Columbia Remembers John Ashbery

September 13, 2017

A headshot of writer, John Ashbery


When the legendary American poet John Ashbery died earlier this month at the age of 90, his loss was felt throughout the literary world, as well as here at Columbia.

Ashbery, who last year gave a reading at the School of the Arts, was the author of more than 20 books of poetry, including Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), which, in rare feat, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In its obituary, the Associated Press described Ashbery as “an enigmatic genius of modern poetry whose energy, daring and boundless command of language raised American verse to brilliant and baffling heights.”

David Orr and Dinitia Smith, writing for the New York Times, called Ashbery “one of the most influential figures of late-20th and early-21st-century American literature” and remarked on his enduring impact on contemporary poetry. “Widespread imitation has served mostly to underscore the distinctive qualities of the original,” they wrote, “and those qualities are singular indeed. An Ashbery poem cycles through changes in diction, register and tone with bewildering yet expertly managed speed, happily mixing references and obscuring antecedents in the service of capturing what Mr. Ashbery called ‘the experience of experience.’”

Writing Program alumna Emily Skillings ’17, who for a time worked as Ashbery’s assistant, remembered the poet in an essay for BOMB. “He taught me to cultivate a love for the minor, the underplayed, the ‘B’ poem or film, the word that was just a bit off, the clunk and the goofy shift,” she wrote. “Ashbery is not my favorite poet, he's my only poet. I am consistently shocked and baffled at any characterization of John's work as difficult. I refuse to engage with that. You just go into it and move. All I can think about when I wake up is how I hate to go on in a world without him.”

Dorothea Lasky, a professor of poetry in the Writing Program, told the School of the Arts: “John Ashbery was one of our own and the entire Columbia writing community mourns him and mourns the great work that will never be written because he is gone. What made John Ashbery so special as a poet was his ability to elevate American rhetoric beyond the everyday into something glamorous and beautiful. He took the way we speak about our lives and made it poetry.”

Bill Wadsworth, Director of Academic Administration in the Writing Program and a poet, added: “John’s personality and his work were of a piece, uniquely combining a kind of sublimity, a great distance and inscrutability, with a kind of accessibility, the idiom of anyone’s daily thoughts and experience, charting the flow and intersection of our inner and outer lives as the not-so-simple, not-so-scrutable human beings we all are.”