Advocate to the Avant-Garde: Ashbery Leads American Poetry

Harvard's reputation as a breeding-ground for intellectuals has been boosted by the wealth of poets who have passed through the gates and left their legacy in the juvenilia published in the Advocate.

T.S. Eliot '04, e. e. cummings '15, James Laughlin '36, Robert Bly '50, Donald Hall '51, Frank O'Hara '50 and Harold Brodkey '51 and many other poets all either contributed or worked for the Advocate, then moved on to bigger and better things in the larger literary world outside the Square.

So, too, did John Ashbery '49, the man often called "the universal poet." He is sometimes referred to as "the Walt Whitman of our time" for his ability to find the sublime in the mundane and to transcend the personal to explain the shared sentiments of the nation.

His list of honors is long and distinguished by anyone's standards.

Ashbery received the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award for his 1975 book, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. He was the first English-language poet to win the Grand Prix de Biennales Internationales de Posie. He has also taken the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the MLA Common Wealth Award in Literature, the Frank O'Hara Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the English Speaking Union Prize, as well as many others.


The Fulbright, Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations have all provided Ashbery with fellowships, and the poet is currently the chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Literary critic John Shoptaw, an instructor of literature at Yale University author of On the Outside Looking In: John Ashbery's Poetry (Harvard University Press, 1994), describes Ashbery as "the most intellectually exciting of many living poets."

Ashbery's career as a poet seems to have begun in earnest during his undergraduate years at Harvard.

Ashbery concentrated in English, and took at least one course in poetry one in creative writing, Shoptaw says.

He wrote his senior thesis on W. H. Auden, whom Ashbery met while an undergraduate when the British poet came to read at the University in March 1946.

Shoptaw, who has reviewed the thesis, describes it as "a funny piece of work, typed on about three typewriters, about 20 pages long--a pretty shoddy effort."

Upon graduating from the College, Ashbery applied to study English at Harvard's Graduate School of Education but was turned down.

Shoptaw says Ashbery's rejection from graduate school is an important lesson for students interesting in pursuing a career in the arts, and especially writers.

"People who are writers should know that you don't have to be successful or the best students," he says.

In fact, for an aspiring poet like Ashbery, Shoptaw says, the best aspect of college in terms of his education as a writer was the poet-friendly atmosphere. Ashbery seems to have benefited from friendships with many other young writers as well as from having at least one good outlet for publication, he says.

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