In June 1954, a gay poet in his late 20s sat desolately in the apartment he was subletting on West 14th Street in Manhattan. He’d been fired from his job and his lover had moved out. His misery increased as he watched the Army-McCarthy hearings on TV. McCarthy linked “homosexuals” with “subversives.”
The young poet was John Ashbery who would become one of the most renowned of 20th and 21st century poets. Ashbery’s work, like that of Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, is, as Duke Ellington used to say, “beyond category,” died on Sept. 3 at age 90 at his home in Hudson, N.Y. He is survived by his husband David Kermani.
As his New York Times obituary notes, Ashbery’s poetry is “by turns playful and elegiac, absurd and exquisite — but more than anything else, it is immediately recognizable.” Rutabagas, Daffy Duck and lunch menus (“sloppy joe on bun, scalloped corn”) appear in poems that Ashbery wrote in sestinas and other complex poetic forms.
Ashbery received so many awards that to list even a fraction of them would be mind-numbing. In 1976 alone, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award (for his collection “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”) The many other honors Ashbery received include a MacArthur Foundation grant and the Antonio Feltrinelli International Prize for Poetry. In 2012, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama. In a nod to his influence on pop culture, Ashbery was the first poet laureate of MtvU (an MTV subsidiary).
Ashbery, who painted when he was young and created some of his poetry with collages, was also an art critic for many years for Newsweek and other publications.
Ashbery was a, “salutary presence in modern poetry in his work,” Poetry Magazine Editor Don Share said in an e-mail to the Blade. But he also, “was generous and kind to countless people: poets, of course, but also his readers, many of whom approached him in befuddlement,” Share said, “which he always handled with bemused, gentle grace.”
Recently, “The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life,” by Karin Roffman was released. The biography takes us from Ashbery’s childhood on a farm in the village of Sodus in western New York to his departure from Manhattan at age 27 to live in Paris on a Fullbright fellowship.
Because he was so eminent and his poetry wasn’t what we think of as autobiographical or political, it’s easy to think Ashbery didn’t suffer much; that he was another white, well-off man who had it made on Mount Olympus. But Roffman’s bio tells another story.
In his youth, Ashbery was teased for being a “sissy.” Born in 1927, he couldn’t reveal his sexuality to anyone. When Ashbery was 12, his brother Richard died at age 10 from leukemia. While attending Deerfield Academy (through the largess of a neighbor), he was taunted for being queer. At Harvard, Ashbery met Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch and other emerging poets who would become his close friends and collaborators. Yet he still had to lead a double life, hiding his sexuality from his hetero peers. In the 1950s, Ashbery worried that he wouldn’t be able to work because the McCarthy era was so homophobic.
Roffman, a senior lecturer in humanities, English and American studies at Yale University, talked with the Blade by phone and email. She first heard Ashbery read when she was a graduate student in the early 2000s.
“I can’t begin to describe the impact that the reading had on me,” Roffman says.
She met John Ashbery when she taught at Bard College, where Ashbery was an emeritus professor.
“It was my first job after grad school,” Roffman says. “My students and I had spent time on Ashbery’s art criticism and his poetry. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have contacted him, but my students had questions and were clamoring for him to come to our class.”
Ashbery spent an hour and a half with the class.
“He couldn’t have been more open or generous,” she says.
He invited Roffman to see the house where he and Kermani lived.
“Because his poetry is so modern, I thought his house would be modern,” she says, “but I was stunned to find it was a 19th century Victorian home. It was gloomy and cozy, English in feeling.”
Roffman was just finishing a book (“From the Modernist Annex”) about women writers and their domestic spaces.
“Ashbery’s maternal grandparents were supportive of him. His grandfather was a genius. He was really encouraging to John,” she says. “In his house, John had objects like the objects in his grandparents’ house.”
She began working with Ashbery to catalogue the objects in his home. Out of this effort was born not only her biography of Ashbery, but a digital project called “John Ashbery’s Nest.” The site enables visitors to “walk” through Ashbery’s house and to learn about the objects that inspired many of his poems.
After giving her permission to write his biography, Ashbery connected Roffman with a few of his close friends. After that, he stayed out of the process.
During her research, Roffman discovered that Ashbery as a boy wrote in diaries in coded language of his attraction to boys.
“I don’t think Ashbery planned to be evasive in his poetry,” Roffman says. “He was drawn aesthetically to restraint.”
Yet, there is “emotional boldness” in his work, she says.
“And when it became time to go/they none of them would leave without the other,” Ashbery wrote in “How to Continue,” an elegy for queer life before AIDS.
“These are some hazards of the course,” he writes in “Soonest Mended.”
It’s Ashbery’s way of describing what it means to suffer, Roffman says.
“It’s understated, but moving. I go back to his poetry to be reminded of what it is to feel, to be alive.”
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.