John Lawrence Ashbery is an American poet. He has published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won nearly every major American award for poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. But Ashbery's work still proves controversial. In an article on Elizabeth Bishop in his Selected Prose, he characterizes himself as having been described as "a harebrained, homegrown surrealist whose poetry defies even the rules and logic of Surrealism." Although renowned for the postmodern complexity and opacity of his work, Ashbery has stated that he wishes it to be accessible to as many people as possible, not a private dialogue.

"No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery," Langdon Hammer, chairman of the English Department at Yale University, wrote in 2008. "[N]o American poet has had a larger, more diverse vocabulary, not Whitman, not Pound." Stephen Burt, a poet and Harvard professor of English, has compared Ashbery to T. S. Eliot, the "last figure whom half the English-language poets alive thought a great model, and the other half thought incomprehensible".


Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York, the son of Helen (née Lawrence), a biology teacher, and Chester Frederick Ashbery, a farmer. He was raised on a farm near Lake Ontario; his brother died when they were children. Ashbery was educated at Deerfield Academy. At Deerfield, an all-boys school, Ashbery read such poets as W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas, and began writing poetry. Two of his poems were published in Poetry magazine, although under the name of a classmate who had submitted them without Ashbery's knowledge or permission. He also published a handful of poems, including a sonnet about his frustrated love for a fellow student, and a piece of short fiction in the school newspaper, the Deerfield Scroll. His first ambition was to be a painter. From the age of 11 until he was 15 Ashbery took weekly classes at the art museum in Rochester.

Ashbery graduated in 1949 with an A.B., cum laude, from Harvard College, where he was a member of the Harvard Advocate, the university's literary magazine, and the Signet Society. He wrote his senior thesis on the poetry of W. H. Auden. At Harvard he befriended fellow writers Kenneth Koch, Barbara Epstein, V. R. Lang, Frank O'Hara and Edward Gorey, and was a classmate of Robert Creeley, Robert Bly and Peter Davison. Ashbery went on to study briefly at New York University, and received an M.A. from Columbia in 1951.

During the fall of 1963, Ashbery became acquainted with Andy Warhol at a scheduled poetry reading at the Literary Theatre in New York. He had previously written favorable reviews of Warhol's art. That same year he reviewed Warhol's Flowers exhibition at Galerie Illeana Sonnabend in Paris, describing Warhol's visit to Paris as "the biggest transatlantic fuss since Oscar Wilde brought culture to Buffalo in the nineties." Ashbery returned to New York near the end of 1965 and was welcomed with a large party at the Factory. He became close friends with poet Gerard Malanga, Warhol's assistant, on whom he had an important influence as a poet.

In the early 1970s, Ashbery began teaching at Brooklyn College, where his students included poet John Yau. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983. In the 1980s, he moved to Bard College, where he was the Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Languages and Literature, until 2008, when he retired; since that time, he has continued to win awards, present readings, and work with graduate and undergraduates at many other institutions. He was the poet laureate of New York state from 2001 to 2003, and also served for many years as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He serves on the contributing editorial board of the literary journal Conjunctions. He was a Millet Writing Fellow at Wesleyan University, in 2010, and participated in Wesleyan's Distinguished Writers Series. Ashbery lives in New York City and Hudson, New York, with his partner, David Kermani.

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