John Ashbery is the author of more than twenty books of poetry. He is the recipient of many honours, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and a MacArthur 'genius' award. Born in Rochester, New York, he was educated at Harvard and Columbia. In 1955 he went to France on a Fulbright Scholarship and spent much of the next decade there, including several years as art critic of the International Herald Tribune and Paris correspondent of ArtNews magazine. Ashbery's research on the life and works of Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) resulted in several groundbreaking articles, as well as the appearance in print of the first unpublished work of the writer to come to light after his death. His translations include works by Roussel, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, Stephane Mallarme, Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and many others. His 2008 translation of Pierre Martory's The Landscapist was a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation. The French government has appointed Ashbery as both Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and Officier of the Legion d'Honneur.
Inspired by the work of Henry Dargeran obscure illustrator who spent decades writing a juvenile adventure novel in which young heroines, the Vivians, face a multitude of pulp dangersAshberys 20th work of poetry is a playful romp. A large cast of childrens book charactersTidbit, Rags the Dog, Mr. McPlastertalk around, meditate through, and abruptly disappear from what is essentially a sustained sequence of colorful non sequiturs artfully connected by Ashberys affable syntax, as in this busy passage: Under frozen mounds of yak butter the graffiti have their day, and are elaborate/ some say. Nobody wants to go there. Yes, she said, we will swim/ there if necessary. The arroz con pollo can take us/ and do with us what we will. And so on in the fractured spirit of Lewis Carroll, recalling just how surreal our childhood worldsthe ones we invented with the help of fictionreally were. But while Ashbery can make us forget how serious we are while planting unexpected land mines of metaphysical pizzazz within the daffiness, his hectic wordplay eventually invites tedium.Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY
This beautiful long poem presents Ashbery at his most contradictory: it is both his most Homeric and "narrative" long poem, yet at the same time his most joissant, collage-based work in years. It borrows from the imagery of Henry Darger (1892-1972), an American "outsider" artist who devoted decades to a mammoth, illustrated novel about the plight of the fictional "Vivian" girls. Ashbery's adaptation follows the adventures of dozens of characters with names like Pliable, Bunny, Mr. McPlaster, Uncle Margaret, and FredÄrecalling "Farm Implements and Rutabegas in Landscape," Ashbery's talismanic Popeye riff from the '70s. The sentences are often short, somewhat "off" ("Trevor his dog came, half jumping."), and they set up deeply bizarre narrative situations: "Hold it, I have an idea, Fred groaned. Now some of you, five at least, must go over in that little shack./ I'll follow with the tidal waves, and see what happens next." Classic Surrealism erupts frequently in well-timed bursts: "The tame suburban landscape excited him./ He had met his match./ Dimples replaced the mollusk with shoe-therapy." Elsewhere, Ashbery jibes obliquely at the epic tradition, laconically laying down the blandest of similes with pseudo-stentorian bluster, while at other moments the meditative, universal Ashberian persona breaks through, with apt sophistication and terrible humanist relevance: "The oblique flute sounded its note of resin./ In time, he said, we all go under the fluted covers/ of this great world, with its spiral dissonances,/ and then we can see, on the other side,/ what the rascals are up to." More memory than dreamÄthe never-was memory of constant companionship, of "fun," of names that resonate with mystery (even "Fred")Äthe poem recalls a land that was never boring and whose physical environment, while somewhat foreboding, was as safe as the womb and as colorful as Oz. (Apr.)
'Praised as a magical genius, cursed as an obscure joker, John Ashbery writes poetry like no one else.' The Independent 'Great poetry, as T.S. Eliot said, can communicate before it is understood: Ashbery communicates in a way that both pays homage to language and transcends it at the same time.' The Guardian