I was recently tasked with writing a speech to commemorate someone for class, so I tackled one of my favorite poets, John Ashbery. Far from an expert on his work or poetry as an art, I still want to take a moment to reflect on his work, life, and that of postmodern poetry as a whole.
Observing the ebb and flow of American culture from Warhol’s Factory to a President’s Twitter through the eyes of a poet is an enviable position, and one uniquely fit for the late John Ashbery. Ashbery’s work spans seven decades of tormenting critics with avant garde poems with sometimes puzzling structure and embedded with wit, poignancy, and a religious dedication to wordplay. He once said that he hoped to someday “produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about.” That may have been his only failed goal, having won nearly every achievable award accessible to an American poet, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
Ashbery’s work reflects the universal experience of the surreal and the American spirit of experimentation and play. His poems remain accessible despite their dense erudition and allusions because they’re written as conversations rather than monologues. He revels in the mundane. Long lines at the checkout counter and Renaissance paintings coexist in his collections just as the ordinary and extraordinary mingle in daily life. Ashbery looked at each moment with the awe of a mischievous child. In doing so, he sung the song of our common experience, seeking meaning and beauty in even the dancing specks of dust that arrows of sunlight reveal. Rather than describing the world, he wrote in precise phrases that explored a universal emotional landscape. Poetry, as one finds in his work, isn’t about the beauty of external stimuli, but the beauty of a thoughtful and attentive mind.
In his work, Ashbery played with unreliable narrators, disjointed pronouns, and the confluence of high and low brow phrasing. In his life, he represented a quintessentially American trajectory of challenging norms and rising to meet his destiny. The son of an anger-prone farmer, he traversed the lonely, sometimes dangerous world of being a gay man in a depression-era rural town. His father disdained his eldest son for casting off traditionally masculine endeavors, so the young Ashbery retreated into his study. This shy, sensitive, and gifted boy pursued his truth in the face of hardship and was eventually chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Prize by his personal hero, W.H. Auden, which propelled him into the national spotlight.
We celebrate artists like Ashbery not only because their work moves us or shows technical skill, but because they hold the mirror through which we can examine ourselves. Ashbery’s work shows each of our habits for poignancy and complex reasoning. It’s effortless. Who are we to disagree with one of the most preeminent minds of the last century by assuming the worst in ourselves and others? No, if we are to learn anything from the life of this literary giant, it’s the confirmation of our own untapped potential and the exceptional spirit of American perseverance.