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Acclaimed Poet John Ashbery Dies At 90

Sep 4, 2017
Originally published on September 4, 2017 3:50 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the most acclaimed poets of the 20th century has died. John Ashbery won every major prize, including a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, along with a so-called MacArthur genius grant for more than 20 volumes of poetry. He died yesterday from natural causes at the age of 90. Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: John Ashbery's experimental, modernist poetry often confounded readers. But in 1987, Ashbery told me the way to read his poetry was not to analyze it but, in his words, to bathe in it.

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JOHN ASHBERY: What I get out of poetry when I read it is just the pure pleasure part of how it ripples in front of you. It's something you want to get close to and roll around in (laughter).

VITALE: In his work, Ashbery paired colloquial speech with disjointed, dream-like imagery. His poem "Some Money" begins like this.

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ASHBERY: (Reading) I said I am awkward. I said we make fools of our lives for a little money and a coat. The great tree once grown passes over. I said you can catch all kinds of weird activities.

KARIN ROFFMAN: The next thought is not the thought that you would have expected. The next word isn't the word that you would have expected. And it's better for it.

VITALE: Karin Roffman is the author of a new biography of John Ashbery called "The Songs We Know Best." She says by not writing confessional poems about his own life, Ashbery captured a more universal experience.

ROFFMAN: He's managed to explain the experience of being alive but in a way that's both familiar and unfamiliar. The experience of feeling like an outsider or the feeling of being an exile is something that everybody feels. And he was so precise about understanding what it was like to feel that way and how to express that feeling and how to express it in a way that suggested that people could survive it.

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ASHBERY: (Reading) Why have all the windows darkened? The laurel burned its image into the sky like smoke. All was gold and shiny in the queen's parlor. In the pigsty outside, it was winter, however.

VITALE: Rural imagery is a recurring theme in Ashbery's poetry. He was born in 1927 in a small town near Rochester, N.Y., where he grew up on his father's orchard. As a boy, he took an interest in the surrealist art of the 1930s. Two decades later, he was living in New York City, where he was influenced by the ideas and music of John Cage and the abstract expressionist painters. He said he always wanted his own poetry to mean something.

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ASHBERY: I don't believe there's any point in writing poetry that's not going to be read. And if it doesn't join up with a reader at some point, then there's no point in having done it.

(Reading) No pen mightier than this, said the object, as though to ward off a step to kiss my sweetheart in the narrow alley before it was wartime. And the cold ended on that note.

VITALE: John Ashbury died yesterday morning at his home in Hudson, N.Y. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.