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“Ashes”: The Endurance of John Ashbery May 5, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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[This piece is raw around the edges. It lacks tautness and forward movement. Revisions are necessary. I post it, as I am trying to keep to a schedule. The entry will expand and morph over the next few days. Not that anyone but I will mind.]

John Ashbery

"Ashes" at 35, in 1962

John Ashbery had the worst nickname ever:

Down the dark stairs drifts the streaming cha-
cha-cha- Through the urine and smoke we charge
to the floor. Wrapped in Ashes’ arms I glide

— Frank O’Hara, “At the Old Place”

It’s rather ironic, given that Ashes has outlasted not just O’Hara but every original member of the gang of poets typically referred to as the New York School. Frank, Jimmy, Kenny, and Barb have all kicked the bucket: O’Hara, in 1966; James Schuyler, in 1991; Kenneth Koch (pronounced “COKE”), in 2002; and Barbara Guest in 2006.

But at the soon-to-be age of 82, Ashbery still endures in mind, legacy, and body. He has graced Boston with his presence at least twice this school year. I saw him last October give a reading at M.I.T., the occasion being the publication of his Collected Poems 1957-1986. And this past Saturday, Ashbery returned to his alma mater to accept the 2009 Harvard Arts Medal at the annual ARTS FIRST Festival.

In the small world of poetry, Ashbery is one of the true few celebrities. Since the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the mild-mannered Ashbery has gathered all the awards and honors possible for a poet, which makes it all the more difficult to fathom the fact that he was ever considered to be a fringe poet. How then did Ashbery become the gentle giant he is today? (more…)