hard to have an anthology of modern poetry that wouldn't include him."

Ashbery, who spent his undergraduate years at Harvard, regularly holds readings of his work at the University. Ashbery currently works in New York City as a Brooklyn College professor and art editor for New York magazine.

Vendler characterized Ashbery's work as elusive yet musical. Often experimental, the New York poet pioneers with creative forms, including single-line poems, 30-page prose poems, and double-columned poems, where two poems are meant to be read simultaneously on a single page, Vendler said.

"He writes about what it is to be an intellectual susceptible to popular culture," including Daffy Duck cartoon and Hollywood movies, said Vendler. While his poetry is often difficult to read, she added, Ashbery writes to have "the wrecking ball of experience" shatter the "ivory tower of intellectuals, so that the street noises can come in."