John Ashbery dove head-first into poetry after arriving at Harvard in 1945. His biographer Karin Roffman described him as “a constant presence” in the Woodberry Poetry Room (formerly at Widener Library until 1949), where he would discover the works of W. H. Auden, the eventual subject of his thesis.
As a student, Ashbery attended readings of the works of Auden, Morris Gray, and Marianne Moore, explored local bookshops, and befriended fellow poets, including Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and V.R. Lang. “The great modernist poets were the poets he was imbibing,” Roffman said in an interview with the Gazette. “He was really thinking about the given canon that he was getting in classes at Harvard and then the personal canon he was making for himself.”
The experiences were formative for Ashbery, who died in 2017 at the age of 90, and Harvard has become the center of study on the celebrated poet. The University acquired his papers over a period of years and his reading library — donated by his husband, David Kermani — in 2018. Last month Ashbery’s typewriter, also a gift from Kermani, was installed in the Woodberry Poetry Room at Lamont Library, which will host an event, “Lunch Poems: Adventures with John Ashbery’s Typewriter,” featuring Roffman and Ashbery’s former assistant and editor Emily Skillings, on Wednesday, Nov. 17.
Much of Ashbery’s poetry throughout his career, was written on typewriters, but his love affair with the machines started after graduation. The budding poet didn’t have access to one during his studies likely due to the expense — he even got his thesis typed by someone else who did have one.