Before John Ashbery ’49 was one of the most influential and celebrated poets of modern times, he moonlighted as an English translator of French detective novels under the pseudonym “Jonas Berry.” But the self-dubbed “hair-brained, homegrown, Surrealist” poet bestowed his fitting absurdist style to these books, including adding the sex scenes the publisher requested to please American readers.
Honored as this year’s Arts Medalist, Ashbery was candid, comical, and soft-spoken on Thursday evening (April 30) at the New College Theatre in a ceremony hosted by John Lithgow ’67, and presented by the Office for the Arts and the Board of Overseers of Harvard College. Harvard President Drew Faust awarded the poet, whose wordplay, disjunctive syntax, humor, and attention to the absurd have made him a figurehead in American poetry. The medal ceremony kicked off a weekend of events in the annual Arts First celebration.
The proceedings opened with a tribute by Harvard students Liza Flum ’10, David Wallace ’11, Angelo Mao ’10, Erin Blevins ’05, Lauren Brozovich ’06, Sutopa Dasgupta, a third year Ph.D. candidate, Adam Scheffler ’05, and Abram Kaplan ’10, who recited Ashbery’s poems standing in a halo of spotlight, in total stillness.
In an intimate, illuminating conversation, led by poet Dan Chiasson, Ph.D. ’02, Ashbery opened a window into his long, colorful life, reminiscing about his college days against a shifting backdrop of his lively, inexplicable collages — a passion discovered during his time at Harvard.
Born in 1927, Ashbery grew up on a farm in upstate New York, but set his sights elsewhere because he “always wanted to live in a city.”
“I always felt someone did a number on me,” he said. “Putting me on this farm, making me do chores.”
Ashbery preferred to live with his uncle in Rochester, N.Y. When Chiasson asked why, he replied: “His house was dark and gloomy in a very pleasant way.” Ashbery’s father was also prone to violent tantrums; “I was not the son he wanted,” admitted Ashbery.
At Harvard, Ashbery resided at Dunster House. He studied alongside other poetic luminaries such as Kenneth Koch, Robert Creeley, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, and Robert Bly, among others.
“We became instant friends,” said Ashbery of encountering a young O’Hara at Harvard. Being friends with him was “like a holiday,” Ashbery recounted.
Of Creeley, Ashbery garnered laughs, saying, “He dressed in all black — long before Goths.”
Originally wanting to be a painter, Ashbery enrolled in a poetry workshop — unusual at the time — and attended campus readings of notable names: W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens. He was a member of the Harvard Advocate.
Ashbery wrote his senior honor’s thesis on the poetry of Auden and met the poet at a Lowell Lecture Hall reading. “I was first in line to have my book signed,” he said. Later, Auden would choose Ashbery’s first book “Some Trees” to win the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956.
But Ashbery’s early success is a tale of unusual circumstance. While attending an all-boy’s academy, a classmate of Ashbery’s snagged one of his poems and submitted it to Poetry magazine under a pseudonym without Ashbery’s permission. The poem was accepted and, shortly after, both students were Harvard freshmen. When Ashbery learned of the deed, he confronted his friend. “[The magazine] came out that December, and I said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again.’ He did.”
Ashbery and his Harvard classmates Koch, O’Hara, and Guest would later achieve recognition as members of the “New York School,” a loosely aligned contemporary avant-garde movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
During the mid-’60s, Ashbery made a living as an art critic in New York City, where he became acquainted with Andy Warhol. He worked for Newsweek magazine, among other periodicals, and jetted around the country attending art shows. Ashbery called journalism a “nightmare world of deadlines” and confessed he still suffered bad dreams centered on his journalistic jaunts.
When his book “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” was published in 1975, it won all major literary awards that year: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Life for Ashbery would never be the same.
He recalled first seeing a copy of the Parmigianino painting that would inspire his most famous poem in 1950. On a trip to Vienna, Ashbery laid eyes on the real thing in 1959, calling it “haunting, beguiling,” and “surprisingly tiny with an unearthly glimmer,” noting that he “filed it away as something I’d like to do something about.”
Ashbery “did something about it” in Provincetown, Mass., when he began composing the poem that would become the title of his immensely influential book. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” took five months to write, recalled Ashbery. It is widely considered to be a masterpiece of 20th century literature.
In her speech, Faust called Ashbery “an impossible hybrid, noting that even recently someone called him, ‘an outlaw and a classic.’
“On the classic side, John Ashbery has won more prizes than any living author,” she said. “Ever an outlaw, he resists capture.”
Ashbery made his way to the podium as the crowd rose for a standing ovation. He thanked the students, calling their performance “heart-rending,” but candidly added, “If I knew this was going to happen, I probably would have made arrangements that probably would have led to its not happening.” As the crowd laughed, Ashbery smiled. “Thank you,” he said.