John Ashbery (b. 1927)
Contributing Editor: David Bergman
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students should be encouraged to explore the connections between seemingly unrelated passages. These connections are probably best found if the student is encouraged to move freely through the poem at first, finding whatever connection he or she can spot. Richard Howard convincingly argues that each Ashbery poem contains an emblem for its entire meaning. If allowed time, students usually find such emblems. Second, drawing connections between Ashbery's method and such graphic methods as collage and assemblage often helps. Students, of course, should be reminded to read the notes.
I have found it useful to present Ashbery in relation to the visual arts, in particular the shifting perspective of comic strips, the surprising juxtapositions of collage and assemblage, the vitality of abstract impressionism, and the metaphysical imagery of de Chirico.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The selection highlights three major themes or questions running through Ashbery's work: (1) the problem of subjective identity--Whose consciousness informs the poem? (2) the relationship between language and subjectivity--Whose language do I speak or does the language have a mind of its own? (3) the connection between subjectivity, language, and place--What does it mean to be an American poet?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Ashbery has long been interested in French art, especially dada and surrealism. Such interests have merged with an equally strong concern for poetic form and structure, as evinced by the sestina of "Farm Implements" and the 4 x 4 structure (four stanzas each of four lines) of "Paradoxes and Oxymorons," a structure he uses through Shadow Train, the volume from which the poem was taken. Ashbery's combination of surrealism and formalism typifies a certain strain of postmodernism.
Obviously Ashbery is writing for a highly sophisticated contemporary audience. The decade he spent in France provided him with an international perspective.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler are or were close friends of Ashbery; together they formed the nucleus of what is sometimes dubbed the New York School of Poetry. The dream-like imagery bears some resemblance to John Berryman and Allen Ginsberg. Walt Whitman provides a particularly vital touchstone to an American tradition.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
How do comic strips (and other forms of popular art) inform both the content and the style of Ashbery's poems? Who is speaking in an Ashbery poem? What is American about John Ashbery?
Altieri, Charles. "John Ashbery." In Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Berger, Charles. "Vision in the Form of a Task." Lehman, 163-208.
Bergman, David. "Introduction: John Ashbery." In Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-87. New York: Knopf, 1989, xi-xxiii.
--. "Choosing Our Fathers: Gender and Identity in Whitman, Ashbery and Richard Howard." American Literary History 1 (1989): 383-403.
Lehman, David, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.