John Ashbery: What Is Poetry?

by Amy

John Ashbery, one of the most celebrated American poets of the 20th century, continues to captivate readers with his enigmatic and thought-provoking works. Born in 1927 in Rochester, New York, Ashbery’s career spanned several decades, during which he explored complex themes and pushed the boundaries of poetic expression. Central to Ashbery’s legacy is his ongoing inquiry into the nature of poetry itself—what it is, what it can be, and how it engages with the human experience.

Early Life and Influences

To understand Ashbery’s perspective on poetry, one must first delve into his early life and the influences that shaped his artistic sensibilities. Raised in a household that valued literature and the arts, Ashbery developed a deep appreciation for language from a young age. He studied English literature at Harvard University, where he encountered the works of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Wallace Stevens—poets who would have a lasting impact on his own writing.

Stevens, in particular, became a significant influence on Ashbery’s poetic style. Both poets shared an interest in the complexities of language and the ways in which words could evoke multiple meanings and associations. This fascination with linguistic ambiguity and the fluidity of meaning would become hallmarks of Ashbery’s poetry.

The Quest for Meaning in Ashbery’s Work

At the heart of Ashbery’s poetry is a relentless quest for meaning in a world that often defies easy interpretation. His poems are characterized by their non-linear narratives, dreamlike imagery, and a sense of linguistic playfulness that challenges readers to engage actively with the text. In “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” one of his most acclaimed works, Ashbery grapples with questions of identity, perception, and the elusive nature of reality.

The title poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” reflects Ashbery’s fascination with art and its relationship to the self. The convex mirror, with its distorted reflection, becomes a metaphor for the fragmented nature of identity and the constant negotiation between perception and truth. Through vivid and often surreal imagery, Ashbery invites readers to question their assumptions about the world and to embrace the inherent ambiguity of human experience.

Language as a Living Entity

For Ashbery, poetry is not merely a static form of expression but a dynamic and evolving dialogue between language and the world. In his essay “The Invisible Avant-Garde,” he explores the idea of poetry as a living entity that transcends traditional boundaries and defies easy categorization. He writes, “The poem is always something going on, not something that is.” This notion of poetry as a process rather than a product underscores Ashbery’s belief in the fluidity of language and the limitless possibilities of poetic expression.

Ashbery’s use of language is marked by its musicality, wit, and unpredictability. He often employs wordplay, juxtapositions, and associative leaps to create layers of meaning within his poems. This playful approach to language challenges readers to look beyond surface interpretations and to engage with the deeper resonances of his work.

Embracing Uncertainty and Ambiguity

One of the central themes in Ashbery’s poetry is the acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity as fundamental aspects of the human condition. In a world characterized by constant flux and complexity, he suggests that poetry offers a means of embracing the unknown and finding meaning amid chaos. In “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat,” Ashbery writes:

“We must travel back in time,

change the genre, and accordingly

change the shapes of hills,

rivers, forests, and valleys,

but we can leave the colors as they are.”

Here, Ashbery celebrates the transformative power of poetry, which allows us to reimagine the world and our place within it. By navigating through shifting landscapes of language and perception, his poems invite readers to embrace the beauty of uncertainty and to revel in the mysteries of existence.

The Influence of Ashbery’s Legacy

John Ashbery’s impact on contemporary poetry is profound and far-reaching. His experimental approach to language and form has inspired generations of poets to push the boundaries of traditional verse and explore new modes of expression. Ashbery’s emphasis on immerse themselves in the text, inviting them to uncover new insights with each reading. In Ashbery’s world, language is not a fixed entity but a medium through which meaning is constantly negotiated and reimagined.

Poetry as Exploration and Experimentation

Throughout his career, Ashbery was known for his willingness to experiment with form, structure, and language. He rejected the idea of poetry as a rigid or prescriptive art form, instead embracing the freedom to explore unconventional techniques and modes of expression. His poems often eschew traditional narratives in favor of fragmented, associative imagery that resists easy interpretation.

In “The Tennis Court Oath,” Ashbery’s early collection, he explores themes of alienation, disillusionment, and the fractured nature of modern existence. The poems in this collection are characterized by their disjunctive syntax, abrupt shifts in tone and perspective, and a sense of linguistic fragmentation that mirrors the chaos of contemporary life. Through these experimental techniques, Ashbery challenges readers to reconsider their assumptions about the nature of poetry and the ways in which it can engage with the complexities of human experience.

Embracing Uncertainty and Ambiguity

Central to Ashbery’s conception of poetry is the acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity as inherent qualities of the art form. In his essay “The Gaze of Orpheus,” he writes, “Poetry can communicate before it is understood.” This idea underscores Ashbery’s belief in the emotive power of language to transcend rational comprehension and to evoke visceral responses in readers.

Ashbery’s poems often resist definitive interpretation, inviting multiple readings and interpretations. He embraces the idea of poetry as a space of possibility and openness, where meaning is not fixed but emerges through the interplay of language, imagination, and reader engagement. This embrace of ambiguity allows Ashbery’s work to remain vibrant and relevant across generations, inviting continual exploration and reinterpretation.

Legacy and Influence

John Ashbery’s legacy extends far beyond his own prolific body of work. He remains a seminal figure in American poetry, known for his innovative approach to language, his intellectual curiosity, and his relentless pursuit of artistic freedom. His influence can be seen in the work of countless contemporary poets who continue to push the boundaries of poetic expression.


John Ashbery’s exploration of the question “What is poetry?” is itself a testament to the richness and complexity of the art form. Through his poems, essays, and critical reflections, Ashbery invites readers to embrace the uncertainties of language, to revel in the playfulness of expression, and to approach poetry as a dynamic and ever-evolving dialogue between words and the world.

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